The Realms of Reality: A Shadow of the Self in Society
A label is used to categorize the indicative nature of our realities. Collective labels compartmentalize subject matter by identifying the content. In truth, labels determine a language of signification and purpose; this language can be privately pressed upon the psyche or put up by public pressure. When we label, we define; this is how the world holds meaning. If everything has meaning, who determines what’s valuable? For that matter, what is meaning worth? Frankly, we must see how socially‑imposed labels create individualized identities; in order to understand why the system works as it does, we have to see the parts; only then can we fully assess the whole. To exemplify my decree, I will reference Marc Bousquet’s book, How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low‑Wage Nation, alongside Tom Perrotta’s novel, Joe College.
Together, these writers create a narrative of cultural knowledge; these testaments illustrate the varying interpretations of what university life is supposed to be. Bousquet’s work offers a series of critical arguments concerning casualization and corruption within academia. Perrotta’s story follows the escapades of a budding college kid. Although it seems these subjects are so estranged, they’re actually stuck in the same scene, with both exhibiting why academia is seen as it is. Convincingly, Bousquet reveals the hardships of those who fall victim to exploitation by the promises of education. By examining the commodification of information, Bousquet discloses a network “aimed at creating a common culture … ‘led’ by management but ‘shared’ by the workforce”; naturally, “in an effort to minimize output to the most profitable level of demand”, the new, corporate university is concerned with establishing an “identity of interest”; this is all designed to suit society’s marketplace economy (Bousquet 101, 123, 181). To say the least, the critical content is illuminating.
In any case, let’s shift our attention to Perrotta’s commentary. In Joe College, Danny is the story’s protagonist; at best, the narrative demonstrates how an intellectual adapts to the culture of a capitalist America. Through these readings, one thing is clear: appearance and attitude are the deciding factors of how we perceive the world. In other words, once we wake up to what’s always been there, we can interpret what’s what. If we take the time to understand how we judge and decipher the world, we improve our relations with the world at large. To deepen our awareness, we must divulge the truth.
But what is the truth? Purely put, truth is what we take as real and undeniable; therefore, on the whole, truth is simply subjective. Once a truth is known, a motive of reality sets in; our world is what we make it, so no world is alike—our realities are relative. For Bousquet, he focuses on the reality of those who are broken by the system. In Joe College, Danny’s reality is bright and appealing, with him reaping the benefits of the system. Even though these are two different views of the academic system, they merge by their understandings of reality. Chiefly, in Joe College, there is mention of Danny joining a publishing effort for “Reality”. “Reality” is a literary magazine designed to expose “the whole wide hardscrabble world” that exists beyond Danny’s collegiate “ivory tower” (Perrotta 35). Exclusively, “Reality” is dedicated to exposing the truth of “exploited workers, violent crime, urban poverty, and moral squalor”; basically, as Danny puts it, the publication is “devoted to everything but college” (Perrotta 35). Ironically, if we note Bousquet’s critical arguments, an opposing voice is vibrant; in his opinion, the truth Danny presents is inseparable from how the university works.
Notably, Bousquet claims that those seeking a higher education tend to identify as either a “worker” or a “student”. For the most part, these two terms “overlap”; however, they differ when applied to the hierarchy of social class (Bousquet 87). For example: people are categorized by net‑worth—this is a system of rank and commodification. In recognizing class differences, we see how status comes about by labels. Moreover, these labels determine how profits are produced. In capitalist America, profit is proof of potential. If money can be made, it must be managed by the standards of society; forthwith, funds are filtered into the fields which benefit the money‑machine. If a product cannot be commodified, it loses its value because it has no applicable use. In this way, labor and knowledge are put on a level playing field; if production can supply the demand, the field is deemed useful and progressive. Nevertheless, “the dominant circumstances of production and distribution are a core function of higher education” (Bousquet 104).
Markedly, Joe College portrays Danny as someone who is familiar with the working‑class, yet exists amongst the upper‑class. Danny is subjected to socially‑imposed labels because he’s confined to expectations: he is a worker and he is a student. Danny is forced to “‘work [his] way through’” college; however, for him, working in the dining hall or his father’s lunch truck is only temporary; he has no plans of slaving away like this forever (Bousquet 152). Justly, from an outside perspective, most believe they can spot the difference between a “student who works” and a “worker who studies”; in actuality, this “self‑reporting” is totally subjective; thus far, “there isn’t any clear way of ‘distinguishing’ between students and workers” (Bousquet 151). With no way of labeling this demographic, some people slip through the cracks. In Danny’s case, even though he comes from a working‑class family and seems to be regularly employed, he doesn’t really identify with the working‑class; he aspires for bigger and better things. Soon enough, he will be free from the chaos and demeanor of labor; yes, he will be successful. Surely, anyone attending Yale University may be led to think such things—it’s kind of a give‑in.
In all fairness, Danny is a diligent student and applies himself in his studies. Even so, Danny still manages to venture out and socialize, always doing his best to enjoy the typical college culture and vices. When he’s alone, Danny enjoys the curious scholarship associated with higher learning. By and large, Danny appreciates being challenged. If he’s at school or at home, he adapts his attitude to act his part, thus morphing into what he is expected to be. Essentially, while society shapes the self, the self seeks its survival by status.
For Danny, being aware of social status allows him to evolve; more often than not, he bases his decisions upon the constraints of his situation. Nonetheless, whether he is dealing with the “unsavory … filthy … relentless … demonic” work line of the dining hall or “juggling small talk and numbers” for his lunch truck “work week”, Danny is certain these work experiences are merely stepping stones unto better opportunities: “I was a decent person and expected the future to be good to me” (Perrotta 69, 153, 163, 256). Danny is willing to work because it allows him to be accountable, which helps him take pride in his progress: “My life was pretty much on track … my success … was my own doing and no one else’s” (Perrotta 256). Danny’s foreseeable success is “a well deserved reward for years of hard work, perseverance, and good‑humored self‑denial”; he insists, “I’m on my way, there’s no stopping now, no way, not even if I wanted to” (Perrotta 256‑257).
Conversely, for most “students who are trying to work their way through” college, they simply can’t afford to be as confident as Danny: “higher education and its promise of the future is increasingly a form of indenture, involving some combination of debt, overwork, and underinsurance” (Bousquet 153). On the whole, this results in “the pervasive shortchanging of health, family, obligations, and, ironically, the curtailment even of learning and self‑culture” (Bousquet 153). In truth, Danny is pulled between two realities: he is of the working‑class, but he yearns to be settled in the upper‑echelon; if he wants to get up there, he has to work for it. Danny accepts his situation because he doesn’t have many options—not because it is a pleasure to do so.
At school, Danny is surrounded by privileged people who feel entitled to everything. Regrettably, Danny wasn’t born into money or bequeathed a lucrative social network; he doesn’t have connections and mentors to work with; he depends on social‑mobility because, in the long run, his driven self‑discipline is all that has proven successful. Accordingly, students like this “share the mania for assessment, ranking, pay‑as‑you‑go, revenue maximization, and continuous competition in pursuit of ‘excellence,’ even where those values are demonstrably against their own interests” (Bousquet 93). Without delay, if we don’t acknowledge how society influences our life‑choices, we become vulnerable to the constraints which exploit those who don’t know any better. Even though Danny is considerably well‑off, “the very idea that this arrangement is fair or rational” negates the very hindrances students must endure, all for the sake of what “‘looks good’” (Bousquet 91). By all means, our “world of possibility” is framed by “‘the value’ of different kinds of education”; for this reason, it seems we should have plenty of options for soon‑to‑be success, yet we’re forced to settle for dispensable positions (Bousquet 92).
Provided that everyone is granted equal opportunity, everyone should be able to succeed—right? Simply put, no. Some people are better off than others because they have better opportunities, not necessarily because they are better equipped to perform the prescribed tasks. More so, some people are deceived by the mere assurance of better opportunities; rightly, if these gullible hopefuls are done in by provisional manipulation, well then, so be it; incontestably, this kind of ruthless consumerism costs much more than it provides!
To exemplify this truth, let’s look to those employed by UPS and its “‘school‑to‑work” based program (Bousquet 125). UPS offered an undergraduate education on the condition of hire; consequently, “the part time positions devolved into one of the least desirable forms of work … Featuring poor wages, limited benefits, a high injury rate, and unreasonable scheduling”; in effect, this “created compensation and working conditions” that were simply unacceptable (Bousquet 132). As it seems, such “school‑to‑work” based programs have done more harm than good: “UPS counts on its student workers failing or dropping out” because “UPS ends up paying only a modest fraction of the education benefits it offers” (Bousquet 143). As a matter of fact, those seeking some status by knowledge seem to be subjected to slave away for the system, with little hope for real, lasting returns in personal security.
All in all, the chase and competition embedded within academia allows society to systematically control those seeking status; in any case, whether we crave a label of private or public value, we must see how the system works. If we never acknowledge where we are, we will be lost as to where we go. Danny is an example of the American Dream done right; his ambition and high hopes seem to pave the way for his future, thereby insuring a life of reverence and prosperity. For everyone else, it’s best to “‘admit’ and embrace their ‘complicity’ in a ‘corporate system’”; if people can’t adapt, then their label will be a lowly one (Bousquet 166).
In a capitalist America, academic culture has transformed into a “logic” where information “should feel transparent and be networked”; consequently, status stems from what makes sense; what makes sense is a society that supplies services on “demand, just in time, and fully catalogued” (Bousquet 61). Despite these truths, we can do our best to determine our own labels, based on our own terms; if not, we will be mere pawns in the play for profits. Undoubtedly, if we are to be anything in America, we must do so by our own decree. Rather than disregarding the critical conception of academia, let’s advocate for alternatives. If society resorts to human‑based directives, maybe we’ll have a better chance at being dignified individuals, as opposed to money‑hungry misanthropes. Indeed, we must make our own reality, based upon our own terms—we can’t let anyone do it for us. The choice is ours.
Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. NewYork: New York University Press, 2008. Critique. October 2013.
Perrotta, Tom. Joe College. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Novel. October 2013.