University as Coming-of-Age Ceremony

How do we replace the university without losing a vital aspect of its cultural importance?

The student loan debt crisis. The massive explosion of BS jobs. The expansion of oversocialization. The inability of young people to buy homes and start families. The expensiveness of raising a child. The broken pedagogy of our K-12 schools. The perverse ideologies that permeate our society.

You can tie a huge number of social ills back to the university system. Our universities, to put it lightly, suck. They are broken institutions and they need to be dismantled.

But, of course, what comes next? We can't just abolish the universities. They serve purposes, believe it or not, both pragmatic and cultural. We need to understand what they do, because while there are alternatives to the university system being developed and popularized, many seem to miss a single key feature of universities that make them so appealing.

The two main pragmatic aspects of the university system are seeing growing degrees of competition:

  1. University as credentialing system: It is the institution that is trusted to at the very least select/separate 18 year olds (presumably) by ability so that even if the university cannot teach an individual a single thing, someone from an Ivy League is still more capable of working at Goldman Sachs or McKinsey than someone at a state school. Whether or not this is actually the case is another question, but this is the ideology that perpetuates the dominance of universities in our society.

  2. University as agent of (over)socialization: Remember that socialization is a process by which individuals become accustomed to, and internalize, the norms, values, and ideologies of the society they live in. When it comes to socialization, there are individuals, institutions, and groups that we interface with, and through which we learn the rules of society. The university system arguably sits as the Crown Jewel of Blue Empire: the single most prominent institution defining and propagating the ideology of our dominant regime.

On these issues, competition with the university system is intensifying, pushed forward by the ever-increasing cost of university + the proliferation of reasonable alternatives.

But what is the core factor that these alternatives miss? It is, in fact, connected with socialization, but distinct from it as well. And it is arguably why university has held such a pivotal cultural role in our society for so long.

"Going to University" as Coming-of-age Ceremony

A "Coming-of-age Ceremony," as the name implies, is a ritual or act that upon being undertaken by the subject, allows the subject to graduate from childhood or adolescence to adulthood in the eyes of society. And herein lies one of the most pressing (and widely discussed) dilemmas facing our society: our profound lack of meaningful coming-of-age ceremonies. To understand the cultural importance of university, this must be understood.

University as Institution of Freedom

"Going away to university" is a massive milestone in the lives of young people. Being freed from the shackles of your parents and community. Being allowed to "explore your own identity." This is, of course, a quintessential coming-of-age ceremony: the process by which one one fully becomes their own person instead of being defined by their parents, neighbors, etc.

But what does it mean to become your own person? Certainly this depends on the society that is being talked about, but in this sense I would say that the moment of becoming your own person is when you are thrown from your previous bonds and must generate bonds all your own (and, if you want to, positively affirm the bonds you had not been given the right to choose beforehand). It is this thrownness that is central to the University experience.

Thrownness as the Spirit of our Age (Thrownness = Freedom)

I have talked at length previously about autonomy being the central/highest value of the vast majority of people, Left, Right, and Center. In one of those pieces, I noted how autonomy is acidic, a.k.a. it dissolves any and all bonds that are not chosen:

Autonomy demands atomization because any bond that is not chosen represents a limitation on one's free actions. I have been forced into accepting some situation. We see variants of this belief in calls for family abolition and "collectivizing" the youth: "They don't belong to anyone!!!" Furthermore, in the same way that one doesn't choose what family one is born into or what race one is, these things cannot have meaning if autonomy is our most core value. And if they cannot have meaning, we cannot identify with them, since (as Charles Taylor explains) how we identify/what we identify with, reflects the values we hold and what we perceive is meaningful. Any bonds that are not chosen must be dissolved. To identify with them is to appeal to some value outside of autonomy that must (at least in some case) overrule autonomy. And this cannot stand.

The idea of the individual as an interchangeable unit, entirely fluid, capable of reinventing oneself at will according to the dictates of the marketplace, of uprooting oneself at a moment's notice (or perhaps never having roots in the first place) to pursue opportunities providing greater "utility", etc. Thrownness is central to not only our modern condition, but to the ideology and spirit that motivates and drives that condition. I should, of course, not have to explain to you how thrownness goes hand in hand with autonomy-worship, and how it drives atomization in turn (if it destroys roots, how can it not?).

In that sense, the centrality of the university in our society is an endorsement of thrownness. It is in fact arguably the single most powerful engine of thrownness. “Going off to uni” is the beginning of a process that continues throughout out lives in which we are encouraged (demanded?) to pursue the “best” opportunity we can, regardless of distance or connections to other aspects of our lives (like family, etc).

Thrownness is not only freeing (or, Constraint and Freedom are two sides of the same coin redux)

I mentioned earlier about the university acting as a credentialing and socialization system. Specifically, I mentioned how the university system is supposed to act as a kind of selective institution, separating the “best and brightest” from the “mediocre” and “dysfunctional.” Whether or not it does this is, of course, up for debate.

But what is important here is that, just like what I discussed last week with society centering cars, the supposed “freedom” of thrownness comes with quite the nasty constraints. The university system, being selective and so prominent, is the gateway by which huge numbers of opportunities are opened/closed to young people (or at least made significantly more/less likely). It frees you from your previous unchosen bonds of family and community…only to lock you into a new set of bonds that, let’s be honest here, no 18-year old properly understands.

Of course, this is one of the chief motivations behind left-wing opposition to the university system (and to “meritocracy” writ large). I can certainly see right-wingers respond in a knee-jerk fashion by going “you’re just upset you weren’t in the best and brightest,” but this misses the point. If the freedom of thrownness is appealing, perhaps an avenue for alternatives to outcompete the university system is to look at how the alternatives shape future opportunities and how they select for their participants.

"It's just what we do" - dislodging the University from its central position

So even if an alternative credentialing/socialization system is put forward, we need an answer to two points of concern:

  1. Alternative coming-of-age ceremonies don't appear to have been presented (and Trad "just get married and have kids at 21" prescriptions are...stupid, to say the least)

  2. We need to provide a serious answer to the allure of autonomy. Make no mistake: for all the attacks I launch against autonomy as being an incoherent doctrine, I will be the first to admit it is emotionally potent and resonates with people. It has power and meaning, and this cannot simply be ignored. So, without destroying roots, without embracing full-blown thrownness, we need to provide institutions or opportunities for individuals to express themselves and perhaps come to understand themselves with fewer social constraints than their hometown might provide.


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