Northeastern Disorientation

Higher Education Under Capitalism

 · 5 mins read

Past articles for the disorientation guide have focused on specific ways that Northeastern University has contributed harm to the community, whether through gentrifying Roxbury, mistreating the dining hall workers, or funding a militarized police force. As students and organizers struggling within NEU, our understanding would be incomplete without a larger analysis of higher education, the environment within which we find ourselves. It allows us to see the bigger picture and make well-informed decisions about the campaigns in which we’re engaged.

There are two questions we’ll answer here: Why do universities exist? And what role do they play in society?

History of the University

The university system in the US traces its roots to monastery schools founded in the 16th and 17th centuries, which later expanded to include legal and medical programs. During this time, these schools were exclusively oriented towards wealthy white men. However, after the Civil War and the industrial revolution in the US, there was a huge demand for an educated workforce in order to sustain large-scale machine factories. The Morrill Land-Grant Acts of 1862 and 1890 introduced state colleges, the public education infrastructure necessary to produce this workforce. It is also at this time that many Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) were established as required by those land grant acts since most Southern states refused to create integrated universities. Importantly, this is when the US became an imperial power on the world stage.

A similar expansion happened after the Second World War. With the destruction of Europe, America ascended to become the leading imperialist superpower, backed by the world’s largest industrial economy. This leap demanded even more educated workers.

But, as production slowed in the late 1900s, government funding dwindled. Rather than maintain education as a largely public good, many universities began shifting to a private corporation model with profit as the main priority. Our contemporary era has seen the rapid commodification of higher education. Rising college tuition has made it less accessible for working-class students to receive higher education, as many of us now need to assume massive amounts of debt. Explicitly for-profit colleges have popped up across the country. Treating knowledge as a commodity to be sold for profit only benefits the ruling class because they can afford the tuition no matter how high it rises.

This is one of the reasons why universities fight against the demands of workers for decent pay and respect. In the pursuit of profit, suppressing the wages of their workers decreases the cost of doing business. Yet we’ve seen universities’ endowments skyrocket, even during the pandemic.

Role of the University

To maintain a thriving capitalist class and a massive international state apparatus, the US requires an education system to generate professionals. The state needs higher education to reproduce the leaders of its institutions, and to train capitalists and capitalist intellectuals who continue to propagate ruling-class ideology. We can look at how almost all CEOs of Fortune 500 companies have a Bachelor’s degree. Though this fact seems obvious, it underlines the integral role higher education plays in producing capitalists, bosses, and all those responsible for ruling society.

A prime example of higher education’s function within US imperialism is the integration of the US government, “defense” companies, and universities. The US government benefits from new research and development, academic support for US foreign policy, and the indoctrination of students to support state interests. The defense contractors outsource their research to universities and even hold governing seats in these schools, while they receive a steady stream of educated workers along with ideological support from these institutions. In turn, the universities gain research contracts, industry prestige, and hefty financial support. US imperialism wouldn’t be able to sustain itself without this alliance.

One example is the Kostas Research Institute. NEU received $20 million in order to conduct research with the US Army Research Laboratory on anything from “cybersecurity to explosive detection.” While the government benefits directly from the research, the article explains how “The institute was also designed to enable unique partnerships between academia, industry, and government.” Industry benefits from projects like NanoOPS, a printing system housed in the Kostas Institute which is available to private corporations. When unveiling the system, President Aoun declared, “These partnerships are the best means to accelerate the development of new technologies for a positive impact on the world. … Keep up the good work, and God bless America.” Though unclear what positive impact we are seeing from the US military, the ideological support for US imperialism is crystal.

These arrangements are the main role of higher education within capitalist America. Historically, universities have existed in the US to maintain its position as the imperial superpower of the world. Through the mass education of workers, and the reproduction of capitalist leaders, the US has developed a cycle that upholds ruling-class ideology and supports the productive power of its global economy. Universities continue to serve the interests of the elite. Education’s commodification punishes poor and low-income students for pursuing higher education. It burdens us with debt, which keeps us working for the rest of our lives.

As students and organizers, it is imperative we understand how higher education was built on an imperial system and that the only way universities can truly serve their community is to take the power from the hands of the corporate elites. We must allow the working class - workers, students, community members - to reimagine a higher education that is not for-profit, but which is built to benefit us. Organizing on campus must ultimately aim towards this goal. We all have a stake in this fight, and that’s why we must win!