Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Interview with Creston Davis, the founder and director of the Global Center for Advanced Studies (GCAS) and GCAS College.
The mission of GCAS is “to provide the highest quality education and research opportunities in the world, debt-free.”
Thank you so much for finding time to talk. To begin with, could you tell us how and why did this project got started?
Creston Davis: The project itself was originally conceived back in 2002 when I was speaking with my friend Slavoj Zizek, who was also one of my PhD advisors. We were discussing the Frankfurt School and why it is that there is no real alternative to the mainstream traditional education model today like the Frankfurt School. This line of thought was developed further just in off the cuff conversations with friends of mine, who were also professors at different universities. It’s like a fantasy dream for professors to talk about how great it would be if you could create your own institution so you don’t have to deal with administrators who are constantly trying to control thinking through management tactics. In the fantasy of mine, the idea kept developing over time. Then I graduated with my Ph.D., took a tenure track job and was promoted to associate professor at Rollins College in Florida. During this time, I was in touch with different people who also had a similar vision and then eventually I just pulled the trigger took out my retirement money in 2013 and on the basis of those funds, created the "Global Center for Advanced Studies.” The idea itself certainly attracted a lot of attention from over 100 academics, writers and artists who supported the project. That's at least how the concept developed genealogically, but it also developed in terms of just trying to figure out a different and better way to deliver high quality education: why is it that we can't think of a better alternative for students (who are going into massive debt) and for faculty who spend most of their time not researching and informing the public about their findings, but in dealing with out-of-control management. And, of course this “management” is another way to say, an attack on academic freedom. So, we created the Global Center for Advanced Studies. Our tuition fee is very modest (just enough to cover honorarium and operations, and many of our events are free to the public. We have not accepted grant money from the government or any external foundations, because anytime you accept money from external sources, they are, most of the times, essentially saying "we want to dictate the terms", so we rejected those in the name of academic freedom.
How is GCAS different from other colleges and universities?
C.D: Our model is very rhizomatic, taking after the Deleuzian philosophical structure of both central and decentralized organizational logic. We do have centralization of minimum requirements like united strategic plans, on how we implement certain seminars and so on tactically. Then there are decentralized nodes located around the world: Sydney, Santa Barbara, Santiago, New York City, France (where we have a farm), Dublin and soon China and Vienna. It’s these nodes where our communities independently control educational production with certain agreed upon quality standards. At the same time, education is delivered is both virtual (online) and actual in person.
So, you can see the paradigm, and we created a really robust and very resilient ecosystem that is not just about education, but most importantly it's about a way of life. We really believe that, when given the right conditions, the human mind can create new worlds, worlds which are unimaginable but significant in today’s neoliberal context. In this manner we do not have to blindly accept the world of debt and centralization of financial powers. We can create alternatives by using our minds and abilities to work together, run our economic ecosystem (on crypto and co-ownership), It is an extraordinary experience to be part of. But of course you always have your critics both conservative and progressive. For the conservative, it’s a natural and not surprising critique: “The world is run by ensuring those who have grow their wealth while forcing those who don’t have to have even less.” For the progressive, their critique came to me as a surprise and goes something like, “GCAS is a utopian project and it’ll never work.” It’s true we did struggle as all new ventures do at first, especially by people who just wanted to boost their egos, but our model is working and growing by 40% each academic year. The hypocrisy of some of these “progressives” is astounding to say the least.
In addition, we are fundamentally different from other colleges and universities simply in terms of the economic model. In a normal university, you go into a huge debt and then they give you a diploma and kick you out of the door and start asking you for funds a year or so later. We, instead of just giving a diploma and saying "see you later. Good luck in life", we give you ownership value along with a diploma. Graduates, together with the faculty, become the owners of the economic mode of production itself. So, we ourselves are monetizing our own resources, financial and otherwise, without external influence.
Another way we are different than a traditional university is that our cost structure is fair, to begin with. You can have a part-time job working in a cafe or cooking or whatever you end up doing and you can still be a student of ours, and most importantly pay reasonably. When you graduate, your money is invested in shares and as we grow in value those shares grow as well. Throughout your life, should we continue to grow so the students’ then owners’ investment grows to the point that in 30 years your tuition funds are returned to you with added value. That’s the model. In other words you could potentially retire on the tuition investment. There is no guarantee of that, but that's the idea.
The academy often turns graduate students into clones. Not always, but the Matrix and the environment forces cloning of one's own thinking into the thinking of one's advisor just by virtue of the power dynamic that’s built into the relationship. With us, it is different you can and you are encouraged to disagree with your advisor in the same space and within the frame of respect, of course. That is what we support not conformity, but creativity and respect.
How have you managed to survive and grow each year with such low costs and at the same time no material support from any interest groups?
We have existed for almost 6 years now and of course, have gone through tough times in terms of our funding. It was very hard for us to keep the integrity of our ecosystem at first but now we've figured out different ways to reproduce ourselves: one way is the cryptocurrency, and the second way is a collaborative ownership model. We use that money to deliver high-quality education. When they graduate, the amount of money they spent trough tuition is converted into ownership shares with us, so if they graduate with the Ph.D., they are not only graduates but also co-owners. They can also teach if we have the need, or they can develop their own centers and we will provide resources for that. The third way is simply through donors: people can become members of what we are doing. They can become patrons. You see what we do. You see how we do it. We are happy to be transparent about every aspect of our work and if people like it, then they contribute. There are a lot of people who give small amounts of money but when you add those up, it helps. In short, it is sustainable. In fact, it is more than just sustainable: we are actually growing at about 40 percent rate per nine months. That is how we are scaling.
What is your idea of education in general and within the context of GCAS in particular?
My idea of education is that it is an infinite endeavor and it’s liberating (from fake news, from the continual cycle of made-up dramas the media manufacture and so on). If you understand education in terms of infinite creation and actualization, then it doesn't have a terminal point. A diploma shows that you've passed certain conditions and that you qualify to receive certification. However, in actuality, education is a process of concept creations. Once you create a concept, another concept emerges and then you trace it out, you search for it, you understand it and then you create different analytical and symbolic structures to organize it and then suddenly something appears! Like the image of the black hole that we saw recently. Once it appears, it does not end there, on the contrary, it's rhizomatic.
The institutions, at least most of them, try to enclose knowledge. In some sense, that's an act of passivity. What we are trying to do in GCAS is that we don't just talk about concepts and ideas. We are the creators. For us, education is not a question of organizing knowledge, we are the ones that are in the very process of knowledge creation. We become gods of knowledge if you will.
You often compare the way GCAS looks at education to how it was viewed during the Enlightenment. Specifically, that education was about emancipation, about sharing big ideas that would allow people to think outside of and change the established ideology instead of reproducing it. In the 19th century, during the industrialization, education was understood as a necessary precondition for democracy. How does that contrast with the dominant understanding of education since the ‘80s global neo-liberalization of education, and why do you believe that old ideas are important today?
It is a great question. If you have ever seen the movie "Shutter Island" with Leonardo DiCaprio, directed by Martin Scorsese, you understand that the plot is interestingly parallel to education since the ‘80s, and here is why: Leonardo DiCaprio is an investigator. He goes to Shutter Island off in Boston Harbor because he must investigate the disappearance of the inmate. Basically, he wants to find out what the hell happened. During that process of investigating, the character played by Leonardo DiCaprio is swallowed by the asylum called Shutter Island and the very insanity of the island itself. In a similar way, if I can use a rather crass and brutal parallel or analogy, what you end up having in the 80s is a dramatic shift, which, in the beginning, linguistically sounded like a nice narrative that's a good way to shift education, but what happened is that the shift, although it sounded benign and easy going, actually turned out to be a trap.
Here is what I mean more concretely: in the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan came out and announced that education was not so much a social good, but an individual investment in oneself. The idea here is that each individual person is like a corporation, and corporations must invest in themselves to become more profitable. Education is one such investments. In the ‘70s it was pretty inexpensive to go to college or university you could basically work a summer job and pay off your tuitions. Nowadays, education is actually higher in inflation rate than any other sector of the economy. Because of this shift, Reagan defunded universities from public taxes; as a result, universities themselves had to find a way to keep the money coming in. So how did they do that? They shifted the burden onto the individual student, but the individual student couldn't pay all the tuition costs because for most of them it was too expensive, and as a result, you have a scheme: students who can't afford tuition, but must get education to climb the social ladder, have to go into debt. This is systematic and designed this way and thus turns education (which should be about advancing society into a money making machine for the few at the expense of the many). The government's there to help guarantee the debt. Who else is there? The banks are there too. Instead of education being a social good, it became an individual investment in oneself that one has to go into debt for.
The problem with this is manifold. Once you go into debt for education, you need a job to pay off that debt. Instead of a person creating your own life for yourself via a business start-up or traveling, you must now fold to the labor resources that the world offers you and are forced like a sheep in a slaughterhouse into the corporate world that only has jobs for you instead of you going and doing your own thing.
As a philosopher, writer or artist you have to fold because you have a debt to pay back and it is disciplining the economic substructure. That ultimately puts the kibosh on thinking. It's like Shutter Island: you go there thinking I'm going to get educated, I'm going to think up new ways of doing democracy or new innovations that are going to liberate the human spirit but instead you're now thinking of education as "I need a job because I have to pay off the debt now ". This completely undercuts and undermines the ability for us to think creatively with risk and courage. This system also compromises academic freedom and innovations.
It is the systematic, structural and ideological state apparatus, which is designed to benefit the very few who have power. However, most of the people do not. This is neoliberalism: the privatization of power and creating your own corporate entity that now you must fight with other entities at a low level. You are going to fight and undermine the very means of getting out of the problem itself.
GCAS is an alternative, where we are collaborating with each other as opposed to fighting each other and investing in our own individual selves. We invest in each other. In doing this you create the modality through which concepts can be created without the pressure of debt. That in-itself is a form of liberation.
GCAS focuses mostly on philosophy and arts these are the subjects, which are the hardest to study within the existing system. These are the subjects where students are supposed to become most creative, but those modalities are targeted, because what use is a philosophy degree to the "real world"? Well, we say, “screw” your so called “real world”, we are going to create our own world! We don't need to capitulate to this reductionist banality of how the reality or the world is being defined in terms of the extremely few at the expense of all of us. At the same time, of course, it's not like we live in a fantasy world, because GCAS isn't a fantasy, it's an actual, existing community. We’re creating linguistic alternative narratives and styles that start to challenge the concepts of what education should look like.
I think the first thing that pops up when you go through GCAS is that you have not only the worldclass faculty but probably the biggest names in the academia. How hard was it to gather everybody under one organization in the beginning, and how was that even possible?
Part of it has to do with networks: one of the great values of life is the quality of people and the social groups within which you are being understood as a subject, to use the Lacanian term. The network is extraordinarily important. Perhaps most important. The network that I was able to be involved in, by creating various book series at Duke University Press and The Columbia University Press, helped me. In addition, my own research connected me with interesting people from early on. Then it is just a question of developing the network and figuring out a way in which you have a central goals and if a goal is attractive to people, then that further enhances the network which of course helps the cause.
As you know, today psychoanalysis is discredited as pseudoscience. Another thing that strikes me about GCAS is that you have a specific Master’s Degree program in psychoanalysis. Could you talk about why you decided to introduce this subject, which I think is very important and valuable, and why specifically in relation to philosophy?
Let's face it: when it really comes down to humanity and everyday life, there's so much about how we see and interact with the world that is deeply imbued in notions of desire, notions of the unconscious, death drive, etc. These basic thematics are fundamental to our human endeavor. As a result, it is very important that we put it at the heart of our curriculum. A rigorous study on notions of desire and what motivates us, why we, for example, enjoy the very thing that destroys us?! To try to figure that out is essential. Not necessarily to alleviate ourselves from certain conditions but maybe also to understand them. Through that practice of psychoanalysis, we can emerge in different modalities of existence beyond the standard versions of desire, perversion, neurosis, and anxiety. To me, this is fundamental to our humanity.
There are different schools of psychoanalysis, as you are aware. The more schools, the better, because there are many different angles: Freudian, Kleinian, Lacanian, etc. Some might not work at the end of the day. We might come to a time where we discover an entirely new science, like Freud when he developed the concept of the unconscious, which was unimaginable before him. It's not unrelated to the 19th century you had this kind of attack on transcendence, the attack on certain institutional formations of Christianity and the big other in terms of the sovereign God. Once you can start to remove that notion of transcendence from Hegel to Schopenhauer to Freud, then suddenly new ways of imagining, concepts that are fundamental or deeply explanatory, like the unconscious, emerge. But of course you can’t get rid of transcendence.
If I could do nothing else in my life, but to set up an environment within which new fundamental powerful concepts can emerge, then I've live a life worthy of life, then my life is successful, not in any objective measure, but it's definitely worth living.
Is life worth living to get a million dollars in a savings account and to drive a fancy car? Or is it just hiding behind structures of materialism, and in a way avoiding the very Life force?! So, for me, give me a raw hard struggle, the depressing side of life, because in that mill, if you're seeking and searching for a life force that's hidden from us and is discoverable, that is creative, that you can create, then what more power do you need? That is a crazy level of joy and there are no words yet invented that can describe it. You'll have to follow it. It's like a dream. You just follow and you have no idea where it's going to get you.
The last question I want to ask is something probably the students who are already considering applying for one of the degrees would be interested in: how close are you to getting the accreditation?
We're in the process of accreditation. We have all the documents and all the governance. Everything is in place. We think that we fulfill the requirements. We have an external objective evaluator who does this for a living. He also feels as though we are prepared and ready, so we are going through that process. My inclination is that we are so unusual that the technocrats that are doing accreditation stuff just don't understand the concept: like, why aren't you putting students into debt? They're looking at something they've never seen before and they don't know how to register it, how to name it, how to categorize it. But still, we certainly meet all the standards and now the accreditation is just a question of time. On the other hand, with the emergence of blockchain technologies, my guess is there will come a day within the next decade whereby accreditation through a centralized bureaucratic institution will collapse.