Zombie Liberal Arts College

by tigermanifesto

Hekman Library (general view), Calvin College

Liberal arts college: last known photo

Colleges and universities are meant to be incubators of the mind, inculcating productive habits, weeding out lazy or incoherent thinking, and shaping the individual students into critical thinkers. At the college my editor attends, officials and promoters make a point of emphasizing that it is a liberal arts institution in the grand tradition of the medieval university. The college exists not only to chip away at high school students’ vast and terrifying ignorance but also to refashion them into more socially useful subjects, armed with a specific, highly moralistic worldview (in this case, a Calvinist one) and well-versed in the abstract philosophical underpinnings of the “world of work” into which they will graduate. While the reality is that most of the school’s energies are concentrated in developing professional programs and a more utilitarian approach to education is becoming dominant, everyone finds it necessary to emphasize the edifying role of a college rather than just its ability to manufacture job candidates and an increasingly large reserve army of labour for the capitalist class to exploit.

While the increasing importance of preprofessional programs and more technical, less “liberal” instruction could be seen as a corruption of the college’s stated goals–not that I would agree with those goals in any case–there is a far more pernicious and pervasive rot on campus. One sees it ambling down the walking paths and on the posters advertising upcoming events. You can hear it in the music drifting up from the faux-chic coffee shop and, most viscerally, feel it in the architecture and how space is produced. A professor of literature at the college told me an anecdote about the architect of the campus: he made it deliberately confusing and sprawling in order to make it feel more like a neighborhood or residential community than a college. It’s not true that brutalist architecture was designed to suppress student revolts, but I can see where the idea got traction. Sharp-edged concrete monoliths with small windows and imposing edifices are naturally intimidating. The Robarts Library, located on the campus of the University of Toronto, is a somewhat fearsome structure, especially in contrast to the rest of the university.



Many people process this kind of architecture as “totalitarian” or at least domineering in its logic. There is no doubt that such structures exert a powerful influence on the surrounding space, which, depending on the building, can be experienced as oppressive. Nonetheless, I think my small liberal arts college’s campus, with its winding pathways and tree-sheltered dormitories, has a more subtle but still insidious totalizing logic operating in it. It gives one the sense of a completely domesticated, almost toy-like world. The liberal arts college is not merely a womb but a playroom as well, a space for careless experimentation where people are ostensibly shielded from the trauma of the “real world” outside. This is especially true at a Christian college that strives to maintain a tension between the terrifying secular world without and the coddled and privileged upbringing most of its students experienced.

The college’s raison d’être is, in part, to be a place where skittish and respectable religious people can send their children and be protected from commie professors, pornography (it’s blocked on the campus network), sex (prohibited for students), and drugs. Everything that comes from beyond the narrow confines of the school’s church-policed ideology is carefully packaged and assimilated so that it will be less threatening. It’s all very neighborly, the spitting image of a white American suburban utopia. Privilege is concealed in modesty, the alienated and atomized student population is sucked dry for tuition money and funneled into one entertaining event after another, biology professors need to cater to the delusions of creationists sitting in their classrooms, and on the common green areas the suffocating politeness of the architecture commingles with the student body to create something almost diabolical.

While many of the more liberal professors and staff members, who tend to be less reactionary than the student body, talk up the virtues of community this and liberal arts that, the truth is that the college is completely helpless in the face of vicious market forces. Education is becoming a shopping experience, a wholesale store for credentials robed in the costumes of its old prestige. The college keeps the furry robes and the pomp of graduation while ruthlessly cutting art and language programs. The university, like the old warring aristocracy of Europe, has been disarmed and tamed, and is now an incubator of manner and posturing without much substance. I used to be frustrated that students who came here showed so little interest in actually learning and changing rather than shuffling through the assembly line before starting their careers. But I’ve come to see that that’s the logic of the university now. You practically smell the decay in the air, and it’s going to take more than a bit of fumigation to get it out.

Thanks for putting up with my unstructured musing. I’ll have more Christian kitsch goodness on the way.