“The campus is sick. That’s what I have been saying for a while now. It’s sick, very, very sick.” I have just met Adam, a fifth-year senior at Hamilton College, for the first time, and I am struck by his candor, how quickly he presses into the issue of college mental health. Adam himself has experienced the pressures of college life, eventually taking a year off after experiencing debilitating depression and suicidal ideation during his junior year. He has since recovered and become one of the most vocal advocates for change on Hamilton’s campus.
Hamilton, like nearly every college and university campus in the United States, has seen a steady and ever-more-concerning increase in mental unwellness in students—excess stress, depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation—which has made the college experience less and less like the utopian visions of an elite liberal education.
Millennials, like those who have come to Hamilton’s campus, have been characterized as the “anxious generation.” Nearly one out of three students experience a depressive state during their college careers. Recent studies have shown that suicidal ideation on university campuses in the United States is over 10 percent and suicide is the second leading cause of death for college-age students.1 In the fall of 2017, a student on Hamilton’s campus took his own life, the second suicide in so many years, setting off a crisis on the campus as students tried to make sense of another tragic death and administrators scrambled to find the best method to provide support for a college community thrown into deep despair.
Hamilton’s goals have been to place greater emphasis on counseling and awareness, wanting students to feel less stigmatized and afraid of getting the help and support they need. In many ways, Hamilton, like most universities today, still locates the problem in the individual student, placing the responsibility for their unwellness at their feet and seeking to find ways to mitigate the psychological issues that students experience after the fact. However, as Adam’s statement indicates, many students do not see the problem as necessarily located in these individual students. Instead, by locating the sickness in the campus, he is suggesting that the problem is environmental and systemic: about the political and economic landscape of university education in the twenty-first century, the policies that the college puts in place, and the culture that this system produces. Indeed, the problem of student mental unwellness is not unique to Hamilton. Four major suicide clusters have occurred in the past ten years at the University of Pennsylvania, Tulane University, New York University, and Cornell University, each with its own specificity but part of the broader mental unwellness epidemic on campuses across the country. What these tragic events indicate is that the issue of mental unwellness cannot be merely viewed as an issue of individual psychiatric disease, nor is it solely an individual elite university problem. Rather, the issue of mental unwellness in the university must be viewed as a sociocultural problem that is related to the complex political and economic processes that influence how the college/university system functions. The question is, What practices, policies, and cultural values are producing this campus sickness?
Much of the data for this chapter was gathered in collaboration with students in a class entitled Curiosity: An Ethnographic Approach, in which they shared their perspectives on campus life, the stressors they felt both within and outside of the classroom, and the kinds of structures that facilitated and limited their curiosity. In this chapter, I argue that the rapid increase in mental unwellness on university campuses is directly related to the capitalist sociocultural values produced in and by the current university and college systems. These values curtail students’ curiosity, forcing them into regimes of success that dictate what they ought to want to learn and how they ought to want to ask questions. The link between educational success and monetary reward necessarily channels students’ curiosity, what Thorstein Veblen might call a pecuniary curiosity but which I am calling here a neoliberal curiosity.2 A neoliberal curiosity is a form of curiosity that is instrumentalized toward questions that pertain only to monetary success and value as defined by corporate-State interests, carrying with it gendered, sexualized, and racialized norms in the form of competitive “drive.” As a result, students continue to experience an increase in the distance between what they want to know (i.e., a self-motivated curiosity) and what they ought to want to know (neoliberal curiosity), which in turn tears them from themselves, producing anxiety, depression, and the like.
I want to be clear that, as an anthropologist of mental health, I am much less concerned with the diagnosis of disease and illness but instead am most interested in the kind of emotional states that are produced within particular social and cultural milieus. That is to say, while medical diagnosis of mental illness is extremely important, I am much more interested in understanding the everyday experience of anxiety, fear, and depression, which may or may not be diagnosed as mental illness in some cases.3 In so doing, I seek to stay away from the kinds of simplistic binaries between sick/healthy, well/ill, and pathological/normal, which are themselves socially constructed but do little to address the sociocultural and environmental systems that produce social suffering for all individuals along a spectrum, whether deemed medically healthy or not.
In the rest of this chapter, I provide some theoretical starting points for the discussion of curiosity, arguing for an anthropological theory of curiosity as “knowledge-emotion” situated within nested regimes of value. I connect this theoretical discussion with the issue of mental unwellness before progressing into a discussion of how curiosity is commodified within educational discourse, channeling all forms of curiosity toward the singular path of economic mobility and drive. I then analyze interview data with a group of college-age students to provide a deeper perspective on how this particular form of curiosity affects their way of seeing themselves, their goals, and their understanding of success, and, in turn, produces emotional states that are indicative of the kinds of campus sickness Adam alludes to above. In the conclusion, I provide some preliminary thoughts on what college faculty can do while also suggesting several productive avenues for further research into capitalism’s effects on student curiosity and mental unwellness.
Theorizing the Anthropology of Value, Curiosity, and Mental Health
I want to begin by positing a framework for an anthropological theory of curiosity. While no anthropological text has taken curiosity as its primary locus of study, most anthropologists acknowledge that curiosity is a constitutive element of social and cultural life.4 In many references to curiosity, especially in traditional psychology, it is taken as a “universal” trait from which the study of the Other might be undertaken. Methodologically speaking, this characterization could imply that curiosity would manifest similarly across social contexts and would have the same attributes regardless of one’s social position. However, as anthropologists, we take issues of culture, social interaction, historical situatedness, and political–economic context not as epiphenomenal to some natural, underlying process but as constitutive of it, making this framing of curiosity not particularly useful for anthropologically grounded empirical research. How, then, might anthropology imagine curiosity as an object of study?
First, I want to suggest that, for anthropological study, curiosity is less about the epistemic (i.e., the acquisition of knowledge) and much more about the emotional value that is associated with learning something new. In other words, we express curiosity as a feeling rather than a state of being (we feel curious rather than are curious), and, as such, I want to posit that curiosity is a type of knowledge-emotion that is observable in everyday embodied interaction and situated in sociocultural norms. Within this framework, curiosity is not a static trait that one has or does not have but is rather a constantly shifting relation between the knowledge one acquires and how one feels about the knowledge one acquires. This emotional intensity can be increased or diminished; it can be facilitated or constrained, based on one’s position within a complex web of historical, political, economic, and cultural power relations.5 One might think of curiosity as a sociocultural fact—to borrow from Emile Durkheim—whose form of manifestation, direction, motivations, and constraints shift over time.
From this starting point, an anthropological method would seek to study curiosity not as an abstract concept disembedded from social life. Instead, one way of observing the production of curiosity is to recognize the dominant regimes of value that determine the relative desirability of the knowledge one seeks to acquire and, as important, what knowledge one disregards. Following David Graeber and Paul Kockelman, I define value as socially constituted “ideas about what one ought to want,”6 a definition that emphasizes “values are not desires; values are a means of determining relative desirability.”7 These determinations of desirability are constrained by “regimes of value” that become entrenched in disparate national, linguistic, and cultural contexts because of historically emplaced relations of power that circulate over greater distances as people, mediatized images, and commodities move in space and time and forge global connections.8 These regimes of value, in turn, structure feeling, dictating how people feel about their actions based on their relative desirability.
This relation of value and affect inflects any understanding of knowledge and knowledge acquisition: particular forms of knowledge are considered especially valuable within social settings, while others are not. In reality, individuals want to know about a lot of things, minute or grandiose. But regimes of knowledge-value are about what one ought to want to know. In this sense, I draw on Michel Foucault’s understanding of knowledge as situated in nested regimes of institutional power, which in turn determine what types of knowledge might be valued or not. Foucault argues:
It is the production of effective instruments for the formation and accumulation of knowledge—methods of observation, techniques of registration, procedures of investigation and research, apparatuses of control. All this means that power, when it is exercised through these subtle mechanisms, cannot but evolve, organize, and put into circulation a knowledge, or rather apparatuses of knowledge.9
We might say that regimes of knowledge-value embedded within social institutions and social discourses “structure” what one ought to want to know and how one feels about what one wants to know.10 In other words, to speak of knowledge-value-power is to understand that knowledge-values carry incredible affective intensities, especially as they circulate across social fields and among different groups of people.11
In other words, how one feels about what one ought to want is one way to see cultural productions of all sorts, including the production of curiosity. Curiosity—how one feels about the knowledge she acquires—is challenged by, or at the very least influenced by, what one ought to want to know. This is perhaps one reason why not all types of knowledge will spark curiosity.
It is within this context that I want to shift to the question of mental health in the university and college system. In the past twenty years, the context of higher education has seen a massive shift in policies and practices that situate learning within a regime of knowledge-value almost completely dictated by the precepts of neoliberal, racialized, and gendered capitalism.12 As part of the slew of neoliberal free-market reforms of the late 1980s, universities began to shift from what had been, for at least the twenty years prior, a tendency to assert their place as bastions of democratic knowledge production for the common good. As Dana Cloud explains:
Since the 1990s, administrators have escalated the rhetoric and practices of austerity, claiming budget deficits to deny faculty raises, student scholarships, and staff jobs—all while spending millions on the beautification of campuses and administrative bloat. Meanwhile students left behind by state and university support have taken on impossible amounts of student loan debt that they will never be able to repay.13
Indeed, the university has become one of the two or three most entrenched sites of the modern debt economy, forcing students to think about loan repayment even as they leave college for their first jobs. The rules of business have had several other major effects on university practice, including but not limited to (1) tuition at universities rising by 35 percent between 2008 and 2017, (2) adjunct faculty making up over 75 percent of the university workforce (as opposed to almost 75 percent standing faculty in the 1970s), (3) administrative roles mimicking corporate roles and placing the salaries of presidents and deans in line with that of corporate executives, and (4) STEM curricula taking primacy over all humanities and social science courses, and slowly eroding the growth of gender, women’s, and ethnic studies programs. Indeed, what Cloud makes clear is that “the emergence of queer theory and sexuality studies, antiracist and women’s studies, and the critiques of imperialism that were the result of popular movements of the 1960s have become real threats to the hegemony of right-wing ideas on our campuses—and therefore threats to the restoration of a university system compliant with the imperatives of neoliberal capitalism.”14 It is for this reason that these kinds of critical curricular undertakings had to be eroded.
Inevitably, these massive shifts in knowledge-value have impacted student learning. Most students come into college already deeply indoctrinated into capitalist knowledge-values, inculcated into ideas of achievement, success, and self-worth during a secondary education that emphasizes standardized tests calibrated to those ideas that will make them compliant and productive members of the workforce. Indeed, by the time students leave high school, they are already experiencing much of the stress and anxiety that comes with the discourse on achievement.15 And the college experience only exacerbates these anxieties as students know that they will be in debt in a cultural milieu that correlates their self-worth directly with their future earning potential after college and contextualizes nearly all learning outcomes and social relations in the context of networking and competitive advantage. What students want to know, in this context, is inevitably forced toward what they ought to want to know: How do I get a job? What courses do I need to take to get there? How do I get the grades I need? Who do I need to know to get ahead? How do I get a leg up on the competition? How do I pay off my debt?
Nowhere in such forms of curiosity does the question of what a student wants to learn take primacy or priority. And it is this distance between the active self-determined choice to learn and what one ought to learn based on capitalist regimes of knowledge-value that is at least a partial explanation for the many forms of mental unwellness that students exhibit in college today. Students exhibit such high levels of anxiety based on the tensions produced between what they are expected to value and learn and what they might actually want to learn, some examples of which I will show below.
Finally, I want to emphasize that this regime of knowledge-value is heavily influenced by one’s own position in this system and is especially heavily gendered and racialized. In the context of heightened competition, traditional forms of white, cis, heteromasculinity are seen as a necessary social good, as men and women who are willing to be cutthroat and willing to do whatever it takes to win are rewarded both in classrooms, in future job prospects, and in their feelings of self-worth. At the same time, those who have not been bred to thrive in such hypercompetitive environments are left to struggle with their feelings of self-worth and wonder if they have any chance of success in such a system.
In the next section, I want to focus specifically on “curiosity talk” and how the very idea of curiosity is commodified and filters into our university discourse. I will then move into the specificity of student experiences at Hamilton College.
The Commodification of Curiosity
In 2015 I stumbled on an article in the Harvard Business Review, “Four Ways to Cultivate a Culture of Curiosity,” a title that piqued my own curiosity. In it, Pat Christen, the CEO of HopeLab, a California-based not-for-profit that designs video game technologies for kids, argues that “we look at our culture as a product, just like Re-Mission and Zamzee [video games] are products. . . . And we believe a culture of curiosity is key to innovation.”16
The article goes on to discuss the methods by which HopeLab seeks to cultivate this curiosity, but I am stuck on this first statement and the many assumptions embedded in it. What does it mean to consider culture a product? And, moreover, what does it say about how individuals conceive of curiosity?
On the one hand, Christen’s statement reflects the kind of “cultural turn” in public discourse, framing our worldviews on distinctions between us and them, binding culture in a form that has been amply critiqued within anthropology.17 On the other hand, and more important, “culture as product” suggests that our human norms, values, rituals, practices must be sublimated into the prerequisites of capitalism: culture is what we ought to want only insofar as culture sells. In this case, Pat Christen is suggesting that curiosity is a commodifiable cultural form. That it has rules and specific practices that we can actualize, and, in so doing, we will become innovators. Innovation is already tied to the question of selling product. An invention will be deterred if the inventor cannot adequately articulate how it is addressing a market’s need. In other words, we find in this article a neoliberal curiosity, a curiosity whose purpose and emotional resonance is derived from its ability to facilitate free market capitalism. This particular form of curiosity, I would argue, is a very recent one, derived only in a post–Washington Consensus world in which privatization and corporatization have inflected most aspects of knowledge acquisition. “We believe a culture of curiosity is key to innovation.” Proof, it goes without saying, is when the product sells.
Moreover, this version of curiosity is cultivatable and instrumental. If we set the right norms, we can produce the particular culture of curiosity we seek. Employees, it is assumed, will feel curious when they feel that wanting to learn and acquire new knowledge will also result in what they really ought to want—that is, to innovate and help the company grow.
There is a “trickle-down effect” to this neoliberal curiosity. Take, for example, the University of Pennsylvania’s mandate: “Penn has a long and proud tradition of intellectual rigor and pursuit of innovative knowledge. . . . That tradition lives today through the creativity, entrepreneurship, and engagement of our faculty, students, and staff.”18 Deeper in the website, it continues, “Penn’s award-winning educators and scholars encourage students to pursue inquiry and discovery, follow their passions, and address the world’s most challenging problems through an interdisciplinary approach.”19
If there is a form of curiosity in Penn’s vision, it is certainly not what we might call a radical curiosity in which boundaries are broken and ideas proliferate ad infinitum. Instead, it is a curiosity already channeled toward problem-solving and entrepreneurial excellence. Students are encouraged to inquire and discover, and even to follow their passions, but only as a subset of the larger innovation-based umbrella. They are simultaneously encouraged, if not outright pressured, to be preprofessional, tying their success to the possibility of making money working at Goldman Sachs or Lehman Brothers or perhaps even as part of an organization like HopeLab after college. In this sense, we might say curiosity as commodity has become the first principle of Penn’s education—it sells to be curious—but it also means that student curiosity is inherently constrained by the superstructure of entrepreneurialism and innovation rhetoric.20
Hamilton College’s website takes up the rhetoric of curiosity even more directly. On its homepage, it boldly states “Constantly Curious”21 with a link to its open curriculum, what it hails as a one-of-a-kind experience for students: “At Hamilton, study what interests you, be accepted for who you are, and prepare to be the person you were meant to become.” The open curriculum supposedly allows students to choose classes based on their interests without having to worry about requirements and areas of study that don’t seem to fit their goal. Hamilton, in other words, appears to promote free exploration, a curiosity untethered by the precepts of a college curriculum. And yet choice has its own pitfalls for the university student who lives within a neoliberal social order. When one’s choices are already tethered to the possibility of job outcomes and future economic potential, it is unlikely that choices are as free-floating as one might imagine. In fact, given the fears of getting lower grades and taking courses that don’t seem relevant for one’s major, students are, in fact, less likely to explore. At the same time, an open curriculum assumes that a student coming to college should already know what they want to do during their college career without the kinds of curricular requirements that might push students to learn in areas that they otherwise may never know that they enjoy. Ironically, then, the open curriculum does not necessarily produce the constantly curious student it purports to.
In the rest of this chapter, I will turn to some insights derived in conversation with students who experience the result of this model every day.
Student Life, the Neoliberal University, and Commodified Curiosity
One student at Hamilton, Michael, a senior, began an interview by telling me that he had actually read about the need for curiosity during his job search on Recruiter.com that, he pointed out, hailed curiosity in a fashion almost identical to the Harvard Business Review, articulating that it was essential for business success because, along with creativity, it was the basis for innovation.
When discussing this kind of commodification of curiosity, Michael went on to say, That’s just life. He could not imagine a world in which curiosity, learning, or his future would not or should not be based on his possibilities for economic mobility and, as such, he frankly told me that he made his decisions from this premise without trying to challenge or question any of these assumptions of what he ought to be doing with his life. Of course, he was also well aware of the fact that a curiosity that has been commodified—made instrumental only toward career advancement—actually delimits and inhibits one’s ability to explore one’s curiosities. Michael continued:
Students are restricted to thinking about their life after college through goals and achievements versus simply the acquisition of knowledge. . . . The issue arises when there is unnecessary pressure put on students to find an internship, pick a career, and get a job all while in college. This pressure has the ability to lead kids away from their passions and towards a base level job with minimal connection to their interests. Ultimately, it is this pressure that creates the fatalist and pragmatic individual. (Emphasis added)
The linking of fatalism to pragmatism is one preliminary way of understanding how mental unwellness manifests in the student body.22 To feel a sense of fatality, the idea that this is the way that it must be and that we must accept it with a shrug—that’s life—has major consequences for how students see themselves and their ability to be themselves and change their surroundings, a literal tearing from Self in doing what they ought to want to do. I will return to the issue of feeling unable to make change in the conclusion.
A few days later I sat with John, another Hamilton senior, and he started discussing his own dreams for his future as a musician. He was both passionate and dedicated, believing that he could and would become a musician with enough work. John was always asking questions about his craft and areas that might help him toward these goals, whether it was to think mathematically about music or to think about the creative, improvisational sensibility he sought to unleash in himself. And yet, even as he started to speak about his future dreams, he stopped, then restarted, then stopped again. Finally, he told me, without prodding, as if trying to justify his decisions to himself: “But I still have marketable skills.”
It really does not matter what those marketable skills might be. It was the fact that John felt the need to justify himself in this way, his self-reflexive statement that what he wanted in life, what he was curious about learning, was not what he should want. Recall that knowledge values—what one ought to want to know—are always in relation to our curiosity, and in this example, this splitting of occupational desire from what one should desire was the basis for a lot of anxiety, continuously creating a neurosis associated with whether John was doing the right thing even as he pursued his passion. Here, a student who exhibits a curiosity that is not already explicitly commodified is by nature at risk.
John wanted to extend this idea of commodified curiosity beyond the individual student and, in trying to explain why students felt such a deep sense of worry about what they ought to pursue during college, he began thinking about the Hamilton College Career Center:
Students at Hamilton often treat getting a job as their only goal for post-grad life and, in order to best accomplish that goal, they end up at the career center getting connected to alumni or perfecting their resume, or they end up in the OCC [Oral Communication Center] perfecting their interview styles. These institutions foster pecuniary curiosity because they are all goal-oriented and, instead of asking how specifically you need help, there is a set formula that every student must go through in order to unlock access to more resources.
John placed students’ increased anxieties about their future in relation to the strategies employed by the career center, which sought to “help” students graduate from college by stressing specific, identifiable goals that students should pursue. In this institutional context, students’ curiosity is channeled toward asking questions regarding resume building, networking, and career advancement. The “set formula” for what students should want in the future, and for how they should get there, alienated students who may have had ideas for present and future success that did not neatly fit into this path. Indeed, even if those in the career center were not actively discouraging students from alternative life choices, the lack of resources for such possibilities suggested that such life choices were too risky to pursue. In other words, this goal-based and risk-free approach to learning had striking secondary effects on student decision-making, creating a situation where they could not sit with any process that took time and did not already include a career end goal in mind or that might produce the possibility of failure based on the set parameters of career advancement.
In this vein, the choices of major and course requirements become key sites for this negotiation, as any “risky” class experience, which could not already be placed neatly into the confines of career goals, needed to be eliminated. Take, for example, Amanda, a senior who had wanted to choose an interdisciplinary major but found herself in a difficult situation almost immediately:
When I chose my major, I wanted to declare an interdisciplinary major that involved experiential education. Yet I was just beginning to explore this area, so it seemed that I wouldn’t be employable without direction. So I declared mathematics so that I could “sell myself” as a math teacher, if I ever needed to. Now I’m in the predicament where the math senior seminar I want to take conflicts with a course I need to take for the education minor. Why, as a sophomore, did I have such difficulty following what I was passionate about?
What students like Amanda are alluding to is the risk–security paradox produced in neoliberal education. When future success, developing the appropriate portfolio, grades, and the like are all primary concerns, students refuse the possibility of taking risks and, in fact, face much higher levels of anxiety when they do take risks. In this case, Amanda refused to take what she perceived as a risky major option—the interdisciplinary major—because she felt it would not be easily decipherable by future employers. This, in turn, made it nearly impossible to explore, be curious, and embed herself in spaces about which she was legitimately excited. Amanda is, unfortunately, one of the more fortunate ones, as she still made the choice of doing both the major she wanted to do and the major she ought to want to do, despite the complications therein. In the majority of cases, the anticipation of employability has meant students will refuse any educational opportunity that may feel less certain and less related to expected career outcomes. As such, by not taking risks, students fail to develop the very skills during college that would make them feel more secure with the uncertainties that are inevitable during life in and after college.
Amanda continues to reflect on how the college itself facilitates this type of decision-making through the commodification of student success:
And when students do get jobs, internships, and awards, students are contacted to be featured in a story for the Hamilton News portal. If, as a school, Hamilton can show that students are doing something major, people will come. I have to admit, it is a tactic that works, but, as a student, it makes me feel that if I am not accomplishing some high-profile task, I am not the ideal “Hamilton student.” This exploitation of curiosity creates a space where students might measure their self-worth by Hamilton News portal standards.
In this situation, success or failure is not based on a student’s own interest or on their ability to satiate their curiosity. Instead, all forms of gratification are linked to external forms of success and failure, a paradigm that has major implications, as Amanda notes, for the self-worth of students. But in the case Amanda provides above, the college itself plays a key role in producing this image of success, actively framing how students should see themselves by selecting those who have reached the prescribed standards of achievement. This becomes a constant visible marker, a yardstick of success by which everyone must then compare themselves even though they may not believe in, desire, or receive such accolades.
The tendency toward specified goals in a neoliberal system of inquiry also has a paradoxical relationship to how students experience time. Time, in much of their lives, is experienced through instantaneous gratification. Information at their fingertips, ever-present social relations, and the feeling that they can get any of their desires met with just the click of a button. However, the problem is that learning is necessarily time consuming, processual, difficult, and cannot occur instantaneously. This contradiction between students’ day-to-day experience of time and the time of learning can be debilitating, causing students to continuously loop into failure narratives. There is no room for idle curiosity in this narrative.
Instead, in the neoliberal college, students are given a massive number of choices as to what kinds of activities they can do both within the classroom and also outside of it. There is an assumption, of course, that they must choose, and so students are embedded in a never-ending cycle of doing, as Charlotte tells me:
In my experience, I think Hamilton students care about being busy. We care about busyness because we consider it a sign of success, and we have turned that positive association with busyness into a competition of who can be the busiest. We think that idle time or time spent doing nothing is wasted time. We try to angle everything we do into something done for a purpose. Even time spent socializing or time spent doing something for pleasure is for the purpose of de-stressing or not letting yourself burn out. We don’t have the time to take a chance on some activity that is potentially a waste of time. We put activities into two categories: work or rest from work. I don’t even think the categorization is inherently a bad thing, but the focus on categorizing is exhausting and limits my desire to try new things for the sake of trying something new.
I am struck by Charlotte’s explicit attention to the lack of idle time, the loss of the ability to wander, explore, and question without purpose. In Veblen’s discussion of capitalist university productions, he too laments this loss of idle curiosity, what he believed should be the ultimate purpose of university life but that had, as Charlotte too notes, been completely subsumed by the need to instrumentalize questions toward goals.23
This competitive behavior—pushing oneself to the limit, playing hard and working hard—was heavily racialized and gendered. Indeed, when I spoke with young white men like Michael and John, who shrugged their shoulders at the fact that their desires were necessarily channeled toward the goals of capital, they also expressed excitement and pride in their ability to push themselves and prove themselves. Most strikingly, they both acknowledged that the work they might do if they chose, for example, to join a company like Goldman Sachs would not have much social impact or reflect their own personal interest, even as they reveled in the possibility of proving themselves within these areas. One student, Aaron, went so far as to tell me:
Working really hard and being stressed has been glorified in our culture. And it’s kind of fun to feel that and be like at the lower rungs of this incredibly competitive, long-hours work environment, where people are paid a lot but they have to sort of grind for it. It’s kind of like that combination of difficulty and perfection sort of drew me to it. Just wanting to have an interesting career where I had to use my intellect to make it work.
Aaron links stress with fun, making money with having an interesting career that uses his intellect, all of which reflects the tethering of neoliberal education to the needs of corporate finance, which, in turn, only facilitates a version of masculinity he does not state explicitly but which clearly is part of the “culture” that glorifies this form of stress.
Men and women who refuse this version of racialized masculinity are, inevitably, left to fend for themselves. Indeed, not a single young woman I spoke to mimicked such sentiments, and, instead, most felt ill at ease with the expectations of the competitive culture that Charlotte and Aaron describe above. They wondered why this was the only way to learn or aspire, and why their college experiences could not be more varied. Indeed, Charlotte does not merely see this as a problem just about herself. It is, instead, about the entire college community:
Within this school community, we reward those who are highly involved and still get good grades, the so-called “ideal Hamilton student.” Amount of sleep becomes a competition. Number of executive positions held becomes a competition. Longest time spent in the library becomes a competition. Doing nothing after class on a Tuesday is an oddity on this campus, and students are committing themselves to things because they thought that’s what they were supposed to do. I should know; I swam for a year in college because I thought it would look good on paper to continue with a sport I hadn’t liked since I was nine. This busy bee mindset that exists on campus needs to change. We are going to work ourselves to a breaking point, and it won’t prepare us for success in the real world. Yes, extra work can lead to extra money, but is that the point of being an adult?
The drive to “look good on paper” had caused Charlotte to do what she “was supposed to do” and work herself to a self-described “breaking point.” In the end, what all of this can lead to is an absolute fear of doing anything at all; another way that students see the campus as a place of sickness rather than health. After telling me that she now really dislikes speaking in any classroom settings because of how fearful she is of being judged, Charlotte finally blurts out, “I just feel paralyzed by it. I never want to do anything wrong.” The evocation of a feeling of paralysis might be the best way of articulating how mental unwellness gets wrapped into student college life. Rather than beginning and ending with the kinds of questions that have sparked her curiosity, Charlotte cannot even fathom asking questions anymore given her fear of failure and the toxic environment of competition she feels pressured to participate in every day.
And, in talking to other students, this breaking point was also associated with excess drinking, anxiety, depression, not wanting to leave their rooms for long periods of time, feelings of inadequacy, and as Adam, the student whose words began this chapter, described to me, suicidal ideation:
I told some of my friends that the only time I didn’t feel like taking my own life was when I was drunk. . . . Most of them thought it was a joke, but then, finally, one of them reported me to the counseling office. That’s when I got sent home.
In this chapter I have tried to provide preliminary thoughts on the capitalist regime of knowledge-value that constrains how student populations can or cannot be curious. In turn, the constraints placed on student curiosity, based on the prerequisites of job success and economic mobility, have had significant and deleterious effects on the mental wellness of students on college campuses.
In future work on this subject, much further attention must be given to the institutional structures of the university that determine the kinds of majors, course requirements, and values that circulate on campuses. Perhaps more importantly, more attention must be given to intersectional systems of power: How do these institutional structures impact students differently based on their class, race, gender, sexuality, and/or religion? Indeed, in my preliminary research, the emotional experience of the neoliberal university was heavily gendered and racialized, and it is inevitable that women of color, for example, will experience the vagaries of the neoliberal university differently than their white counterparts, given their differences in position.
But what I would like to end by asking is: What would college and university life look like if student curiosity, in all of its complexity and possibility, were foregrounded and facilitated rather than always delimited and curtailed?
Indeed, one of the greatest insights derived from teaching a class on curiosity was that an explicit attention to curiosity (or the lack thereof) in everyday life opened up opportunities for students to develop a critical awareness that, in turn, allowed them to take a renewed ownership of their learning. What this also suggests is that some of the short-term solutions start with faculty. Students will generally be opaque to administrations and administrations are inevitably opaque to students. Administration cannot cater to students’ individual needs, nor is its first obligation to students when it must cater to trustees and an entangled web of bureaucracy. Faculty, however, have direct relations with students: they can interact with them and advocate for a different way of thinking about university life. At the end of one long interview, Michael told me that he had found that “the best source for creating curiosity in life after college was professors.”
Yet this is just another example of how the many unpaid labor burdens in the neoliberal university fall on faculty, who are already overworked and underappreciated. While research, teaching, and service are all part of the faculty mandate, the service and teaching components and the care that such student service entails are often overlooked in how faculty are assessed, how tenure files are read, and how faculty are compensated. As such, perhaps it may feel like an unfair request for those who are already faced with so much pressure in a system that is continuously producing their precarity.
At the same time, what faculty teach students may provide some potential benefits for everyone involved, faculty and students alike. As Moten and Harney remind, “It is teaching that brings us in,” and it is in this space that we might begin to subvert the boredom, numbness, and passivity that comes with professionalization—grants, grades, and evaluations.24 Specifically, what faculty need to learn with students is how to resist, to be a fugitive, to begin asking challenging questions that make us feel like we can change the situations that we are in. What I found most striking and sad is just how much students, and to a lesser extent faculty, felt like they were somehow completely without agency. Statements like, “We never question the status quo,” “We aren’t allowed to do anything,” and “We don’t know how to make things happen” were perhaps always intertwined with their loss of curiosity and feelings of anxiety, despair, and paralysis.
Indeed, the turning point for Adam during our time together was when he was able to take his feelings about the state of learning and mental health on Hamilton’s campus, resist the administrative impulse to cordon off how and where he should voice his concerns, and turn it into action. He decided, after much contemplation, to contact the New York Times about his experiences and was shocked when a reporter from the Times contacted him and wanted to hear about his experiences. He was interviewed by the reporter, after which she wrote an exposé about the state of mental health on college campuses. In the end, his decidedly pessimistic view of college life had changed dramatically. Instead, as he embarked on life after college, his tone was marked by hope and a belief that, through persistent subversive action, his voice might be heard and things could change.
Without this kind of hope that change can occur and the curiosity to ask how we might change things—and here I am reminded of my discussions with this volume’s coeditor Perry Zurn—students and faculty will remain embedded in this context of college unwellness.
Eugene Beresin, “The College Mental Health Crisis: Focus on Suicide,” Psychology Today, February 27, 2017, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/inside-out-outside-in/201702/the-college-mental-health-crisis-focus-suicide.
Richard Handler, “Undergraduate Research in Veblen’s Vision: Idle Curiosity, Bureaucratic Accountancy, and Pecuniary Emulation in Contemporary Higher Education,” in The Experience of Neoliberal Education, ed. Bonnie Urciuoli (New York: Bergahn, 2018).
Arthur Kleinman’s work in this area is quite helpful, especially as he outlines the basic dilemma faced by anthropologists of mental health. He writes that “the central theoretical problem for medicine . . . is the distinction between the normal and the pathological. . . . The simple reason for this is that social suffering and illness overlap, not entirely, but substantially. Economic depression and psychological depression and societal demoralization/anomie are systematically related. . . . Political economy creates suicide just as surely as genetics does. Global social disruptions contribute to substance abuse. Political and moral processes underpin the stigma of psychosis and cognitive disability just as they provide the structural basis for psychological and family trauma. Contrary to psychiatric epidemiologists’ focus on one disease at a time, in the toxic and predatory environments of urban slums and shantytowns worldwide, depression, suicide, violence, PTSD, and substance abuse cluster together—the very terrain of social exclusion, health disparities, and social suffering.” See Arthur Kleinman, “Medical Anthropology and Mental Health: Five Questions for the Next Fifty Years,” in Medical Anthropology at the Intersections: Histories, Activisms, and Futures (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2012), 118.
Nancy Schepher-Hughes writes, “Anthropology is a vocation based not necessarily on love, but rather on a deep curiosity that is open to many surprises, . . . Our job is to understand the way people think, the way they live in the world.” See Ann Brice, “Celebrating ‘Barefoot Anthropology’—Q&A with Nancy Schepher-Hughes,” Berkeley News, April 28, 2017, http://news.berkeley.edu/2017/04/28/celebrating-barefoot-anthropology-nancy-scheper-hughes/.
Benedict Spinoza, Spinoza: The Complete Works, trans. Samuel Shirley et al. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002).
David Graeber, Towards an Anthropological Theory of Value: The False Coin of Our Own Dreams (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 20.
Paul Kockelman, “Value Is Life under an Interpretation,” Anthropological Theory 10, nos. 1–2 (2010): 149–62, 149.
Anna Tsing, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2005).
Michel Foucault, “Two Lectures,” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977 (New York: Pantheon, 1980), 102.
Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977).
Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004).
Harney and Moten write, “Professionalization cannot take over the American university—it is the critical approach of the university, its Universitas. And indeed, it appears now that this state with its peculiar violent hegemony must deny what Foucault called in his 1975–76 lectures the race war. . . . And there are other spaces situated between the Universitas and the undercommons, spaces that are characterized precisely by not having space. Thus the fire aimed at black studies . . . and the proliferation of Centers without affiliation to the memory of the conquest, to its living guardianship, to the protection of its honor, to the nights of labor, in the undercommons.” Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 41–42.
Dana Cloud, “From Austerity to Attacks on Scholars,” Inside Higher Ed, May 3, 2018, https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2018/05/03/neoliberal-academy-age-trump.
Peter Demerath, Producing Success: The Culture of Personal Advancement in an American High School (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009).
Katie Smith Milway and Alex Goldmark, “Four Ways to Cultivate a Culture of Curiosity,” Harvard Business Review, September 18, 2013, https://hbr.org/2013/09/four-ways-to-cultivate-a-culture-of-curiosity.
Arjun Appadurai, “Putting Hierarchy in Its Place,” Cultural Anthropology 3, no. 1 (1988): 36–49.
University of Pennsylvania, “About,” accessed June 23, 2018, https://www.upenn.edu/about.
University of Pennsylvania, “Introduction to Penn,” accessed 23, 2018, https://www.upenn.edu/about/welcome.
Helga Nowotny, Insatiable Curiosity: Innovation in a Fragile Future, trans. Mitch Cohen (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2008).
Michael’s sentiments register with the work of Paulo Freire, who writes that educators are “resigned fatalistically to neoliberal pragmatism . . . while considering that [they are] still ‘progressive’ pedagogically and politically.” Freire, Pedagogy of Freedom (Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998), 20. I am struck by Freire’s attention to the emotional register of capitalist pragmatism, in his characterization of capitalist pragmatism as a kind of resignation and fatalism that undermines any progressive ideals of those who participate in the project. But what I found fascinating in this context is that fatal pragmatism is not just an issue facing educators but also students as well.
Handler, “Undergraduate Research in Veblen’s Vision.”
Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, 27.