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The American University System is a Rotting Carcass

Benjamin Studebaker

September 9, 2022

U.S. President Joe Biden has recently forgiven some student loan debt. Borrowers who earn less than $125,000 per year can have up to $10,000 forgiven, or $20,000 if they’ve received a Pell Grant. The debt forgiveness relieves pressure on the American university system in the near-term, but it leaves the tuition system in place. Between 1975 and 2020, the cost of tuition and fees at 4-year public colleges in the United States nearly quadrupled, while the cost of 4-year private colleges more than tripled.[1] Student debt exploded. In 2020 dollars, the average graduate in 1975 owed just $4,850. In 2020, the average graduate owed $30,600.[2]

By forgiving some of this debt, Biden hopes to boost his approval rating among young voters. They have disapproved of his performance by some margin since October 2021.[3] But he also hopes to protect the university system from deeper, more fundamental change. As tuition increases, the universities are able to squeeze enormous amounts of money out of the professional class. Affluent professionals eat into their retirement accounts to spare their children the debt burden. Young people from less secure backgrounds who leave university with large amounts of debt have diminished negotiating leverage. Their desperation to be free from debt leaves them easy to exploit. By forgiving some of the debt, but not all of it, Biden fosters hope in these people that the state may ride to their rescue. But he also angers and aggravates those Americans who have already paid their student debt. These Americans will not be very interested in contributing tax revenue to ease the tuition burden in the years to come.

By placating one group of people while stirring up resentment in another, Biden makes the university system harder to reform going forward. But the American university system was already on a dark path, and it will get darker in the years to come.

The Role of a University System

A university system creates particular kinds of people. It does this by subjecting young people to a very distinct set of experiences. They are removed from their families, from their hometowns, and put into communal living arrangements. An aura of authority is constructed around the professors, and the professors gain the power to make students feel pride or despair, to feel hope or fear. Students are encouraged to try to impress their professors, but they are not told how, precisely, to go about doing this. They feel pressure to be original, to prove that they are not imposters, that they belong. At the same time, they must find a way to get along, socially, with the peers they now live with. There is an intense competition for glory, for status, as students try to impress their professors and each other. The university system fosters this psychological need, and it puts this need to work by tying status to particular forms of behavior and ways of thinking.

This is not a distinctively modern, capitalist, or totalitarian process. The university system is just one example of the process by which polities manufacture the kinds of people they need. For Plato, most citizens are unable to value justice or the good for their own sake. But many of these citizens do value their honor, and by tying honor to good behavior, Plato argues that these citizens can be made to imitate good citizens, even if they are, at their core, honor-loving. By using honor as an incentive, Plato constructs a class of guardians who will go to great lengths to prove they are the most courageous defenders of the city. The citizens who value things for their own sake rather than as a mere means to honor can only be picked out at around age 30. Plato’s education system creates a class of guardians, and it also helps to identify the minority of guardians who are able to do philosophy.[4]

In this way, Plato’s system creates two kinds of people. On education, Confucius makes similar recommendations. On Confucius’ narrative, the “gentlemen” are taught how to behave through an extensive set of rituals. By practicing the rituals with a spirit of reverence, the gentlemen acquire the virtues that make them good civil servants. At the same time, lower-ranking Chinese officials were drawn into Confucius’ teachings in large part because being seen to have these virtues became connected to a person’s honor. Most gentlemen never develop a full understanding of the rituals, of what they are for. This understanding is reserved for the sages, to a handful of people who are able to understand how the rituals help people acquire virtue. Because the sages understand the virtue-acquisition process itself, they are able to modify the rituals to keep them aligned with their purpose.[5]

This is a skill that the philosopher Iamblichus calls “theurgic virtue.” The theurgist knows how to create sensory experiences for people that invite a divine presence. They know how to give people experiences that enable them to ascend a ladder of virtues. At the top of this ladder is the ability to understand how these experiences themselves work. Once a theurgist understands the process of ritual itself, it becomes possible for the theurgist to update and construct rituals so that the rituals can serve their purpose more effectively as the context develops.[6]

In this way, even ancient education systems sought to create large numbers of auxiliaries, or gentlemen, or professionals. At the same time, they also created small numbers of philosophers, or sages, or theurgists. The professionals know how to behave to win honor, but they don’t understand why they have been taught to behave in the way that they have. They have etiquette, but they don’t know what it’s for, they don’t understand how or why they acquired it, and they are in no position to think about how to update it. They have a functional education, one that qualifies them to do a variety of administrative tasks of middling complexity. But they don’t understand what the system is for, and they have no sense of what to do with it when they are put in charge.

Because most of the people who use the education system do not understand what the system is for, it is necessary that the system be legitimated to them in terms they can understand. If you wanted to be a successful Roman politician, you had to learn Greek, and you had to read Plato because if you couldn’t do these things, you would not be considered refined or respectable. You had to learn Greek for your career. Once you’ve learned Greek and read Plato, you can lord the fact that you know Greek and have read Plato over the people who don’t know Greek and haven’t read Plato. Those people are put at a competitive disadvantage in the status game. Today, we would say that they have less social capital.

Even if you don’t value learning Greek and reading Plato for its own sake, you can value the honor you obtain by learning Greek and reading Plato, and you can value the career advantages you obtain by doing so. In this way, the study of Greek and of Plato can be legitimated to the professional, who cannot see any intrinsic value in this work and does not understand the real reason it is taught, i.e., to produce philosophers who understand the process of virtue acquisition and can update it in response to changes.

Capitalist Disruption

Capitalism disrupts ancient forms of education in two key ways. First, it turns the peasants into workers, giving them an increased level of political relevance. The workers have been shut out of the education system altogether. Now they are in position to demand access to it. The workers are interested in gaining access to the university system so that they might stop being workers so that they might stop being exploited by capital. Some of them hope to become professionals, and some of them hope to use what they learn to contribute to workers’ movements. Second, capitalism creates a large number of “new rich.” These people have a lot of physical capital, but they lack social capital. They do not read Greek, and they do not read Plato.

Neither the proletarian nor the capitalist is looking to use the university system to pursue the good or honor. They are instead both interested in using the university system to acquire wealth and organizational power. The university system is therefore compelled to tell a new legitimation story centered around its ability to help students obtain employment on good terms. It is hard to persuade someone who wants to make money that reading Greek or Plato will be of much help. So, instead, the university increasingly presents itself as a pathway to economic opportunity—as a “ticket” to life.[7]

At first, this leads to a terrific expansion of the university system. If a degree is a ticket to life, then anyone who does not obtain a degree is being denied an opportunity or resource that is a prerequisite for having a decent life. New universities are built, and there is an effort to expand access. But if the students get the old education, they may start trying to pursue ancient objectives, like honor or virtue, that are irrelevant to capitalist accumulation or undermine it outright. So, instead, the students are invited to despise the old education. Learning Greek and reading Plato won’t help you get a job, help you get a date, or help you pay for childcare. And, besides, many ancient philosophers, sages, and theologians are white, and nearly all are male. The concept of domination Karl Marx draws upon in his critique of wage slavery is derived from Greco-Roman political thought.[8] To keep the workers away from Marxism, keep them away from the Greeks and the Romans. To prevent the workers from seeing connections between Greco-Roman thought and the thought of Chinese, Indian, and Persian theorists, keep them away from those thinkers, too.

Before long, the university system is bigger than ever, but it no longer offers the kind of education with which it was once associated, and it no longer creates the kinds of people it was furnished to create. Then the high-tuition system is brought in, and that turns every degree into an investment—one that must pay off. If the student takes on debt, the student invests in themselves. If the parents take on debt, they invest in the student. If the student signs one of those new-fangled income-sharing agreements, capitalists literally invest in the student.[9] This forces even ancient subjects, like philosophy, theology, or history, to justify themselves in terms of the expected earnings of their graduates. For a while, in the United States, many disciplines framed themselves as wholesome places to get an undergraduate degree on route to law school. But by 2010, the law schools were heavily oversaturated. In that year, just 68% of law school graduates found jobs in law, and the average new lawyer graduated with $98,500 in debt.[10] In the last decade, humanities undergraduate enrollment has fallen by nearly 50%, as young people pile into the sciences for refuge.[11] The social sciences stay afloat by incorporating ever more elaborate kinds of quantitative methods, preparing students for careers in public policy, finance, and consulting.

Changing to Conserve

This gradually strips undergraduate education down to the bone. It becomes nearly entirely functional and instrumental in character. But this is not as radical a departure as it might seem. Philosophers and sages were always in the minority. The bulk of the students, even in ancient times, were proud glory-hunters. Even in the heyday of that system, only a tiny number of initiates ever got to the bottom of what it was about. So, it is not that the university system has become worse—it has, by appearing to change, avoided changing at all. Only a tiny handful of the world’s universities give students the experiences they need to develop philosophical and theurgic virtue. Often these experiences are reserved to graduate students, and even then, only to graduate students in certain fields. Only small numbers of the graduate students in these select fields will really get the point, anyway.

Is this not precisely the aim of the theurgists in the first instance? They modify the rituals so that the rituals can continue to do their work. The rituals do not exist purely for the purpose of producing philosophers, but for the purpose of producing the society in which philosophy can occur. That society is a society in which the philosophers are defended by courageous auxiliaries and fed and clothed by producers. It is a society in which sages are protected by virtuous gentlemen, and fed and clothed by the peasantry. It is a society where capitalist oligarchs use obedient professionals to dominate the proletariat, extracting the surplus that ultimately allows a handful of philosophers and artists to indulge in leisurely intellectual and creative pursuits.

If it had been otherwise—if the proletariat had really succeeded in obtaining the philosophers’ education—that would have posed a grave threat to the system that generates philosophers. For fear of the consequences of making proletarian theurgists, we have constructed an education system that hides what it has to offer by tempting workers with some paltry imitation of riches. Perhaps it could have been different at one time or another, but now?

The more people go to university, the less important it is for the university system to help those that do go find philosophy. If just a tiny sliver find their way, the university system can produce just as many philosophers as it did in the old days. And, in the meantime, the fact that the university system has grown fat and essential to the functioning of the capitalist economy makes it impossible to abolish. This strengthens the system, even as it shrouds most of the students in shadows.

As it becomes harder, economically, for students to pursue the disciplines through which they might be turned toward philosophy, it is remarked, louder and louder, that only the rich can become professors or theologians or novelists. But this is, of course, how it was originally, in the old days. The traditional system is conserved by adopting the trappings of capitalism, the emphasis on student outcomes, and incomes. But the fates of those students are of little ultimate concern because a small minority of increasingly wealthy people still find their way to the good stuff. The post-war liberal, concerned that the education of the rank-and-file undergraduate student is not equal, is not sufficient, is not real—that person is a sucker, a fool who believed the noble lie that the university system was for everyone. It never was. It is only now, at the end, that they will understand. When we have come too far to turn back when the power of the workers is shattered, only then can this can be revealed in all its coldness and cruelty.

This basic condition, surely, is what Raymond Geuss references when he writes:

“I have what I have always held to be a mildly discreditable day job, that of teaching philosophy at a university. I take it to be discreditable because about 85 percent of my time and energy is devoted to training aspiring young members of the commercial, administrative, or governmental elite in the glib manipulation of words, theories, and arguments. I thereby help turn out the pliable, efficient, self-satisfied cadres that our economic and political system uses to produce the ideological carapace that protects it against criticism and change…10 percent of the job is an open area within which it is possible that some of these young people might become minimally reflective about the world they live in and their place in it; in the best of cases they might come to be able and willing to work for some minimal mitigation of the cruder excesses of the pervading system of oppression under which we live. The remaining 5 percent of my job, by the way, what I would call the actual ‘philosophical’ part, is almost invisible from the outside…”[12]

But here, Geuss gestures at something still more unsettling. Even those who reach the very top of this system are made to give over most of their leisure time to the training of the professionals. You see, it’s not efficient to give the philosophers time to do philosophy unless this philosophy can be commodified, quantified, and thus rendered visible. So, in a bid to justify spending time on philosophy, philosophy is called “research,” and then the professionals who administer the state design things like the British “research excellence framework” to evaluate the output of the academics. A competition ensues even among the professors to meet the tenure qualifications. As proletarianization comes for the professors, those publication quotas become harder and harder to meet. More teaching is given over to graduate students, further diminishing the number of professors that are needed. As more students move into the science fields, there is still less need for professors in the humanities and social sciences. And so, the professor becomes a professional. The true philosopher must enjoy real economic independence, beyond that of the professional academic.

When this reality bites, the professors themselves are sapped of their potential. Once the Ph.D. is obtained, the need to mechanistically pump out publishable papers forces them to chase honor, just like the students in the old days. Their brains are fogged and choked with paperwork, and there is a vicious pruning. Even the best among them are strip-mined. So long as the professors must take a salary, they too are wage slaves, and they are to be kept busy and kept down. None of this troubles the system as a whole, because the system only needs a tiny handful of theurgists, and it does not matter if all the theurgists come from a handful of wealthy families. By the time it happens, and the academics are aware and mobilized, the workers are too battered and broken to help, to even want to help. The academics are humiliated. They are forced to their knees, with nary a shot fired.

The Death of Equality

Now, to put the final touches on this restoration, the concept of equality is killed. It was in the name of equality that the proletariat demanded access to education, forcing this whole parade of pretend reforms. To forever extinguish this demand, equality must be rendered inert, and this is done by replacing it with another term— “equity.” In the United States, equity is often presented through variants of the following image:[13]

Equality is associated with equality of resources, with “giving everyone the same resources,” while equity is associated with equality of welfare, with “ensuring everyone reaches the same level.” Often, students are told to reject equality in favor of equity. By telling students that equality of welfare is “equity” instead of equality, we invite them to dismiss not just the equality of resources view, but every other conceptualization of equality. If you’ve been told that equality is bad and equity is good, then all of those other views must be written off. You’re left with no choice but to embrace equity, and therefore to embrace equality of welfare.

Initially, this looks like a radical move—it appears to be about getting young people to commit to equality of welfare, which plausibly includes universal access to the kind of education that opens the door to philosophy. But under the cover of this possibility, the goal posts can be shifted. What if the aim is not to equalize welfare for individuals or classes but to equalize welfare for social groups? Group equity can be consistent with enormous inequalities among individuals and between classes. The oligarchs can be made culturally inclusive while still keeping the professionals and the proletarians firmly under their thumb.

The American state discusses equity in a vague, non-committal manner that facilitates this transformation. For instance, when President Biden took office, he issued an executive order concerning “racial equity.”[14] Biden’s order defines equity this way:

“The term ‘equity’ means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.”

The definition is vague. The words “fair,” “just,” and “impartial,” are all clearly important but left undefined. The administration initially applies equity to individuals. But then, it pivots to focus on “underserved communities.” These underserved communities are initially defined through a big list of examples. At the end of that list, the administration throws in “persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.” No definition of inequality is offered, and the concept of “community” is still blurry, so the administration then offers a definition for “underserved communities”:

“The term ‘underserved communities’ refers to populations sharing a particular characteristic, as well as geographic communities, that have been systematically denied a full opportunity to participate in aspects of economic, social, and civic life, as exemplified by the list in the preceding definition of ‘equity.’”

So, for the administration, an underserved community is a population that shares “a particular characteristic” and has been denied “a full opportunity.” The administration declines to precisely define “a full opportunity,” instead pointing us back to the previous list.

At another point in the order, a different list is given. The Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is instructed to study:

“…the best methods, consistent with applicable law, to assist agencies in assessing equity with respect to race, ethnicity, religion, income, geography, gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability.”

The second list consists exclusively of groups, with no mention of individuals or classes. Income is on the list, but for all we know, the administration is merely promising to ensure children born to low-income families have “a full opportunity.” There isn’t enough precision or detail to be sure they are committed to anything more. The administration uses the words “fair,” “just,” “impartial,” and “full opportunity” to describe its objectives, but these words are never clearly defined.

If the Biden administration wanted this to be clear, there are plenty of unemployed political theorists available who could help in a pinch. The administration does not want to be clear. It wants to be seen to care about equity without committing itself to any particular understanding of that term. It uses vague language that suggests that nearly any conceivable group might plausibly be protected, but it also uses vague ethical signifiers to avoid making concrete commitments about how this protection will be achieved.

As the American state does everything it can to keep its options open, advocacy groups are hard at work breaking the concept of equity into tranches. Race Forward defines racial equity as “a process of eliminating racial disparities.”[15]The Center for American Progress uses equity mainly to argue for closing the racial wealth gap.[16] Racial Equity Tools straightforwardly defines equity as “the condition that would be achieved if one’s racial identity no longer predicted, in a statistical sense, how one fares.”[17] The concept of equity is being partitioned into a series of types of group equity, none of which have much to do with achieving equality of welfare for individuals or classes.

Equity, then, becomes a way of destroying all the understandings of equality that associated equality with the welfare of individuals or classes, or with the opportunity for individuals or classes to obtain philosophical education. It is reduced to a group concept, in which all the races and genders will be descriptively represented at every level of society. The oligarchs will be diverse, but there will still be a very small number of them, and only they will enjoy access to philosophical education. The education system will function as it always has done, and it will be able to present itself as advancing toward equity in the process. The conflict between the principle of equality and the reality of deeply unequal access to philosophical education will appear resolved, without the need for any material concessions to workers. Those who object to the kidnapping and murder of the concept of equality will be accused of opposing equity, even if they make it clear that they oppose group essentialism or that they believe that every person, irrespective of group affiliation, ought to enjoy a thick, substantive right to pursue a philosophical education. All who oppose equity are said to be in the basket of deplorables, and being in the basket of deplorables is very bad for one’s reputation, for one’s honor, and for one’s earning potential. Whatever you care about, or have been made to care about by force of economic necessity, you cannot risk falling into the basket.

It was for this reason that Friedrich Engels labeled equality a “one-sided concept” that ought to be “superseded.”[18] In its fogginess and vagueness, it is always available for appropriation by those with the resources to gain control over the way it is used. As the proletariat weakens, its capacity to contest concepts diminishes. The meanings of political terms become once again the uncontested property of the propertied class. The university system becomes a vehicle through which to seize these terms. The bulk of the students are denied the opportunity to have the kind of education that could make this contestation visible to them. They are taught a set of rituals about what equity means, to fashion them into reliable civil servants.

This is not new, it is old. It is the way things have always been done because the philosophers have never believed that it was truly possible for the working class to have a philosophy, or for there to be a functional society in which the workers have it. To believe otherwise is to be conscious of the vast tower of blood and bone upon which all philosophy and all theory stands. It is to be fully aware that our best moments depend entirely on other people’s worst. And so, invariably, those who get philosophy do not use it to help. For to use it to help is to be not just a class traitor, but one with a stomach of steel.

At this juncture, with the working class plunged into shadow and the professional class obediently dangling its toys in workers’ faces, it is only the class traitor who can articulate, in its fullness, the insidious character of Biden’s palliative student debt reforms. They have been implemented to perpetuate an ersatz form of education in which the working people of the United States are systematically denied an opportunity to become philosophers, artists, theologians, and sages. The system not only denies this opportunity, it denies that it denies it, cloaking domination in the robes of equity, heralding a false dawn, and driving us ever deeper into the dark.


[1] Jaleesa Bustamante, “Average Cost of College & Tuition,” Published 2019,

[2] Mel Hanson, “Average Student Loan Debt by Year,” Published 2020,

[3] Geoffrey Skelley, “How Biden Lost the Support of Young Americans,” FiveThirtyEight. Published 27 July 2022,

[4] Plato, Republic. Translated by C.D.C. Reeve, (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004).

[5] Confucius, The Original Analects: Sayings of Confucius and his Successors, E. Bruce Brooks and A. Taeko Brooks (trans/eds), (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).

[6] Clarke, E.C., J.M. Dillon, and J.P Hershbell, Iamblichus: De Mysteriis, (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003).

[7] E.g., Robbyn Wacker, “The ticket to a better life—from a university president’s perspective,” St. Cloud Times. Published 22 March 2019,

[8] See for instance Bruno Leipold, Citizen Marx: The Relationship Between Karl Marx and Republicanism. DPhil Thesis, University of Oxford, 2017 and Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

[9] For a brief explanation of income-sharing agreements, see Kathyrn Flynn, “Income-Sharing Agreement (ISA),” Investopedia. Published 18 May 2022,,career%20schools%2C%20and%20private%20lenders.

[10] “The Law School Bubble Has Burst,” Online Paralegal Programs,

[11] Benjamin Schmidt, Twitter,

[12] Raymond Geuss, A World Without Why (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 231.

[13] E.g.: “Illustrating Equality vs Equity,” Interaction Institute for Social Change. Published 13 January 2016, “The Evolution of an Accidental Meme,” Medium.Published 14 April 2016,, “Q&A: Evanston, Illinois, Turns to Town Hall Meetings to Build Equity and Equality,” International City/County Management Association. Published 6 July 2017,, “Considering Equity in Education During Black History Month,” Aurora Institute. Published 27 February 2019,, Andrea Eidinger, “Gender Equity,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Published 30 June 2020,, “Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference?” The George Washington University. Published 5 November 2020, and “Activity: Visualizing Equality vs. Equity,” RISE. Accessed 18 January 2022,

[14] “Executive Order On Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government,” Published 20 January 2021,

[15] “What is Racial Equity?” Race Forward. Accessed 20 January 2022,

[16] Danyelle Solomon and Lily Roberts, “Centering Racial Equity in a New Administration,” Center for American Progress. Published 13 November 2020,

[17] “Racial Equity,” Racial Equity Tools. Accessed 20 January 2022,

[18] Friedrich Engels, “Engels to August Bebel In Zwickau,” London, March 18-28, 1875. Available online at

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