A Detrimental Education

Zaina Alsous talks with Eli Meyerhoff about his book Beyond Education: Radical Studying for Another World.

Photo by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre

Zaina Alsous.— Beyond Education opens with the story of Corey Menafee, a Black service worker at Yale University who smashed a stained glass window depicting images of slaves. You cite this as a concrete example linking to Sarah Ahmed’s description of resignation, and what you call “snapping” at the University. Why do you think his act of property destruction serves as a useful entry point for engaging broader dynamics of power and disruption at the University?

Eli Meyerhoff.— My book’s subtitle is “radical studying for another world.” Corey Menafee’s “snap” offers a perfect example of this, as his motivation for breaking the slavery-romanticizing window emerged from his lifetime of studying — from his undergraduate days at a historically Black college to his time organizing to change the name of the building that housed the stained glass window, named Calhoun after an advocate of slavery and colonialism. The way Yale administrators reacted encapsulates the limits and challenges for such radical studying. When they fired Menafee initially and then hired him back only on the condition of a gag order, they implicitly recognized the threat that his public speech about his action posed to the normal hierarchies of education. At the same time, they sought to reassert these hierarchies, portraying him as a mere service worker whose studying was disqualified as a basis for legitimate knowledge, such as by stigmatizing his action as a “violent” betrayal of civility, itself a colonial norm. Both the long history of Yale service worker organizing and the movement to change the building’s name were pushing for deeper transformations to dismantle Yale’s ongoing entanglements with racial capitalism, such as racist policing, incarceration, schooling, and housing in New Haven. But the administration co-opted the latter movement’s radical studying for its own PR purposes, eventually accepting the call to change the name and presenting itself as having reconciled with the shame of its violent history as something to be remembered in the past from which we could now “move on” in the present. I started my book with Menafee’s story as a “fuck you” to Yale’s attempts to silence him and co-opt his story, as a way to affirm his radical studying and extend it toward a world beyond capitalism.

One of the key arguments you’re making in the book is to distinguish education from study, contextualizing the roots of education in primitive accumulation, empire, and counterrevolution. Why is this distinction necessary for understanding the current crisis of the University? What tactics of learning and relationships become enabled by understanding education as merely one mode of study among many, for those inside and outside of the University?

Universities have always been terrains of struggle. The earliest university, the University of Bologna, arose in 1088 from mutual aid societies of students who pooled their resources to hire scholars to teach them. The students engaged in collective bargaining with both the city and the professors, using the threat of a student strike to enforce their demands about the content and cost of courses. The university, called a Studium, was known as a place of studying. The term “education” arose in European languages at least four hundred years after the founding of the early universities. The term was first spread in English in the 1530s by King Henry VIII’s advisors, proclaiming themselves as “educated” as a narrative tool to defend themselves against threats from peasant rebels who had thrown the regime into crisis by questioning the advisors’ legitimacy. Learning about this long gap between the emergences of universities and education motivated me to investigate why education arose when it did. 

As I detail in my book, I found that education was bound up the suppression of the peasant struggles against feudalism, struggles that were bound up with their own “uneducated” studying practices. When we treat education as a necessary, eternally good thing, we obscure these conflicts between different world-making projects, conflicts that have taken place at and beyond universities. My book traces how the different elements of the education-based mode of study emerged historically in co-constitution with capitalism, intertwined with colonialism, white supremacy, hetero-patriarchy, and the state. Its key elements include a vertical imaginary of individualized ascent up levels of education, a pedagogical mode of accounting with a system of honor and shame that eventually took the form of graded exams, hierarchical relationships of teacher over student, separations of students from the means of studying, the commodification of access to the means of studying through tuition, and opposed figures of educational waste (e.g., the dropout) and value (e.g., the graduate). This mode of study shapes subjects for their participation in governance and work within the dominant mode of world-making.

The distinction between education and other modes of study allows us break away from the dominant narratives about the university that portray it as “in crisis.” I see “crisis” narratives as one way of responding to the impasse that we face when we try to grapple with all of the complex controversies raised by universities’ many intersecting struggles, which include student and faculty movements that have organized against increased tuition, debt, corporatization and adjunctification, staff labor organizing, anti-racist, feminist, and anti-colonial movements on campuses, and movements for universities to divest from fossil fuels, among others. Most commentators and authors of recent books on higher education politics respond with diagnoses of, and solutions to, the “crisis” that are populated with characters from a romantic story of education: a heroic individual ascending education’s levels, overcoming challenges along the way. The education romance is part of what I call “an epistemology of educated ignorance” — ways of knowing that suppress critical questions about education that would challenge one’s own position in the dominant system. As an antidote, I contend that education is one possible mode of study among many alternatives. Against narratives of linear progress, distinguishing alternative modes of study can help us shake off the sense of education’s dominance as necessary or inevitable. Revolutionary movements on the terrain of universities — from the Black, feminist, and communist movements of the long 1960s to the recent movements of Occupy and Black Lives Matter — have challenged the dominant modes of world-making and study and broadened our horizons of imagination to alternatives. We can take the baton from these movements in our organizing and studying today.

Debt mediates almost every condition of labor, surveillance, and value in the University. Recently the question of unpaid debts in the matter of reparations has also inserted itself into questions of what the University owes people it has brutally extracted from, particularly Black descendants of chattel slavery. How does debt inform or relate to the different modes of study you examine? 

Different modes of study are interrelated with different kinds of debt. When we think about debt in the education system today, we are most familiar with the financial debt that students accumulate — now over $1.5 trillion in the US — from taking out loans to pay for the skyrocketing costs of higher education. But in my book, I show how the education-based mode of study is founded on a more insidious (but related) form of debt, to which we have become so habituated that it seems to happen behind our backs. This debt is part of a pedagogy that eventually became institutionalized with the graded exams that we now take for granted as immutable in schools, but that were actually introduced in the 19th century along with the rise of mass education. Graded exams are a technique that continues and sharpens an earlier pedagogical mode of accounting, a system of credits and debts based on a certain emotional economy: desiring pride (as credit) and avoiding shame (as debt) in the eyes of teachers, fellow students, and parents, and feeling fear and anxiety about these possibilities. This pedagogy helps teachers suppress subversive collaborations across class, gender, age, and race. 

In the post-slavery, late-19th century United States, this pedagogy becomes institutionalized in the form of graded exams as a means for maintaining racial capitalism. Before the abolition of slavery, the distinction between enslaved and free persons relied upon the idea that the free person could not be reduced to capital. With the formal end of slavery, racial capitalism shifted to wage labor contracts and capitalists could no longer own human life as capital, due to legal restrictions. So, in order to enable arbitrage of humans as capital, capitalists needed to create distinctions in the category of “the human.” Stratified and hierarchical education produces differences among humans that, in turn, create arbitrage opportunities in fractured labor markets. Neoclassical economic theory explicitly frames workers as “human capital”: subjects “own” themselves and income is the “rent” they derive from that asset. Racist and sexist discourses offer naturalized explanations for why some racialized and gendered forms of human capital are intrinsically less valuable and, therefore, why they will always receive lower rent. Education becomes a way to increase the value of one’s self-as-asset based on a speculative determination of future rents. Such investments are often debt-financed, especially from the 1970s to today’s “student debt crisis,” as administrators increased the costs of fees and tuition for higher education in reaction to social movements, like the Black campus movement, that fought for expanding access to and democratic control over universities’ resources for studying.

When we distinguish different modes of study, we can describe how they are associated with alternative modes of self-making and different practices of debt. The education-based mode of study constructs seemingly “independent” individuals who can possess debts and credits (like the student who takes on financial debt in order to accumulate college credits toward becoming a graduate), constructed in contrast with stigmatized figures of dependency, such as the dropout and the criminal (seen as needing to be incarcerated in order to pay their “debt to society”). In opposition, some alternative modes of study, such as in Indigenous peoples’ world-making projects, are intertwined with the construction of relational views of the self, which is seen as developing through interdependent relations, in continual flows of mutual indebtedness, with many human and other-than-human beings. If we think of how the higher education industry has accumulated capital through putting students into financial debt in exchange for credits, we can consider how movements of resistance in universities are organizing different kinds of counter-accumulation of unpayable debts, what Harney and Moten call “bad debt.” We can see such counter-accumulations in the potentials for a student debt strike that is simultaneously a refusal to pay individualized financial debts and an affirmation of our collective, mutual obligations (such as seen in Strike Debt’s double-edged call, “you are not a loan”). We can ask how movement-embedded modes of study could connect organizing around student debt with the unpayable debts involved in other struggles, such as for abolition and decolonization, as in movements for slavery reparations and for re-matriation of Indigenous peoples’ lands. How can we link the latter movements with organizing and studying around the disproportionately more devastating effects of student debt for Black and Indigenous peoples, partly from their being targeted by predatory for-profit colleges?

Since the publication of The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, the history of state sanctioned propaganda around drug criminalization as a means to justify killing and imprisoning Black people and disrupt revolutionary organizing is more well known. Lesser known is what you discuss as the manufactured “drop out” crisis, as part of a “modernist mode of crisis management.” Can you share some of the historic context of this manufactured crisis and its impact on both education and practitioners of revolutionary modes of study?

The political origins of the “dropout problem” narrative are in the early 1960s US with racial liberalism, which was promoted by the Ford Foundation and the National Education Association with their “Project: School Dropouts.” Liberal-capitalists perceived threats from the right — with anti-communist witch hunts — and from the left — with communism, anti-colonial movements, and civil rights movements calling for desegregation, as well as from African-American domestic migrants who presented world-making projects alternative to liberal capitalism and who practiced alternative, revolutionary modes of study (such as seen in what Clyde Woods called African-American people’s “blues epistemology”). 

In reaction, liberal-capitalists created “colorblind” institutions that addressed urban problems, including the “dropout problem.” They avoided tackling racism by, instead, focusing on the deracialized figure of “migrants,” who were denigrated as “culturally deprived.” The Dropout Project was in tune with racial liberalism, as opposed to alternative framings of urban problems, such as the civil rights movement’s critiques of white supremacy, segregation and inequality. Domestic migration was framed as a “crisis” from the perspective of liberal-capitalists. The dropout narrative, then, serves as a tool of crisis management — to reaffirm the liberal-capitalist order of value. The dropout problematic creates a terrain of intervention for liberal-capitalist governance that is framed as an individualized process of disposal and salvaging, while diverting attention from structural racism. I found that the “school dropout crisis” exemplifies key elements of the education-based mode of study: a vertical imaginary, a terrain of governance, an emotional economy, and dichotomous figures of waste and value. My research, then, dove deeper to uncover these elements’ histories.

You make an intentional choice to critique the romance narratives of education, as a key obstacle to making material shifts in the culture and power of the University. This point landed really personally for me. My grandmother lived her entire life unable to read and write and both of my grandparents and parents are refugees so for them educational attainment became a story of “overcoming” the odds of state sanctioned oppression. “Attainment” in the stories of people surviving gets entangled with all kinds of historic familial and migratory baggage. Is there anyone you saw in your research (scholars, artists, writers) successfully undermining this romance attached to education? 

When I talk about romance narratives in education, I’m referring to the kind of story of an individual who faces challenges, such as difficult courses, and heroically overcomes them, rising up the levels of the education system, through using their own individual capacities, such as courage, intelligence, innovation, and tenacity. There are many ways to disrupt these romance narratives. One is to talk with people who have been framed as the Others of such stories, the people who didn’t succeed in overcoming education’s challenges, those who are framed in dominant narratives as “failures” and “dropouts.” The converse side of the “romance” discourse, which individualizes responsibility for success, is an individualizing of blame for failure, such as with the narrative of the “school dropout problem.” We can disrupt both of these kinds of narratives by showing their shared conditions of interdependence, such as by listening to the lived perspectives of people who have been framed as “failures” or “dropouts” and trying to understand the institutional conditions, such as the unequal and segregated resources across and within schools and universities, that have either pushed them out and/or made them desire to leave. By trying to understand how the conditions shaping some people’s romantic success stories are interdependent with the conditions shaping other people’s failure stories, we can disrupt the normal individualizing of responsibility. 

An even more effective form of disruption is to take the perspectives of those who organize for transformation of these structural conditions. For some examples of these organizers’ narratives, I’ve shared transcripts of some of the interviews from my research on the “Class War University” website. Another example is how the Black student movement at San Francisco State College used a student-run Experimental College to appropriate the normal university’s resources to support alternative modes of study that were bound up with their movement, including some of the first Black studies courses, which led to the Third World students’ strike that shut down the whole campus for five months in 1968-69. I was involved in a related project that emerged forty years later called the Experimental College of the Twin Cities, which is the focus of one of my book’s chapters. Through such radical projects within/against/beyond the university, we can constitute ourselves as collective subjects who study, organize, and build interdependent relationships together in ways that reveal the limits and contradictions of the fantasy of an educated, independent self.

Friends in paid and unpaid labor organizing who are attempting to build faculty or graduate student unions at various universities have often expressed resentment or disappointment to me from what they see as a lack of class solidarity on campuses among workers engaged in academic labor that is difficult to surmount in order to win material gains across disciplines. Did you hear these critiques when conducting interviews with graduate students, tenure-track faculty, and contingent faculty? 

Yes, an example of these obstacles to solidarity across the academic ranks is from my interview with an adjunct at CUNY who spoke of how the faculty union there combines tenure-stream and contingent faculty together but the tenure-stream faculty dominate the union because the contingent faculty have little time to participate as members and the structure of the union was set up in an undemocratic way that gave more power to an executive committee over a broader delegate assembly. Universities, in general, have an unequal temporal architecture where some people enjoy temporal privileges — such as tenured faculty’s ability to take the time for “slow scholarship” — that are interdependent with others more oppressive temporalities, such as contingent faculty having to take on heavy teaching loads in order to make ends meet, as well as custodial workers who clean the tenured faculty’s offices and the students who have to take on loans and full-time jobs while going to college in order to afford ever-increasing tuition, fees, and living expenses.

In many organizing spaces I notice it’s become a common refrain to caution against over-intellectualizing the language used when recruiting working-class people into movement, which is to say there is a fear of “studying too much”, as creating this barrier of difference or hierarchy detached from authentic struggle. In contrast, when I communicate with prisoners, most of them Black men, many self-identifying as anti-capitalists, I’m struck by how ideologically precise their practice of language is, and how different their relationship to study, as an urgent task in order to stay socially connected and alive. How did you wrestle with some of these contradictions of what people think “study” means and who engages in it? 

I’ve also encountered these tensions around the politics of knowledge and language through studying with incarcerated folks in a few projects (Inside-Outside Alliance, NC Women’s Prison Book Project, and Abolition: A Journal of Insurgent Politics). These are really complex tensions, and I don’t pretend to have a simple answer to them. My distinction of education as a particular mode of study among alternative modes might be helpful for thinking through these tensions. When people on the outside approach incarcerated people with the intention of giving education to them, this often devalues their knowledge and capacities for studying. The prison education approach tends to recuperate prisoners’ desires for, and labor of, studying into reformist channels. By contrast, in my experiences organizing with the Inside-Outside Alliance (which disbanded last year) — writing letters with prisoners with the purpose of amplifying their voices and facilitating their communication with each other and folks on the outside — we understood incarcerated people’s studying and knowledge as generally more relevant to our organizing than any academics’ or non-incarcerated activists’ forms of studying and knowledge. 

These experiences led me to see the need for complementing prison abolitionism with an abolitionist approach to universities. Why should we let academics who claim to be “revolutionary” have control over so many resources for studying in their universities while being disconnected from and exclusionary toward people, like prisoners, who could use those resources to study for revolutionary purposes? The Abolition journal project emerged from such questions. The journal’s manifesto states that “the best movement-relevant intellectual work is happening both in the movements themselves and in the communities with whom they organize (e.g., in dispossessed neighborhoods and prisons),” and thus the project aims to appropriate resources from academia for supporting and amplifying this movement-relevant studying. One example of this has been our collaboration with Anastazia Schmid, an incarcerated person who published an article in our first issue, “Crafting the Perfect Woman: How Gynecology, Obstetrics and American Prisons Operate to Construct and Control Women.”  After we published her article, she became a member of our collective, situating her knowledge as on equal terms with the academics in the collective. We supported her struggles for freedom, which she eventually won in 2019, and she is now considering becoming an academic through a PhD program, so as to have even more access to universities’ resources for studying. 

You end the text with a call to action, towards an Abolition University, is this a project you are currently experimenting with? Can you share a bit about the practices and relationships within and surrounding it?

My comrades and I are developing a new approach to studying the university that we call “abolitionist university studies” (see the “invitation” that I co-wrote with Abigail Boggs, Nick Mitchell, and Zach Schwartz-Weinstein). Abolitionist university studies can offer movements guidance for navigating the terrain of universities so as to access and appropriate their resources (e.g., classrooms, books, money, computers, expert teachers, student collaborators) for modes of study in opposition to that of education and the capitalist world-making project. 

In our “invitation” to abolitionist university studies, we highlight the anxiety that we feel when considering abolitionism in the university. Higher education institutions are already under attack from “austerity” budget cuts and from the right wing who see them as bastions of leftist professors. To address these concerns — not burying them but rather putting them in historical context — we note that abolitionism itself has always been a terrain of struggle. The anti-slavery movement was split between some who sought equality for all Black people in America and others who were anti-black racists and wanted to ship formerly enslaved people to Africa. The latter, racist form of abolitionism continues today with the Abolish Human Abortion movement, which emerged out of attempts to protect segregated schools and universities in the 1970s and which overlaps today with right-wing campus movements against leftist professors. In opposition to this right-wing abolitionism, our “abolitionist university studies” intends to bring the vectors of left-wing forms of abolitionism into universities, most especially from movements to abolish prisons and police. Leftist abolitionisms have been simultaneously destructive and generative, from what W.E.B. DuBois called the “abolition-democracy” of the Reconstruction period to today’s abolitionist projects for replacing prisons and police with alternative practices of community accountability, safety, and transformative justice. Bringing this dual-sided abolitionism into universities, we seek to grapple with these two paths at once: dismantling universities’ entanglements with carceral, racial-colonial, hetero-patriarchal capitalism and its associated education-based mode of study, while simultaneously fostering alternative modes of studying, organizing, and living together — what we might call an “abolition-university.” 

While abolitionist university studies builds on some of the work that has come under the banner of “Critical University Studies,” we distinguish our approach in two key ways. First, we offer a different periodization of universities. Critical University Studies tends to tell narratives that start with the post-World War Two university as a kind of “Golden Era” with massive government support for higher education, such as with the GI Bill. The problem we see with nostalgia for that era is that it crops out the violence of the university, such as its racialized and gendered exclusions as well as how universities served to absorb surplus populations, suburbanize land, and produce research for military and imperial purposes. By contrast, abolitionist university studies starts its periodization much earlier.

Our periodization focuses on “the post-slavery university,” a term that both gestures to the unfinished work of the slavery abolitionist movement and situates the post-Civil War university as part of what W.E.B. Du Bois called the “counter-revolution” of capital and property against the gains of Reconstruction. With the formal end of slavery depriving capitalists of a major source of profit from enslaved laborers, they turned to modes of accumulation by other means, including racially segregated, discriminatory, and exploitative forms of labor management, housing, policing, and prisons. The university served as part of these alternative means of accumulation, such as through the Morrill Land Grant act that used universities to dispossess Native American peoples of their lands, research on scientific agriculture that made up for lost agricultural productivity, and sciences of racial and gender difference that legitimated new forms of exclusion, hierarchy, and exploitation. Bringing this approach up to the present, we situate contemporary struggles in universities within a broader history of how universities have enacted different modes of accumulation — including the accumulation and circulation of capital, the expropriation of labor, and the non-circulation of wages, especially through the wageless labor of students — and how these modes of accumulation have transformed over time in response to shifts in the broader regime of capitalism and to different modes of resistance (see this table for a schematic attempt at such a periodization).

It might seem like we are presenting an approach to studying universities that aspires to be more “critical” than other approaches. Yet, a second way we distinguish the abolitionist university studies approach from critical university studies is that we decenter “critique,” framing it as just one mode of organizing practice among many other modes, which might be equally, less, or more important, depending on the situation. We ask: what ecology of organizing practices would be most effective, on the one hand, for doing as much damage as possible to racial-colonial capitalism and, on the other, for enabling alternative world-making projects to flourish? Abolitionist studying practices, then, would be part of building an “abolition-university” — spacetimes for organizing resistances, subversions, and forms of counter-accumulation aimed toward dismantling racial-colonial capitalism. If we see the education-based mode of study as a kind of ubiquitous dam that continually reinforces people’s everyday investments in, and subscriptions to, the capitalist world-making project, then abolitionist studying could help us break through the dam and release the ever-threatening flood of people’s desires for alternatives.

We’ve been developing relationships around this approach through a conference and workshop in October 2019 called “Whose Crisis? Whose University?”  We’re currently organizing a workshop at the Toronto Abolition convergence in May 2020 for building a collaborative network of people taking abolitionist, decolonial approaches to universities [editor’s note: since postponed with no new date due to the COVID-19 pandemic]. I have also been building a regionally focused abolitionist university project that aims to study and organize around the historical and ongoing entanglements of universities with the tobacco industry and other biocapitalist enterprises. With collaborators across multiple universities in North Carolina and Virginia, we’re constituting a research network for this project, and I’ve simultaneously started this research at my own current workplace, Duke University, which has a long history of ties with the tobacco industry. For a taste of this project, see the website that some of my undergraduate collaborators made, “Stained University,” which includes an interactive map of the social networks connecting people at the university with the tobacco industry.

Some other examples of current abolitionist organizing in relation to universities include: campaigns to kick cops off campuses, making universities divest from prisons and fossil fuels, the BDS movement in solidarity with Palestinians, tearing down colonial and racist monuments, campaigns against sexual violence, and campus sanctuary movements, as well as the creation of alternative universities embedded within movements, such as the Pu’u Huluhulu University in the encampment protests at Mauna Kea.