College is a place for learning. It’s a place for learning about chemistry, economics, art history, etc., but most of all it’s about learning how to find yourself. Right? That’s why so many people refer to college as the best years of their lives. And why is this? Because they were out of their parents’ homes? Sure. Because they were constantly around their friends? Why not. But because they were free individuals? Not quite.
Vanderbilt University is no exception when it comes to the subtle integration of discipline into college life, and it is certainly not exempt from its status as an Ideological State Apparatus. The feeling of freedom exists certainly. But is it warranted? Let us think first of the purpose of Vanderbilt and other universities. They exist, in theory, to serve as education institutions that seek to facilitate and encourage the growth of the minds of their student bodies, while simultaneously preparing their attendants for life in the workforce with respect to whatever career they may eventually come to choose. Right here, even at a concept so basic, we see that the implications of such an institution existing point to some deeper forces at work. Not necessarily sinister forces, mind you, but forces that may not be initially apparent in the mission statement. Like any school or university, Vanderbilt is what Althusser would call an Ideological State Apparatus. Students are educated here not only in the academic disciplines, but also in the practices and protocols of the ideology of the state, i.e. the USA, a capitalist republic. Education is sought to an end: employment, which is essential for proper function within a capitalist society. Students are also expected to behave in a manner fitting to budding productive capitalists, and allowed to take majors that teach western economic theory and give lessons in history according to the side of democracy. Aside from all this, the culture of the university is overwhelmingly capitalist; the atmosphere found at Vanderbilt is no doubt different from that of Moscow State University before 1991, what with “Vandy’s” traditional upper-middle class attire and frequent partying. The Vanderbilt experience is certainly academic, but the display of culture, whether deliberately chosen by the powers that be or not, says a lot about the nature of the University as a capitalist institution.
Then we come to the subject of how the university is kept from disorder. Any community this large must have some guidelines and rules in place to keep it from falling to total chaos. There a few notable examples of this: the honor code, residential advisors, and, of course, VUPD. The honor code is a rather obvious example of the Panoptic systems described by Foucalt; power that is visible but unverifiable. Every student signs the honor code as a freshman. Subsequently, every student is made aware of the penalties put in place should this code be broken. The entire premise of the code is made apparent in the name: honor. A somewhat vague term nowadays, but nevertheless, provocative. Nobody wants to be called dishonorable, and more importantly, nobody wants to suffer the consequences associated with these dishonorable activities. Thus, while in most cases, violations of the honor code could usually pass by undiscovered, so many students adhere to it. The factor of risk is always present. Each student knows that there exists a possibility that a member of the faculty, or even according to the honor code itself, another student could at any point during their violation discover them and turn them in for punishment. One cannot guarantee this discovery in most rational cases, but the fear is still there. Of course, in addition to this fear of an imperceptible observer, students themselves are used by the system so that set observers are not even necessary: the student begins to observe himself. This is the concept of honor. The punishments dictated by professors and other faculty are supplemented by the punishment that the cheater gives himself (in at least some cases). I am referring, of course, to guilt. Now, there are more obvious structures in place as well, and I made reference to both the RA staff and VUPD earlier. These two are fairly similar. In line with the panoptic systems that Foucalt argues are the foundation for western society and the root of the west’s economic success, enforcement staff on Vanderbilt’s campus serve to similar ends. It is an accepted deduction that drunkeness and otherwise risky or dangerous activities decrease the productivity of students. Punishments for these situations are communicated to everyone. Students know that they are watched and accountable for their actions. Nobody knows when a party will be busted or when some “late-night nausea” can be reported by an RA. Now this system is not perfect, as many still go about as if they were invincible, but the concept remains the same.
Ultimately, once could see Vanderbilt as both an instrument to the larger American soceity, and a society in and of itself. It functions not only as an institution for training the capitalists of tomorrow, but also a disciplinary society in line with Foucalt’s explanations of panopticism and efficiency.