This is the second in my series on life as an undergraduate student. Bear with me during the boring bits, since the last couple of paragraphs offer some candid self-reflection on my drift to the political right.
I have quite a simple theory of education: education is the process of relaxing assumptions about the world. The further down the path of education we move, the more assumptions are relaxed, in search of the ultimate intellectual nirvana: a worldview completely devoid of assumptions, which sadly seems a theoretical impossibility. By assumptions, I refer to things that we accept as 'given' without needing explanation or justification.
To see this theory in action, a simple example close to my heart: the study of politics (or as those of us who wish to make the subjective appear objective might call it, political science). Without exerting much intellectual energy, you can apply the same framework to things as diverse as language, creative arts, engineering, medicine, business, economics and the law.
As primary school students, we take the world completely on face value. Our knowledge of politics is merely the recall of a handful of verifiable uncontested facts - who the Prime Minister is, what the houses of parliament are called. This is a simple reality that we unquestioningly accept, blissfully unaware that beneath these benign facts exists a dense discourse.
Then we enter secondary school, where we relax the assumption that things have always been as they are. We study to history of our country, with ideas of colonisation and social conflict and we learn about the anticedents of the institutions that exist today. We become comfortable with the idea that the things we previously took for granted had to evolve to become as they are. At this stage we are still in a headspace devoid of theoretical explanations. (For most people, this is the furthest they reach in their understanding of the world.)
In the final years of high school, we relax the idea that the present state of things is somehow an inevitable outcome of our history. We come to realise that things with which we have become familiar (such as the doctrine of the separation of powers, the independence of the public service) are in fact important and deliberate constructions put in place in preference to alternative arrangements. To use a hotly contested phrase, we come to realise that our system of government is the product of evolution rather than Intelligent Design. Ever so slowly, we come to appreciate the remarkable achievement that is a functioning democracy.
As undergraduates, we relax the assumption that institutions are important in themselves, and come to realise that they are merely manifestations of theoretical ideas. Debate, therefore, occurs at the level of these theoretical ideas, hence we are opened up to a world of liberty, democracy, justice, conservatism and the subaltern. Once we make this intellectual leap, we come to see that the neat consensus of societal objectives (peace, freedom, prosperity, equality) that we previously accepted are in fact hotly contested, and occasionally incompatible, and it is necessary to negotiate a path through. We also come to see that the institutions which purport to manifest particular ideas can in fact fail to do so. We therefore become open to the possibility of change or alternative constructions of the world.
And for what awaits those studying as postgrads and beyond, I can only speak speculatively rather than from experience. My hunch is that we relax the assumption about the nature of human beings and human society, and the study of politics begins to overlap with the study of psychology and sociology. The political meaning of the fundamental aspects of social organisation come into question, so that even the most innoccuous word, object or person takes on a political meaning.
This framework is useful at understanding the disjoint between 'elite' and 'popular' opinion. Elite opinion thinks of the world as (at least) undergraduates would, and so hold few assumptions about the way it is. Popular opinion operates with more assumptions, at about the level of the high school student. So when a given issue arises, elites concern themselves with the theoretical challenges posed by an issue, whilst the populous take the existing theoretical worldview as given and so think only of the practical implications.
Consider, for example, the issue of mandatory detention of asylum seekers. On this debate, elites concern themselves with theoretical questions of global justice and human liberty, and so take a sympathetic view of the plight of asylum seekers. Popular opinion, however, doesn't consider these questions and concerns itself only with the immediate practical effect (hordes of foreigners, threat to national security).
To the populous arguing with the elite, these adverse practical effects are the only consideration needed in forming a view, and the elite's antipathy toward these things appears foolish and naive. To the elite arguing with the populous, these practical effects are merely details to be dealt with in pursuit of a fundamental ideal.
(Sure, there are plenty of elites and the populous who defy this portrayal of their viewpoints, however this tool is useful for explaining major currents in opinion. And those who do take an opinion contrary to that suggested by the sophistication of their world view usually justify it in their own coin, such as the elite who might argue that 'mandatory detention curbs the incentive for people smugglers', or a member of the populous who might argue that 'women and children couldn't possibly be a real threat'.)
So the real benefit in a university education is helping a student understand why things are as they are, and how they could be different. University encourages you to challenge even the most foundational and permanent features of the world, by virtue of the fact that these features are constructed rather than natural.
For most students, this drives them toward progressive or even radical politics, as they come to realise that the social hierarchy that they'd previously accepted as immovable can in fact be washed away with the tides of history. All of a sudden the Anglo-hetero-normative-patriarchal-capitalist nature of supposedly neutral institutions becomes obvious, and plotting for their destruction is the only sane thing to do.
For me though, ever the contrarian, the relaxation of assumptions about the world pushed me toward a more conservative strain of politics. It become evident to me that the prosperity, peace and liberty that we enjoy in Australia and the rest of the western world is not some birthright granted to us by a higher being, but is instead the product of the wisdom and decision-making of earlier generations. Had they have made a different set of choices, we may have ended up under tyranny, in poverty and devoid of basic freedoms. Crucially, should we make a poor set of choices, we may yet end up is this dreaded dystopia, such is the impermanence of the current state of affairs. The fundamental tenets of life as we know it need defending - whether it be from religious extremists, political extremists or economic extremists - and to glibly assume that these tenets will exist ad infinitum may be fatal.
A university education forces you to take nothing for granted and recognise that every aspect of the world has a reason for being as it is and that nothing is permanent.
Or as John Maynard Keynes once said, "In the long run, we're all dead."