As Batesies, we often see ourselves as existing within a bubble. This reference is of course not limited to jokes about how Bates should have more to do. I think it finds itself so ingrained that it is often forgotten that such a reference could help us to contextualize the college within wider society in such ways that could tell us, as students in an elite academic institution, quite a bit about ourselves.
I think that, all too often, we view the goings-on at Bates as being separate from those in the rest of the nation, or that our two histories are somehow not inextricably intertwined. The “Bates Bubble” seems to comprise Bates as a community, with functions, people, and financial and social problems separate those in the wider community of Lewiston-Auburn, all our own, and without any relevance to the rest of the United States.
What integrity can this bubble have, when we have so often felt its bursting by national tragedies and political struggles? Take, for example, the recent hopes of the LePage Administration to tax non-profits. Does this not imply drastic consequences throughout the Bates community, including students and faculty? Tuition, employment capabilities, and services of both Bates and the local hospitals could all be financially, and therefore institutionally, harmed in service to the Lewiston-Auburn community. There could be some very serious consequences for students that are outside the power of Bates itself; we are not an autonomous institution, we are influenced in a very real way by forces outside the easily perceived.
Consider the recent events at the University of California at Irvine, where a student council, believing that the UCI student government should operate as a sovereign entity, voted to ban all national flags (including the U.S. flag) from the lobby of its offices. Their vote was overturned, and the American flag continued to fly. Immediately thereafter angry patriots, alumni, and God-fearing, red-blooded, American flag-wearing Americans descended upon the campus, calling for blood. Kill-lists for the seven students have made their way across the internet, causing these students to hide on their own campus from some crazy nationalists.
Is this not a sign that the fate of the American college/university is at the hands of national society? How free-thinking (or even democratic) can an institution be if the very right to dissenting thought through democratic venues is conditional?
Perhaps the most pervasive institution in America is that of global capitalism. The two above examples, in my logic, can both be traced to the economic underpinnings which both concretize and transcend U.S. borders. Capitalism is as rooted in the historical trajectory of Bates as it is in the history of each of our individual families, and indeed in the very function of our role, as students, within society.
Is not American higher education, at its most elemental, an economic institution? The barrier to entry is usually economic: either s(he) cannot afford college, or his/her parents could not have afforded to raise their child in a society which would prepare them academically for the rigor of academia. The expected outcomes are most often thought of in economic terms. Consider the institution of the internship, or the platitudinous “what are you going to do with your life” question we are constantly asked by society. Even better, consider the ways in which the “emancipating potential of the liberal arts” are now being packaged up at Bates as “Practitioner-Taught Courses,” and “Purposeful Work” (as if some work is not purposeful in the liberal arts context).
I am arguing that our conceptualization of the Bates Bubble as insular from the rest of society makes an adequate critique of higher education as an institution impossible. Evidence like the historical disenfranchisement of African Americans shows that Bates has been complacent in the system of structural inequality. These connections can be best understood in the conceptualization of Bates as an historically economic entity.
In 2006 Brown University set up a panel to explore its historical relationship to the slave trade. It is forgotten that, while founded by “abolitionists” and funded with money made from Civil War textile production, Bates had a quota on racial minorities (including African Americans and Jews), and had a set proportion of two-fifths women to men. Milt Lindholm, the Dean of Admissions at Bates from 1944-1976, toyed with implementing racist and sexist admissions policies. He is now commemorated with the name of our admissions office and a portrait gazing into the remains of Milt’s, juxtaposing a broken printer. The abolitionists that founded this college must be rolling over in their graves in a way that current Bates students, forgetting historical fact, are not. The historical arc of higher education surely follows that of society in general: we forget things.
To understand Bates on its most fundamental, economic level provides several fascinating insights into the relationship of institutions like Bates to structural inequality on a wider scale.
We need only look at Bates’ marketing strategy to see that the continuation of Bates as an institution is dependent on the perpetual flow of Batesies. Bates is far more dependent on parents, donors, and alumni than they are on current students. This is why our rooms can leak while prospective students and their parents are marched through the dorms at 280 College St. This is why Bates can shove three first-years in a cubby in Page. This is why the college allows for a broken advising system where students fall through the cracks, all while potential paying customers carefully avoid Frye Street as they weave their way from Lindholm House to the Chapel. As a marketing strategy, the image of Bates is paramount; the rhetorical iteration (the “discourse” of Bates) has become the only significant reality: it works (the money keeps coming).
Why is it that most student protest at Bates goes undocumented on the College website, the moneymaker of the College? As an institution reliant on rhetorical iterations of itself, anything that goes against the advertised top-down status quo, should be ignored and forgotten. It is no accident that student protest such as the die-in earlier this fall was used as marketing on the Bates.edu homepage (the first point of contact for most parents of prospective students): it showed how “Bates creates future leaders who stand up for social justice in the world.” On the other hand, student protest against the administration (coal divestment, public art policy) is quickly dispatched, often before the first tour goes by…
Is it possible that, by confining the significance of the certain silences imposed by institutions like the Bates “Bubble,” our generation is being indoctrinated with a spirit of revolt without the possibility of revolution? Students are trained to speak the same broken language of democratic politics which have been nullified by the institutional machinations of global capitalism within Bates. If we are to understand our role as students and activists in society, we need to do away with the “Bubble.” Just as we are single neurons within the societal mind, so too is Bates a society existing as the product of the history in which it came to be.