Alienation and Higher Education

Eryn Nelken

Summary: A student reflects on the alienated nature of education today in light of Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 – Editors

Marx’s theory of alienation can and does apply to higher education. To better analyze this, let us look at several aspects of alienation. Particularly forced labor, estrangement from what is produced, and estrangement from others. We will also look at the manipulation and degradation of needs.

What is an education in modern terms? It oftentimes is a necessity to receive a job that pays well enough to live. What is the proof of said education? A piece of paper declaring that one is properly educated. How does one get this piece of paper? By working nonstop in classes and subjects, that if they are very lucky, they enjoy enough to wade through the tidal wave of work. This piece of paper, a degree, has requirements. Many of which are unpleasant to the student, who in turn is chained to a letter that states whether or not they are adequate to proceed. To get a good job, one must get a good education. To get a good education, one must get good grades. To get good grades, one must produce assignments that (most of the time) are grueling and labor intensive. It is forced on the student, not only this, but to take many classes that are of no interest to the student. To compare Marx says, “His labor is… not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor.” (Estranged Labour, Marx). To produce for the sole purpose of being paid in grades is comparable to this definition of forced labor.

One of the most personal of the assignments one must produce to graduate school is the essay. An essay is the thoughts and feelings of an individual put to paper. One of the most, if not the most, intimate things to a person is their thoughts. Just as Marx says, “The direct relationship of labor to its products is the relationship of the worker to the objects of his production.” (Estranged Labour, Marx). Essentially this means a worker puts a part of himself into what he produces. In this comparison, so do students put a part of themselves into everything they write. The student is compelled to write essays for the grade required for a degree. They are forced to put a part of themselves and put it to paper for another, to be used for judgement. Even if one is so fortunate to want to produce written works for classes, so far as to choose particular classes because of the essays assigned; the rigid structure imposed by academia cuts off many an opportunity of personal expression by forcing any expression of creativity to exist within a narrow view of acceptable guidelines. This, in turn, also diminishes a student’s connection to any and all things outside the box of these guidelines. Another form of alienation from one’s thoughts.

Marx also spends time talking about a worker’s estrangement from others, this applies to education. As I am oft to joke in a class where the grade is curved, “Like blades of grass, if one rises above the others, we will cut you down.” This may be a joke, but it underlies the competitive nature of education. There is pressure to be the best, to come out of the fray with the most distinction. Being there are only a finite number of opportunities and scholarships, this pushes some of a competitive nature to cruelty. This each man for himself attitude makes some see fellow classmates not as people, but as competitors. It isolates man into his own island.

Lastly let us focus on the degradation of needs in relation to higher education. The goal of education, aside from the betterment of the individual (of course), is the degree. As previously stated, to get the degree, one must get good grades… to any and all ends. Marx states, “By reducing the worker’s need to the barest and most miserable level of physical subsistence… [For] he declares that this life, too, is human life and existence.” (Human Requirements and Division of Labour Under the Rule of Private Property, Marx). While higher education does not reduce needs forthright, the rigor it requires does. How much sleep does the average student forego to finish assignments? How normal we all think of this? Who has time to eat, let alone eat well, when one has studying to do? This lack is considered normal for a college student, yet not normal for the layman. This is a student’s existence, enough food to live and just enough sleep to continue on.



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