Arielle is a college student living in Philadelphia. In her spare time, she writes a ‘zine, works at an anarchist bookstore, drinks lots of coffee, and fights the patriarchy one day at a time.
In many ways, I am a model college student (never thought I’d say that!). I have straight A’s, I am passionate about my major (Women’s Studies, soon to be changed to Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies which I strongly prefer), and still find time for activism and a social life. So it was surprising, then, that I should find myself looking at the website of Goddard and other alternative college options, and wondering if my decision to go to college hadn’t been a mistake altogether.
The main catalyst of this sudden crisis in my education was learning that my university, Temple, was phasing out its Women’s Studies program due to budget cuts. Or maybe just phasing it out because it’s convenient, I’m not really sure anymore. I don’t want to get into the whole mess but to give a brief rundown: several departments were subsumed into other ones. This meant the Women’s Studies Program was subsumed into Sociology, the Latin American Studies Program into History, the Jewish Studies Program into Religion, and so on. At first the students were told the reasons were financial, then practical, and finally that the changes were really to “strengthen” the departments. Never mind that the head of the Sociology department had no training in Women’s Studies and did feel equipped to advise or make decisions. Never mind that teachers were expected to pick up extra advising duties for less pay and the position of department head was eliminated. It was all very complicated, sudden, bureaucratic, and hidden. There was a lack of transparency by administrators and in meetings all the animosity of faculty against students and professors was laid bare. The whole situation was frustrating, to say the least. The dean made it very clear that she was not going to change her mind about the decision and that while students and professors had a right to speak their minds, she was not really willing to take into account anything they said. No one wants to hear that they’re just a number, but in this instance it became painfully obvious that students were considered little more than potential paychecks for the university. It was also clear that programs about minorities and marginalized people, along with arts and social sciences, are the first to go on the chopping block when cuts have to be made. I guess what was most shocking about it was that it wasn’t really shocking at all— this kind of tactic is widely accepted and normalized at every level of education.
I find the very idea of a department centered on a marginalized group troubling in some ways, because it excuses the university from having to deal with the discrimination in other areas. While having a Women’s Studies department is incredibly important in one way as an outlet for protest and examining things through a gendered lens, the university is basically indicating that this is the only place where challenging sexism is welcome. For instance, in Temple’s required course Mosaic, (essentially an English course focused on crucial texts in our society) there were hardly any books included in the syllabus by women or people of color. When I brought this up to my professor, he stated that the university was aware of this, but was not going to do anything to change it. Programs centered on identity politics and resistances to systems of oppression are extremely vital to any university, but I worry that these programs have become tamer since their inception and now serve mainly to placate groups that would otherwise be fighting for more inclusion throughout the university.
The subdued nature of many once strong social justice programs is symptomatic of what colleges have become: “education” machines. Students go to get degrees so that they can find jobs (and then find that they have to go to grad school because a Bachelor’s degree isn’t enough), professors are all trying to get tenure so they spend most of their time researching and leave their teaching assistants to pick up the slack, adjuncts barely scrape by on meager pay and are easily fired because the university can always find someone else willing to fill the position. College is still mostly for the wealthy and privileged, but schools like Temple are made up mainly of working class students that go because it’s what they can afford. They shouldn’t be forced to sacrifice the quality of their education because of their income level, but it is glaringly obvious that most colleges operate with a capitalist philosophy—that is, the end goal is to produce the most degrees (which have become a commodity) for the cheapest price, to ensure the greatest profit.
It is maddening to be a current college student, and know that your opinions and unique characteristics, dreams, and goals, matter so little to your chosen university. It is also maddening to know that there is no place for dissent within the university (so much for the stereotype of the liberal college), and if there is that you are given essentially a box within which to make noise, and are not allowed to go outside that box.
I was at a friend’s house reading some poetry when it hit me. I don’t even generally like poetry that much, but looking over Theodore Roethke, Cheryl Clarke, and Allen Ginsberg poems I was truly moved. And that’s when I remembered: I came to college because I love to learn. I decided to go to college because I have a great hunger for books, stories, and different ways of thinking. I came to Temple to seek out the voices on the margins that are every bit as brilliant and inspired as the ones our society privileges.
I am not giving up in that goal. But I want to know that whatever college I choose to go to will support me in that quest and not hinder it in the name of financial gain.