It’s May, and another batch of students has committed to the colleges where they will matriculate this fall.

Students applying to college this year have done so amidst the hypocritical politicking of would-be leaders. Rick Santorum (B.A., M.B.A., J.D.—though you wouldn’t know it) called President Obama “a snob” for suggesting that all Americans should have the right and opportunity to go to college. Mitt Romney (B.A., M.B.A., J.D.) told a working-class student in Ohio that he shouldn’t expect the government to help with his college debt; he should just choose a college with “a little lower price.”

Meanwhile, those who articulate the value of higher education typically do so on the grounds that Americans are falling behind in the study of math and science, that we are not producing enough engineers, and that we’ll only continue to be overtaken by China and India. Even President Obama, who supports higher education in the form of vocational schools, community colleges, and four-year degrees, argues for the significance of college in economic terms: “We all want those jobs of the future.”

Sure—we want young people to be qualified for the jobs of the future. But we also want them to inherit a future in which not only their work has value, but their lives are valued. We want young Americans of all ethnicities, races, genders, sexualities, classes, and religions to participate in the growth and flourishing of a country that recognizes their worth beyond their contributions to the GDP. We want Indian-Americans to counter our hyper-valuation as a “model minority” by allying with all those demeaned through contrast to our model.

We have to move beyond an instrumental concept of higher education in the defense of it. In the past few months, we have received reminder after reminder of the devaluation and precarity of the lives of Americans who do not fit the mold of Joe-the-plumber. Here’s some of what we’ve seen so far in 2012:

January 10th: The Arizona State Superintendent of Public Instruction decreed Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program unlawful under Arizona HB-2281. The bill is an attempt to purge the school curricula of all ethnic and racial identity studies.

February 12th: Just three years after assaulting Rihanna, Chris Brown performed at the Grammy Awards, where he was applauded by cheering fans. Numerous women tweeted during the show that Brown could “beat me any day,” “beat me up all he wants.” Meanwhile, the Violence Against Women Act languishes in Congress, where it is up for reauthorization and being opposed by Senate Republicans.

February 16th: The House Oversight Committee held a hearing about women’s access to contraception through employers and insurance companies but did not include a single woman on the panel. When law student Sandra Fluke offered her testimony (via YouTube) about the financial and health challenges women face when not able to access contraception, Rush Limbaugh called her a “slut” and a “prostitute.”

February 18th: At the peak of the Lin-sanity over New York Knicks player, Jeremy Lin, ESPN referred to Lin as a “chink in the armor.” The Asian American Journalists Association, among others, had to point out to ESPN its flagrant and nonchalant use of a racial epithet.

February 26th: The Help rounded off the awards season with a Best Supporting Actress nod at the Academy Awards; it was also nominated for Best Picture. The Association of Black Women Historians has said that The Help reduces “racial injustice to individual acts of meanness” and “strip[s] black women’s lives of historical accuracy for the sake of entertainment.”

February 26th: Seventeen-year-old African-American Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, a “crime watch volunteer,” pleaded self-defense under the provisions of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and, despite a national outcry, has still not been arrested at time of this writing.
March 8th: TLC canceled the show “All-American Muslim,” saying that it did not have sufficiently high ratings. Many speculate that the series was canceled because of the activism of conservative bloggers and anti-Islamic groups like the Florida Family Association, which called the representation of moderate Muslims “propaganda” and successfully encouraged advertisers like Lowe’s to pull support from the show.

March 16th: Dharun Ravi was found guilty of bias intimidation—a hate crime—in relation to the September 2010 suicide of his former roommate and fellow-Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, who Ravi had spied on with a webcam while Clementi was intimate with a boyfriend in their dorm room.

March 22nd: Deryl Dedmon, John Rice, and Dylan Butler pleaded guilty to the June 2011 murder of James Anderson in Jackson, Mississippi. Dedmon, Rice, Butler, and four other teenagers admitted that for months they had engaged in a series of deliberate assaults on drunk and homeless blacks.

When politicians and pundits talk about higher education, they think in terms of return on investment, of international competition, of reproducing a class of Americans who can take on the labor required by our industries. As a graduate student instructor in the critical humanities and social sciences, I teach college students how to think deeply, how to ask questions of the world we live in, how to interrogate that which masquerades as “common sense,” and how to develop nuanced conceptions of their identities and lives in relation to those of others.

I urge all students going to college this fall to take the opportunity to enroll in Ethnic Studies, Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies; take classes in feminism and Marxist theory, classes that will force you to engage with the discourses produced by the media, popular culture, contemporary literature, and politics. These are not only disciplines that must be defended against attacks by the likes of Arizona’s HB-2281. They are also the spaces in which the next generation of voters and leaders will be trained to think critically about representations of race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity so that they can counter them when necessary. This is where we decide what kind of society we want to live in and learn to make it—not just be subject to it.

Ragini Tharoor Srinivasan is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley.

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