Weekend Debate: Where Do Activist Students Come From?
I’ve been afraid to post recently because almost anything I might write would probably come in the form of an anticipated general exam question (a month and a half away!) which would only serve to bore you and send me into a panic attack (also because I fear anything I write wouldn’t make half-sense, since my mind in the apt words of a friend looks like borscht soup at the moment). However I’ve been reading Habermas'”Technology and Science as ‘Ideology,'” an essay that appeared in German in 1968 in his Toward a Rational Society: Student Protest, Science, and Politics. The essay is dedicated to Herbert Marcuse (on his 70th! birthday — I’d forgotten how old he was 1968!)
It contains a passage that rings true today:
Activ[ist] students, who relatively frequently are in the social sciences and humanities, tend to be immune to technocratic consciousness because, although for varying motives, their primary experiences in their own intellectual work in neither case accord with the basic technocratic assumptions.
The technocratic consciousness being one that sees society as something to be controlled and improved by solving a series of technical problems, rather than as a normative order whose meaning and values are debatable. So basically technocratic consciousness doesn’t ask “ought” questions; it asks how we can fulfill what we want under the current system but doesn’t ask how we might potentially want to live our lives.
On reading the above quote my mind immediately went to various friends in humanities and socialsciences who support the NYU union and who have noted a disparity between support for the union in the humanities versus in the more ambivalent sciences. To a certain extent I’d chalked this up to scientists having a sweeter funding deal.
I guess I was struck by the uncanniness of what Habermas said about 1968. Obviously I shouldn’t be so surprised– I myself have criticized the problem with universities’ increasing focus on the sciences and problem-solving, rather than on critical thinking, and have suggested some practical implications of this.
So here are the questions up for debate: is this a transhistorical phenomena? Did it begin with 1968 or with Weber’s disenchantment? Are we today just experiencing a quantitative increase of a problem that began with ‘modernity’ itself? How connected are today’s student struggles to those of 1968?
[I ask the latter with genuine curiosity. I went to Columbia as an undergraduate and was always mildly annoyed by students who invoked the “1968” tradition–mostly because those students weren’t occupying buildings so I thought it a weak appropriation of the 1968 legacy– but perhaps I shouldn’t have so quickly dismissed the comparison.]