Swarthmore as a college

It is important for me to preface this piece by saying that I admire, appreciate, and agree with much of what Sarah Dobbs had to say in her recent Op-Ed titled “Swarthmore as a nation-state.” I believe that doing the work of reminding ourselves that the college is, in fact, a corporation is a critical first step toward formulating effective institutional critiques. Moreover, I found many of Dobbs’ insights—especially those regarding our need to question the purpose and project of our college (and colleges writ large)—to be incredibly elucidating. However, Dobbs made two errors which generate some nontrivial political and theoretical problems with her argument.

First, it’s important to look at the argument directly behind the headline, “Swarthmore as nation-state.” In a particularly audacious move, Dobbs sets us up as “citizens” of the “neoliberal” “nation” of Swarthmore. While managing to include all the most important buzzwords of contemporary Marxist political analysis, Dobbs fails to substantiate this argument. I’m almost more concerned with the attitude she takes towards the college than the shortcomings of her “Marxist” analysis. In her article, Dobbs clearly restricts the “Swarthmore community” exclusively to students, and it is absolutely laughable to claim that we are the ones who make this college operate. In her wild claims about the exploitation of our “labor” (and surely, it’s generous to characterize the vast majority of our work this way), Dobbs elides entirely any actual proletarians who might call the “Swarthmore community” home. It is by no means the students who make this institution operate, but the dedicated cohort of Environmental and Dining Services workers who provide us with the cushioned, manicured institution within which we have the pleasure of passing our days.

While glossing over the intellectual and political diversity of our student body, Dobbs finally attempts to bring the Swarthmore community (again, just students) together under a national banner, reminding us once more that we ought to see ourselves as a nation. However, this chafes uncomfortably with her simultaneous emphasis on Swarthmore as a corporation. It’s ridiculous for conservative lawmakers to insist that the United States be run like corporations—it’s equally ridiculous for Dobbs to equate the college, a corporation, with a nation.

Her most important error lies in the confused terms of “instruments of production,” worker/laborer,” and “raw material.” According to Dobbs, Swarthmore students are all of these things at the same time. This confusion generates a number of problems that distract from the important message buried in her article. The most important thing to bear in mind is that Swarthmore students do not generate capital for the college by their labor. This fact entirely disrupts the Marxian line of her reasoning. Dobbs’ claims about the fear that encourages us to “produce” fall apart when one considers how generous most Swarthmore professors are with extensions as well as the presence of numerous campus resources designed to provide just this sort of personal accommodation. This Marxist argument is also dependent, as Dobbs rightly points out, on a reserve army of labor—her “fresh hands.” However, in the context of Swarthmore such a relative surplus population is not provided. Certainly, the college could easily fill the institution three times over with exceedingly well-qualified applicants. However, accepted students never compete with the incoming class for space at Swarthmore.

With regards to her claims that “students are the raw material to be commodified and translated into capital for the institution,” I would ask, in what ways are we exchanged? How precisely does the college circulate us as capital? While Dobbs insists that “Swarthmore overemphasizes cultivating our brains because it is the organ that produces capital for the institution,” I have to argue that our academic work does not constitute capital, even indirectly. The college emphasizes our intellectual development because that is the service we’re paying them for, not because they’re turning a profit on my seminar papers. Ultimately, Dobbs gets the employee-employer relationship backwards. We—students—are consumers of a service commodity produced by the college. The college employs hundreds of individuals to provide this service.

Dobbs even attempts to include changes in party-policy in this worker-capitalist dichotomy: “Our breaks are timed, our fun is regulated, our freedom is managed for us by the boss.” I would ask Dobbs—when was the last time an administrator timed a student nap? Who, in this metaphor strained well past the point of breaking, is ‘the Boss’? I’m not going to pretend to be in favor of changes to campus policies that have demonstrably reduced student control over party spaces—but it’s incorrect to couch this relationship exclusively in proletarian-capitalist terms.

Dobbs’ argument about our “rhetoric of generosity” (which I must admit is itself pretty great rhetoric), is similarly unsound. As students we produce no commodities as such and don’t receive the “wages” of financial aid, food, and housing as payment for labor, but rather in exchange for our paid tuition. Moreover, following a fantastic piece by Isabel Knight titled “Does Swarthmore ‘Bait and Switch’ Financial Aid?” these services remain mostly constant throughout one’s time at Swarthmore and have nothing to do with a student’s “productivity.”

Dobbs is right to call for an increased attention to the question, “Why Swarthmore?” which runs far deeper than a simple admissions essay. Answering “why?” or “so what?” is nearly always a critical step in any endeavor. At that level, Dobbs’ piece is absolutely necessary. But by placing undergraduate students as the proletariat in a Marxian analysis, she manages to miss entirely the real labor that makes the college possible. By figuring the college as a nation-state of which students are citizens, she elides the unique forms of belonging that characterize time spent at a four-year college. If action for progressive change is to be made, attention to these particularities of experience (as consumer rather than citizen-laborer) becomes even more essential. It’s at this level of strategy and practice that theoretical writing has to be as conceptually clear as possible. And it’s in this spirit that I hope someone will write another op-ed tearing me apart next week.

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