November 24, 2014

Commentary | February 28, 2013
So you didn’t get into grad school?
Congratulations!
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Both the news that McGill will unilaterally cut dozens of courses in the Arts faculty and the looming austerity measures foreshadowed by the recent budget-crisis-town-hall have contributed to a worried conversation about the state of the humanities at the university. In this context, I would like to propose that the personal stories of graduate school rejection letters, and the dashed hopes they represent, comprise another part of the neoliberal assault on education, not because they are the result of inadequate funding, but because we have come to see our own intellectual development as wrapped up totally in the institutions we pay to attend and the careers we hope to build.

Arguably, most of us identify as students. This identity might conflict or coincide with our racialized, gendered, and classed identities, but it still takes up a sizeable chunk of who we think we are. And why shouldn’t it? We spend a lot of our time at the university, so isn’t it only natural that we start to connect our sense of self to our scholarly success? I would like to trouble the notion that intellectual exploration of the university is a universal good, not only because the university’s standards for measuring  our development are absurdly narrow, but because it sets itself apart as the site to learn and discover.

As neoliberalism advances, jobs in the arts, humanities, and education, which unite creativity and intellectualism, are being ruthlessly cut. While we can all admit this, it is more difficult to grasp how corporatism and managerial groupthink have rooted themselves in the few remaining jobs. Instead of creating intellectual communities, we are told to network. Instead of randomly curating our intellectual interests, we adhere to rote specialization. We spend so much time writing applications to justify our existence that we become our worst critics. A related effect is that we refrain from research that granting agencies will not fund, and we begin to craft our intellectual pursuits to align with market imperatives.

The fight to preserve spaces like universities from the parasite of managerialism is a worthwhile one, but I am not convinced that it is the best use of our energy. We are not saving ‘intellectual life,’ but the ability of a privileged few to hold tenuous positions in a system that has already been refigured for the purposes of a neoliberal economy. Why should we direct the grassroots energy of so many of us to fight the battles that will only benefit the most privileged in our (intellectual) communities?

For working class students in particular, trying to explain how blue-collar work might be intellectually gratifying to economically-privileged students – who divide working life into a binary of “working with your mind vs. working with your hands” – is degrading and should be unnecessary. It doesn’t matter what your job is; you can still imagine a better world. In fact, those of us who have traversed the worlds of academia and low-wage labour already know that our best insights in the classroom are often thanks to our work planting trees or in the service industry.

Neoliberalism’s dirtiest trick was encouraging us to invest our creativity and love of learning into the indifferent machine of the modern research university, deluding us into believing that we could only find intellectual satisfaction in white-collar work. In an era where the possibility of finding the kind of work that aligns with our intellectual (nevermind our political) interests is increasingly out of reach for all but the privileged few who can afford endless rounds of unpaid internships, or the uninspired few whose sense of self is determined by their GPA and CV. We need to imagine other ways to be creative and forge intellectual communities. To this end, not getting into grad school might be the first step to a better future.

Josh Mentanko is a first-year Law student. You can reach Josh at josh.mentanko@mail.mcgill.ca.

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