Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Is There a New Student Philosophy?

It could be considered that universities and the students within them are often considered a hotbed of ideas. After all, the term ‘university’ appears to imply an incredible expanse, the possibility to learn and question.

The student philosophies of the past could be seen to question almost to the point beyond questioning. For example, consider existentialism. Although it cannot be celebrated as a student philosophy, as is an outlook or situation difficult to define itself, it could be seen as carried by a number of students in Britain post World War Two.

Philosophy is important as it could be considered an attempt at the feel for life. Yet what was felt post-war was a dislocation, a disillusionment of the social narratives which had been supplied for so long – like ‘victory’ and ‘glory’. Existentialism hit out at whether any of these were feelings at all?  In this way the ‘existentialism’ which became a movement in the 1940’s had a student body, it bred on the backs of those privileged in the position to actually think and celebrate ideas.

 Yet  even the position of what constituted ‘privilege’ was quick to come under question. Perhaps this can be seen as paradoxically associated with the increasingly ‘modern’ university experience – seen to be associated with freedom and lack of restraint compared to a privilege once more economically based. The 1950’s and 60’s saw the rise of increased university admission in the UK to a wider extent of the social spectrum. In turn began the search for authenticity. Tropes and stereotypes became systematised – phases seen in teddy boys, then beatniks, then hippies. Yet ‘authenticity’; is often regarded, in light of existentialism, as the prospect that one should act as oneself. In this light, life is a character in the theatre of existence (and this became known in some circles as the theatre of the absurd).  The acting as oneself, rather than assuming the way ‘one’ acts or a certain expected identity is a complicated distinction to make. Questions ascended – how could we define what was our identity and what was determined outside our autonomy? Nature and nurture debates sprung up across university settings, shaping areas of psychology and especially in regards to the young; Child language acquisition.  

Ultimately, students are put in position to potentially philosophize when  confronted with the subjectivity if life – or so I found. There was no one to tell me that my decision to leave the door unlocked was ‘wrong’. Choice highlights itself in work, and alcohol, and an endless array, it is an exhibition of our morality or that of our parents what we choose? Are we a puppet to our past or striving to picture our ideal of the present?

 It could be seen that ‘philosophies’ or particular outlooks upon life could be seen as significantly associated, perhaps even driven by students. From the lasting emissions of existentialism,  in England by the late 1950’s a kind of nihilism was often accused, though not necessarily the case. For example the Mods vs. the Rockers on Brighton beaches, the rise of violent crime, were often case studies used to allude to the assume anti-morality of the post-war ‘permissive society’.  But was this a particularly student movement or more of a case of dissociation in society? The sixties witnessed a shift to libertarianism in some cases – with students championing ‘permissive legislation’ at a university level. This included ‘Sit-ins’ at a number of universities across the country. Yet passive resistance became active insistence in what could be  considered reaching a peak in the ‘1968 summer of love’. A cultural phenomenon, an aspect to consider in philosophy itself, flourished in the form of ‘the summer of love’ – a focus on agape,  free love as encapsulated in ‘situation ethics’. This shift from the letter to the spirit of the law saw the collapse of what could be regarded as old codes; the abolition of the death penalty took place in the 1960’s, as well the legislation of abortion and homosexuality.
And codes could be seen as continuing to collapse, with significant student involvement. For example, a recent radio 4 report highlighted the growing movement of the legislation of cannabis in some states in the US, which can be seen as reflected in the egalitarian outlooks of many groups in the UK. But are these necessarily student?

As a student myself during 2014, I found it difficult to appreciate a particular course of student  philosophy. As this article highlights, students have often been associated  with movements with what at the time appear ‘philosophical’ and ‘radical’. Yet perhaps  can radicalism be seen as part of an increasingly conservative philosophy?  A kind of reverse to the progressivism once envisioned.
This was highlighted for me in a recent Guardian article:
http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/feb/15/students-smart-drugs-higher-grades-adderall-modafinil - regarding the changing use of drugs amongst the student population; for regurgitation rather than recreation. Big deal, some may think casually. But ultimately it is – now part of a bigger deal in which students attempt to extend what is ranked as ‘intelligence’ through the assertion of chemicals, performance enhancing drugs. What I feel is that student life is growing increasingly competitive, bit is this an inevitable rise of the nihilist spirit, the ‘supermen’ triumphant as envisioned by Nietzsche?

Yet the egoism developed from Nietzsche’s ideas does not necessarily seem the case for students of today, indeed, they carry their own frailties with them, open-handed. Many engage in the desperate cycle of competition, not necessarily enjoying it and knowing that they  will not ‘win’ in the desired sense.  Though rather than the an attempt to fit authenticity, would could now appear the term in case is ‘expectation’. Whether expectation from external sources, or ourselves, the factor of ‘expectation’; has seemed to engender a philosophy concerned with ascension?

For is university not about a ‘universality’ at all but attempting to maintain a universality,  not necessarily a positive identity, but getting ‘to the top’? This may consider trying to put ourselves forward in an academic or moral sense, attempting to justify the position of our minds rather than exploring them. For me, this conservatism and level of limit was highlighted in the growing number of complaints in regards to university ‘targets’. In Sheffield students were set an impossible maths exam, for example. Perhaps it is encapsulated in University Challenge where condensing knowledge and experience is sold as wit and entertainment.


Either way it is a reductionist show on a sad stage. It frightens us. And perhaps that is what has become a factor of  the student philosophy more than anything else in the 21st century  - fear.