As I was reading across some of these texts, I realized that the metaphor of the university as a factory—or as having an important relation, in one way or another, to factory production—showed up again and again. Here are three versions of that university-factory metaphor used by Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno.


Immanuel Kant, in his essays on the university compiled in 1798 under the title The Conflict of the Faculties, mentions the metaphor of the university as a factory as something suggested before by others:

Whoever it was that first hit on the notion of a university and proposed that a public institution of this kind be established, it was not a bad idea to handle the entire content of learning (really, the thinkers devoted to it) like a factory, so to speak – by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee, and all of these together would form a kind of learned community called a university (or higher school).1

For Kant, when a university is functioning properly it would look something like a factory, with a clear division of labor, each part working somewhat autonomously but functioning within the system of the whole. Considering the date of the writing, this system view of the university prefigures by just a few years similar ideas about the university put forward by German thinkers like Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Wilhelm von Humboldt in their plans for the establishment of a university in Berlin. Those plans for the Berlin university would prove to be influential in the modern Western institution of the university as the German conception would travel across the Atlantic to the United States in the mid-19th century.

Kant’s system is divided into faculties, or departments, instructing students in particular fields. He distinguishes between the “higher” faculties—law, medicine, and theology—and the “lower” faculty of philosophy. The terms are strategic in his pitch for the king to recognize the need for philosophy without censor, but in Kant’s account, as might be expected, philosophy takes on a critical significance. In fact, it serves primarily to critique the claims of the other faculties on the basis of reason. So, in the factory metaphor, philosophy serves as quality control. A well-ordered university serving up rationally regulated thought produces a rationally ordered society.

It’s interesting to me that he uses the term “community” as a synonym for a factory-style division of thought-labor. Perhaps his comments might be qualified if he were writing a few decades later when industrial factory production had taken off in fuller swing. The factory setting he refers to should perhaps be better understood as a manufacturing workshop—the system that, in Marx’s historical analysis, preceded the rise of factory production centralized in cities. In the workshop, multiple laborers ply their craft in cooperation, but craft remains skilled, still carrying something of the artisanal nature of earlier forms of production.

Though Kant helpfully attaches the concept of labor to the institution of the university, labor here (and its social division) is viewed through the lens of the ideal. University faculties are crafters of thought, and all the cooperative bodies of university labor work together systematically to produce (or at least, articulate) the stuff of public thought.


Marx, however, writing in the context of a mid-/late-19th-century analysis of capitalist political economy during the height of large-scale industrial production, views academic labor less idealistically:

Capitalist production is not merely the production of commodities, it is, by its very essence, the production of surplus-value. The worker produces not for himself, but for capital. It is no longer sufficent, therefore, for him simply to produce. He must produce surplus-value. The only worker who is productive is one who produces surplus-value for the capitalist, or in other words contributes towards the self-valorization of capital. If we may take an example from outside the sphere of material production, a schoolmaster is a productive worker when, in addition to belabouring the heads of his pupils, he works himself into the ground to enrich the owner of the school. That the latter has laid out his capital in a teaching factory, instead of a sausage factory, makes no difference to the relation. The concept of a productive worker therefore implies not merely a relation between the activity of work and its useful effect, between the worker and the product of his work, but also a specifically social relation to production, a relation with a historical origin which stamps the worker as capital’s direct means of valorization. To be a productive worker is therefore not a piece of luck, but a misfortune.2

I come back to this quote a lot, because it captures how I feel sometimes, teaching for the wages that I do and comparing that to the cost of tuition my students are paying. I even turned it into an illustrated page of a zine I made on abolition and the university.3 For grad students—well, at least for myself—this picture of “productivity” as actually a misfortune hits close to home. We measure our days and our lives in terms of how productive we were. (“How was your day?” “Not so good, I wasn’t very productive.”) Productivity as a value becomes a kind of motivating habit of thought. It’s the motivation that drives us to “work ourselves into the ground” as Marx puts it.

Marx’s iteration of the university (or, rather more generally, a school) as a “teaching factory” draws an instructive equivalence between educational institutions and other factories of production. The similarity lies in their capitalist structure: these institutions have owners who benefit from the value produced by laborers who are themselves alienated from that value.

Like Kant’s account, Marx’s highlights the division of labor in the university, but for Marx, this division has less to do with the categories of instructional content and more to do with property relations: to whom does production belong? Marx’s account does not treat education as a public good, because the capitalist structure of educational institutions precludes that. Instead, education like wool coats is a commodity produced by labor and transformed into surplus value that slides seamlessly into the pocket of the school’s capitalist owner. The university as an institution does not primarily produce social order but instead emerges from a social order and is composed along the same political-economic lines that define that social order.

Horkheimer and Adorno

Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno, writing in 1947, take the Marxist analysis of capitalist alienation in a somewhat different direction. Rather than simply reflecting the kind of exploitation that happens in factory production, universities reproduce that exploitation by lending it philosophical legitimacy:

The exclusivity of logical laws stems from this obdurate adherence to function and ultimately from the compulsive character of self-preservation. The latter is constantly magnified into the choice between survival and doom, a choice which is reflected even in the principle that, of two contradictory propositions, only one can be true and the other false. The formalism of this principle and the entire logic established around it stem from the opacity and entanglement of interests in a society in which the maintenance of forms and the preservation of individuals only fortuitously coincide. The expulsion of thought from logic ratifies in the lecture hall the reification of human beings in factory and office. In this way the taboo encroaches on the power imposing it, enlightenment on mind, which it itself is.4

The passage here is dense, as all the passages are in Dialectic of Enlightenment, but the key idea for this discussion is the part that forms of thought in the university play in the broader exploitative condition of capitalism. “Reification” here refers, basically, to the way that capitalism turns people into things (from the Latin res, for “thing”). Marx got the ball rolling by analyzing the transformation of labor into a commodity that could be sold on the market. Horkheimer and Adorno push this further in their analysis of mid-20th-century consumer culture, where society is overwhelmed by the allure and enjoyment of commodities. The unique individual is lost, depersonalized, in such a society, because all interests and culture are administered from top to bottom by capitalism’s desired order for society. This is bad for the people who get taken in the reductive wash of the culture industry’s products, but it is arguably worse for those made to produce the material goods out of which that culture is composed.

For Horkheimer and Adorno, the concept of “enlightenment” governs the ways of thinking that reproduce such an alienating society. Enlightment, as a form of logic, describes the categorical logic of Kant’s philosophy as well as the positivist instrumentalism of the STEM fields, which produce knowledge in such a way to be easily appropriated by capitalism. Enlightenment philosophy turns thought into technology aimed at dominating the world, making the world a productive resource for the capitalists and transforming people into capitalist subjects irremediably distanced (alienated, estranged) from the world of things. Everything becomes abstract so that everything can be made equivalent and exploitable.

In a way, we’re back around to Kant’s picture of the university. Again, the university produces forms of thought that in turn serve to reinforce the order of society. But this account, then, suffers the same problem as Kants: it is so interested in the content of university instruction that it makes thought seem special, sacred, distinct from the mundane forms of exploited labor that take place under capitalism. The lecture hall becomes a courtroom or a congress, ratifying the conditions of society.

Maybe this gets a part of the picture right. The university does make sure knowledge is produced in such a way that can be useful to capitalism. This is why so many universities have close ties to private industry, the police, and the military—key institutions that exist to serve and protect capitalist property relations. But I’m less convinced (despite the angst of conservative talking-heads, crying about Critical Race Theory, or postmodernism, or whatever the flavor-of-the-month boogeyman is) that the university produces the ideology that the world then follows. It seems to me that the modern university has always existed to help reproduce society according to the interests of those in charge. Anything else that happens in the process of teaching and scholarly production—anything that is not directly recuperable by capitalism—happens as unintended excess.

  1. Kant, Immanuel. “The Conflict of the Faculties.” Religion and Rational Theology, edited by George Di Giovanni and Allen W. Wood, translated by Mary J Gregor and Robert Anchor, Cambridge UP, 2005, pp. 247. 

  2. Marx, Karl. Capital: A Critique of Political Economy, Volume I. Penguin Books, 1976, p. 644. 

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  4. Horkheimer, Max, and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, Translated by Edmund Jephcott, Stanford University Press, 2002, p. 23.