Go to University and Get Rich: The Temptation to Seek Education as Upward Mobility

This guest blog was written by Global Scholar Dr. Stephen Ney, now serving in Sierra Leone. He had written much of this as part of an on-line mentoring course offered by IFES (International Fellowship of Evangelical Students), and it resonated with some ideas I had written about the commercialization of higher education. Note this involves not just the corruption of the imagination of young Christian students, but lies in the discourse and very structures of university life today—not just in the West, but almost everywhere else on the planet. Upward mobility can be a social good, but not when it obscures the central purpose of a university: the pursuit of wisdom as an act of service for the common good.

The social imaginary or worldview of Default Commercialism described by Peter Schuurman best describes the universities where I’ve worked in Canada and West Africa. I agree with him that it would be simplistic to say our universities operate according to “the disestablishment of anything.” Schuurman goes on to say that “The social imaginary that gives all this diversity some coherence is what I’m calling default commercialism, where a consumer ethic permeates the whole, and markets frame the consciousness of students, faculty and administration.”

This isn’t just in the West, though you could make an argument that the West is to blame for it because global capitalism, just like the modern university, originated in the West and continues to serve the interests of the West. Default Commercialism also seems dominant at West African universities. Nana Kojo Obeng, a Ghanaian participant in the IFES e-course I’m facilitating (on how to engage as a Christian with the university) wrote this:

In Ghana, it is true that one of the key driving forces of the University is money. The universities have become businesses to enrich the rich. More often, the basic facilities and diligence needed to improve scholarship are absent. Students are nothing but anxious customers who are being exploited by management of these universities and the owners of the private hostels providing accommodation for the students. In effect, money has become the center of these schools of higher learning. The reason for the courses being enrolled is money, for the presence of the lecturers is to cash in.

For most students who want to enter the university, it is all about gaining a certificate to acquire a job, make money, marry and to have the ability to take care of the needs of family members. It is common to see students not there for the sake of pursuing truth or answers to lives big questions. Critical thinking is lost because that is not examinable.

Schuurman’s blog post uses a bunch of Canadian university mottoes as illustrations:

mottoes, or in this case, slogans intended to market the university’s product. Brock University’s slogan when I was campus chaplain there was “Your Career Begins Here.” The University of Windsor’s slogan : “The Degree that Works.” The University of Western Ontario even had a small promotion event entitled: “Major in Yourself.” The trend is the same: universities are selling themselves to the student consumer as a degree granter that is the ticket to privilege, a secure career. It’s not just that God, truth and service have disappeared from the aims of university, but so have the humanistic slogans of the sixties. All many universities can promise now is a secure place in the market, and students have become customers instead of apprentices and citizens.  

Where I worked till last year, UBC Vancouver, the motto was “tuum est” = “it is yours,” which was taken to mean “you’re entitled to whatever the heck you want.” It seemed to me the exact opposite of the teachings of Jesus, who said that the greatest is the one who serves and that it’s better to give than to receive, who though he was rich made himself poor so that we through his poverty could become rich (2 Cor. 8:9).

Here are two photos I took on campus that illustrate how the neoliberal university encourages students to think about their entitlement and implicitly sanctions their consumeristic goals. The first is in the bathroom. I don’t mean to criticize the efforts to provide adequate facilities or to erect structures of accountability in the use of students’ fees, but I do want to criticize the assumption that satisfying students’ wants is all the university is for. In such a situation, a university presents itself in almost the same way as does any company that produces advertisements. There isn’t any sense of being part of a larger pursuit, such as wisdom or love, that transcends my desire for immediate comfort.

However, like Schuurman’s blog says, though it’s dominant, this isn’t the only kind of university. What do you think of “Building a Civilization of Love,” the motto of what is probably the strongest, best-organized university in Sierra Leone, where I reside? It’s a Catholic university, The University of Makeni. I think this is much better than “tuum est,” even though some might hear in it a reactionary lunge towards the kind of social consensus that is now – and was perhaps always – artificial. It might evoke the obsolete imaginary you call “Christian establishment” that doesn’t adequately describe today’s Sierra Leone, let along Canada. But then I’d say, What’s so bad about building a civilization, provided love is its foundation and the common good its aspiration?

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