Keywords for the Age of Austerity 26: bootcamp

In the genre of “free college” rebuttals I discussed last week, the Clayton Christensen Institute education policy  director, Julia Freeland, has written one of the most execrable. Ridden with entrepreneurial jargon and redolent of a self-serving profiteering approach to education, her CNN op-ed described universities as a “broken business model.” This is in keeping with the Christensen Institute’s general philosophy of honoring its namesake by evaluating every institution as if it was a for-profit corporation like the ones in Christensen’s book, The Innovator’s Dilemma. We should all have a business model as lucrative as the think-tank industry’s.

Free-college critics are motivated by an elitist view of higher education, in which tuition is a gatekeeper as much as a revenue stream. So one of Freeland’s “solutions” to the problem of high college costs is to shift more low-income students out of college altogether and into things like “college bootcamps.” (As I wrote earlier, Hillary Clinton is a fan of something similar, the for-profit coding academies that are sometimes known as “coding bootcamps.”) These “bootcamps,” Freeland writes, aren’t just trade schools: they’re  “experiences,” whatever that means, which cost somewhere “between $5,000 and $15,000, and show extremely promising post-completion employment rates,” although she doesn’t specify where or in what fields.

It struck me as a fitting use of the term, in a way. Where Vietnam-era college deferments once bought middle- and upper-class students out of the draft and out of bootcamp, now a new generation of working-class 18 year olds can aspire to metaphorical “bootcamps,” which may keep them out of the military version (at least for now) but also still keeps them out of college.

The word’s origins lie in the de-individualization that military bootcamp is meant to instill, as raw recruits are acculturated to the service and the unit. According to the OED, WWII-era Marines were known as “boots,” a metonymic reduction of the soldier to his equipment that we still routinely hear when hawkish politicians call for “boots on the ground.” The place where a man or a woman became a “boot” became known as “bootcamp.”

The metaphorical use of “bootcamps” to mean any kind of intensive training became popular in the 1990s, which a quick survey of the Google ngram data will show. The word first comes into use before the second world war, picks up during the conflict, and enters wide usage after Vietnam.

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It really takes off in the 1990s, by which time many uses were metaphorical, rather than actual accounts of military training. It’s hard to say definitively, but I read this as a consequence of the militarization of society at large, and the remoteness of military combat abroad, in the last few decades. The military is ever-present, but since the 1990s, it has become such a regular, banal media fixture that it was easy to associate the distant carnage we saw on video-game smart bomb footage from the “boots” training to unleash it and to suffer it. Now, 15 years into the “War on Terror,” you will find that most journalistic uses of the term now have nothing at all to do with the military. So as the home front becomes militarized, the ubiquitous warfront becomes invisible: “bootcamps” for all at home, and endless war for the “boots” abroad.


People who have never been in the military, like me, probably still associate military boot camp with traumatic movie versions like the one in Full Metal Jacket–making its civilian popularity outside of the prison system especially bizarre. There is perhaps more to be said in another post about what it means to invite Gunnery Sergeant Hartman and his regime of discipline and self-abnegation into every sphere of life, from exercise and marriage to job training and, as we’ve seen, higher education.

But for now, here is a brief and provisional list of the bootcamps that will not prepare you to wage war in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Baltimore:

Yoga on the Rocks, a Total Body Bootcamp

Nutrition Bootcamp

Fitness Bootcamp

Bikini Bootcamp

Shutter Creek Correctional Institution, a prison bootcamp

Motherhood, both childbirth and just in general

Librarian Bootcamp

BootCamp, which installs Windows on your Mac

Cowgirl Bootcamp

Bridal Bootcamp’s Bootcamp for Lawyers

Competitive video gaming

Coding bootcamp

Applying for college

and, of course, “college bootcamp” for those discouraged from applying to college.





What do you mean, “free” college?

When I was in college at a midwestern university famous for its right-wing economists, the coffee shop in my dorm was called T.A.N.S.T.A.F.L., which stood for “There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.” It was a quotation from Milton Friedman, who I suppose used it to mean that someone–the owners of capital–are the ones paying for what workers, mothers of dependent children, Chilean miners, or whomever are merely taking, as if it were “free.”

Of course, there isn’t any such thing as a free lunch, but it’s not because someone else is paying for it. It’s because someone is working for it. But that’s not what Friedman meant, and it’s not what critics of tuition-free college mean when they dismiss “free college” as a pipe dream. The derisive use of “free” in the TANSTAFL libertarian sense has experienced a revival, especially around the issue of tuition-free, publicly-funded higher education, or to its critics, “free college.”

As in the case of the Friedman aphorism, “free college” is often invoked with an air of world-weary condescension, as if the adult speaker is patiently explaining to someone else’s child why, although they really, really wish he could, he simply cannot have a pony.

Sara Goldrick-Rab shared this excellent example on Twitter.

To which she replied:

Her comment points out the arbitrariness of Sandy Baum’s insistence that publicly-funded college is among all public services singularly impossible and unthinkable. It also points out the non-sequitur of the whole argument–no one ever said “free” high school or playgrounds were free, either. My sense is that this kind of dismissal is often a combination of class prejudice, politics, and narrow-mindedness. It comes out of a conviction that college should remain an elite preserve, with a sticker price to ensure it, plus an obliviousness to the normalcy, within recent memory, of tuition-free (or nearly so) college in the United States, to say nothing of the rest of the world.

Most critics of Bernie Sanders’ tuition-free public college program were also just opportunistic political supporters of his rival in the Democratic primaries; there’s no need to review the terrible arguments that subsidized SUNY tuition would be a giveaway to Tiffany Trump. (She should have to buy a ticket to Central Park, though.)

Here is another example, a paywalled article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that explains “How Clinton’s ‘Free College’ Could Cause a Cascade of Problems” (a veritable cascade! I bet you haven’t even thought about all the problems.) Reason is, of course, opposed to it, arguing in the face of common sense and all evidence that “government subsidies have hidden the price of college and broken the market forces that would naturally keep tuition costs down.”

An op-ed writer in the Delaware News-Journal does a point-by-point debunking of what he calls the “myths of free college,” tipping his hand by quoting such scholars as William Bennett and Kevin Carey without ever addressing the core issues that the Sanders campaign first raised–federal and private profiteering on student loan debt and the decline of federal and state aid for education.

“Free college” is a moralistic ruse, in other words, used to smuggle in a market logic where it has no place without addressing the core question of exploitative, exorbitant college costs. It treats education like anything else you’d buy in a store, and scolds those who feel otherwise by pretending they want to get something without working for it. There ain’t so such thing as a free lunch, of course: students and the public have amply paid for it already. They’re just not eating.

Luckily, most Americans seem to understand this: a recent survey shows that two-thirds (and one-third of registered Republicans) think “tuition at public colleges and universities should be free for anyone who wants to attend.”