Newsletter #59: The Bad New Days of Higher Education, with Dennis Hogan

by William Harris

The career of political economist Harry Braverman saw him walk a paradoxical tightrope. He was an old-school Marxist born in 1920 who spent much of his life as an industrial metalworker, yet nevertheless exerted a huge influence on the acid-dazed freedom-dreamers of the New Left. The through-line lay in his classic book Labor and Monopoly Capital, which married a fine-grained analysis of the US labor market and working-class composition with conceptually rich attention to key New Left obsessions: alienation, technology and machines, the confusions of white and blue-collar, education and the university.

In a coda-like last chapter, “A Final Note on Skill,” Braverman argued that an end to workplace alienation might arrive via a reimagined landscape of higher education. Instead of a world in which “skilled” work means funneling your intellectual energy into tiny Taylorist details and “education” translates to little more than earning a credential, what if workers received a “comprehensive polytechnical education” that continued alongside their work throughout their lives, teaching them the “requisite technical knowledge” to truly collectivize our mode of production? What if technology was demystified, industry reorganized, and workers educated for democratic workers’ control?

This was 1974. In the decades following, as scholar and organizer Dennis Hogan explains in The Dig’s latest episode, we traveled in the opposite direction. Higher ed remained a required credential while becoming less and less of a public good or social right, universities transformed further into bloated zones of capital accumulation, the humanities became all but the exclusive preserve of the wealthy, and we continued to work alienating jobs, including those of us who work in universities.

Listen to this week’s episode of *The Dig here.*

Key to Braverman’s method, however, was to start from the bad conditions of the present and think through them to a utopian proposal. The crowded postwar labor market led state planners to expand access to university; flawed as this booming degree-granting system had become — too often an arbitrary way for employers to weed out applicants, with little relation to the job’s actual content — it still laid the groundwork for a democratic socialist education that could help abolish the distinction between mental and manual labor, allowing each worker to gain mastery over their craft, whatever kind of craft it was.

As Hogan makes clear, today we have plenty of bad conditions to dream utopia from. Perhaps we don’t have to merely dream. The next episode in The Dig’s two-part series on the crisis of the university will focus on how students and workers are fighting back through a recent surge in university-worker unionization. What visions of liberatory education will these unions attempt to enact out of the bad conditions of the present?

Further Reading

There’s a lot of great historical and analytical writing on the burden of student debt, but it’s rarer to find something that wades into the psychic and physical toll debt exacts on recent generations of college graduates. Kristin Collier does this movingly in her 2021 Longreads essay “Debt Demands a Body,” detailing the chilling phone calls, the “acid swish[ing] inside” your stomach, the sleepless nights, damaged kidneys, and ruptured family relationships that debt can force upon us.

For related Dig listening, check out our interview with anthropologist Caitlin Zaloom on “Student-Debt Capitalism” and our 2020 interview with Tithi Battacharya, Daniel Bessner, and Simon Torracinta on how the pandemic has exacerbated a crisis-ridden higher ed system.