Academia Can Never ‘Lead the Charge’ for Change

The status quo around grading is in part a response to the perceived demands of college, so it is fitting that colleges should lead the way forward.

Barry J. Fishman

A common refrain as I read about reforms to education (and even the wider goal of changing society) is that universities will lead the way. Academics put together outlines about how the university is central to everything and, as a result of its existence, has necessitated everything that exists to change “for the better.” Through their supposed wealth of research and knowledge, they will be the ones to shine the light on what needs to change, what can be changed, and how to change it. So many academics proclaim this without a hint of irony, and they do so with more zeal than I’ve ever seen out of the most saviour-y of primary and secondary teachers (some of whom also think like this, though it’s often more specific to their own teaching practice).

But academia, much like systems of compulsory schools, will not “lead the charge.” They can’t because, in order for society to be healthier, those institutions must cease to exist.

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There seems to be a constant assumption that universities, at some point in time, were “terrains of intellectual growth” that have – because of the encroaching neoliberalism on the institution, many claim – become “market places of self-promotion.” I don’t think this is true at all, considering the history of both schools and universities. Starting as institutions that were only available to the elite to perpetuate the very system they benefited from, schools and universities have only really been ‘public’ institutions for less than a few hundred years (and this changes wildly depending on the location being discussed).

Yet, even as ‘public’ schools, they were never truly intended for public education. While wealthy white boys have always had unfettered access to schools and the related resources, granting them access to positions of power and continued wealth, that has not always been true for everyone else. From the very beginning, poor white boys originally received the most minimal education in comparison to their wealthy peers, which focused largely on basic literacy and numeracy skills that would help them with the day-to-day ‘business dealings’ in their future. Only sometimes would one lucky white boy be plucked from the ‘garbage heap’ of the poor so that he could continue and follow the same path as his wealthier peers, allowing him the possibility of achieving ‘social mobility’ and helping to build the myth of a system based entirely on merit (while also functioning as a way to prop up the “American Dream” within the US context).

This highly tiered system also attempted to assimilate different peoples into following the culture of powers who sought to dominate and eradicate them, especially with regards to Indigenous and Black people. For many Indigenous peoples, they were forced into residential schools that were supported either by the state or religious institutions like various Christian churches (and sometimes, they were supported by both). Children were stolen from their families and forced into these torturous and genocidal institutions. Tens of thousands of the children who were forced into these schools were murdered, as evidenced by the many grave sites being found in Canada. For many others, the children who grew up in those schools are adults today and have been forced to recall the abuses they endured for government reports (which may lead to very few, if any, consequences for the people and institutions who committed grave acts of genocide).

This system – the very act of removing children from their families and communities in order to “protect” them – lives on in the form of foster care. It is a system that continues because we refuse to build networks that support families in need, allowing every member to have a safe and stable environment. It also continues because we don’t allow children to have the agency to make decisions about leaving families that are harming them, giving them opportunities to live with people who they know care about them and will care for them. And it is a system that continues because, as with everything, white people profit from the destruction of non-white families.

Everything is created to be as harmful as society will allow, and that’s entirely by design.

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As for the public school system, it has changed a little over time. Schools now grant access to more people and promote those who can best follow the rules, being able to meet criteria that may or may not actually be “important.” But it’s still built entirely on colonialism, racism, misogyny, ableism, ethnocentrism, and classism. It’s still built to do the most harm to the people who don’t ‘fit in’ for whatever reason, to hurt the people who question what’s happening around them, what they’re being taught, and demand something better. The system continues to work because it continues to punish people challenging the racist and colonial structures (something we see in both the United States and the United Kingdom with regards to conservative propaganda against Critical Race Theory).

Many people see a path forward to a ‘better’ institution through reforming what exists. These people demand initiatives that “improve” diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) through vague programs that never quite address underlying issues. They never explain how this is supposed to help in the long-term because it’s just assumed that it’ll be better if we just give a few more people seats at a table that was already designed to exclude others. They see ‘representation’ as the solution that can fix an institution developed around elitism and bigotry.

Though representation is incredibly important, this view is entirely nonsensical. You cannot reform an institution that was built to completely disenfranchise as many people as possible; you cannot reform an institution that has eugenics as its foundations. Keeping the basic structure intact while changing the faces does very little to actually create any meaningful change, and it’s not even certain if the people belonging to those faces are willing to do the work to ensure that things get better. Sometimes they end up playing into the status quo, perpetuating much of the same harm that was already in place but at a different scale or using “kinder” vocabulary.

This has happened repeatedly with disabled people, and I know this from personal experience. Getting access to accommodations as a student often felt impossible and was a battle I never wanted to fight in the first place, even as an adult student. At no point was anything easy for me. The institutions that claimed they cared about whether or not I could access the curriculum and content refused to make it accessible, forcing me to constantly break down from being mentally exhausted because of the amount of work I had to put in to complete my studies. I fought with professors (including one who, ironically, was teaching a ‘special education’ module for my teaching degree) about making things more accessible for me and others, and they often told me that I “shouldn’t be there” because I clearly “couldn’t handle it.”

As a teacher, I had the same arguments with my colleagues. I fought for my needs in our staff meetings because I was the only disabled person on staff, and I fought for the needs of my students every time someone tried to deny them. For all the claims in every school I ever worked in that we were “inclusive environments,” they made it next to impossible for disabled students and staff to get what they needed to succeed. They threw out excuses like “they’re just lazy” or “they’re not trying hard enough” instead of working with any of the disabled people in the school. My own colleagues called me “unreliable” when I kept missing deadlines after they refused to accommodate a simple request for everything to be put on a calendar that we could all access that was kept up-to-date; even when I made a personal calendar for this purpose, they would change deadlines and not tell me.

These people put effort towards sabotaging us and making it more difficult to even succeed in a system that shouldn’t even exist, and that has been the point ever since schools started “accommodating” people who were seen as “inferior.” In an article discussing the influence of eugenics in Indiana’s public schools in the early 20th century, Robert Osgood wrote:

“[S]chool officials insisted to the public that the teaching of mentally defective students need not include academic work because ‘we decided [they] could not learn.’ When challenged by ‘the courts or somebody’ who said ‘How do you expect him to learn if you do not try to teach him?’ Herman Young, an Indiana University professor and consultant to the Bloomington school district, advised district teachers ‘to keep on for awhile trying to do the impossible, trying to give these children academic work when they cannot learn it in order to convince people that they cannot do it.’

These kinds of comments mirror many of the same things I have heard colleagues say almost 100 years later, which have often been used against students from any marginalised backgrounds. These are comments that are made throughout the disciplinary procedures, highlighting how badly many educators actually think of these children.

You can’t reform that.

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Most of the people who call for reform are the same people who see how a bigger change, such as school abolition, could impact their careers. It makes them uncomfortable that, should these institutions fall and be replaced by something entirely different, they would lose the power that they believed they held. There are so many people who view education as a career when it never should’ve been.

It is a journey to gaining an understanding of the world in which you live and your place in it. It’s learning how your actions can impact your community and the wider world. It’s learning how to be part of your community. That isn’t something that ever should’ve been a career.

Academia has further entrenched this idea through the whole structure. Placed at the top of the hierarchy, academics are often seen as the “most knowledgeable” and the “most objective.” Much of this comes because research is frequently separated from the people it actually impacts, as the system perpetuates the idea that they will only be subjective and their biases will be a problem. They forget or neglect the fact that the researchers they employ are inherently biased and often frame things through their beliefs rather than our realities.

The whole system is intentionally broken into smaller pieces, trying to obscure how knowledge from one field impacts another. For example, they refuse to acknowledge how history can be found in everything and that it is necessary to explore the history of fields like science to understand how they can be used to hurt people. That’s only part of the reasoning for why the University of Otago could come up with the world’s first magnetic mouth wiring system, designed to further stigmatise and torture fat people. It’s also why they double-down on every criticism of a device that, beyond its design, isn’t a new concept at all and claim that it’s meant to be “helpful.” They presume to “know better” than the rest of us, when all the research (that they probably ignored) shows that fat people are more likely to die because of the harmful biases of the healthcare system constantly telling us to lose weight instead of taking us seriously.

But history isn’t an area that academia likes to focus on anyway. This is telling in how they constantly are attacking and removing resources from social sciences and humanities fields. It’s also obvious when you start reading through their own histories, which are largely written by them and often are willing to ignore heinous acts that they were complicit in because they’d rather “celebrate” (obscure) the truth of their existence. Honestly, how often in the brochures for any school in the University of California system do they discuss their complicity in Japanese internment camps, studying the “massive upheaval” of the “Japanese-American minority problem?” How many universities in the United States are still, to this day, in violation of NAGPRA (the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act)?

At no point have these institutions ever truly been where learning really happens. They have always had these problems, but our society has been willing to listen to the same propaganda about their oversized importance.

Separator.

Also Academia and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex have attempted to hijack the revolution, take credit for, change the language, and again be the “legitimate” forms to struggle. Academia takes folks away from their communities if they’re people of color and oppressed. They attempt to define the struggle for the people from the ivory tower and they have a monopoly on book knowledge inaccessible to the majority of society.

Joaquin Cienfuegos

Yet, people want to assume that academia could ever have been a site for any radical tradition or change. That’s impossible because outside of a few radical people who managed to exist within the system, the whole thing refuses to admit all the ways in which they have harmed so many people. From literally stealing from people on the ground in order to publish as much as possible to co-opting entire movements in order to silence them and build their own careers, it should be clear how academia has never been a source for radical change.

They have always fought against change, and that is true practically from their very inception. Students may have catalysts for change within academia and in wider society, but it was never the institution. I never could have been because that was never the purpose of academia.

Instead, it subsumed the student and youth movements and turned them into career paths. It enabled people, as they aged and saw that they could help commodify the movements, to sell them back to their communities in little chunks and pieces while also making it impossible to afford access without taking out excruciating loans to do so. And the people who built their careers on the backs of movements, they made it possible that all radical meaning was drained from the demands of activists.

As Judicaelle Irakoze so succinctly put it with regards to the abuse of decolonisation within academia:

Academics championing the word “decolonization” from institutions that must be abolished if we are to ever decolonize anything, is the irony of it all.

And this process is continuous. It will not stop until these institutions go away. They will continue to defang movements and keep us silent by giving us breadcrumbs because that is their purpose. Every single change that we call for will be turned into a career for a handful of people to hold onto instead of something that helps build community.

They can and will never bring effective change.