I’m up for promotion here this year. It’s not as fraught or difficult a moment at Swarthmore as it is at many R-1 universities, as we don’t receive a pay raise or really any specific reward at all save the title of full professor. Still, it’s an occasion for reflection. I’m not happy about some aspects of my career to date. I think I could have been more aggressive about pushing some of my published writing out the door in the last five years. After 2001, fatherhood and the death of my own father kind of snuck up on me psychologically, I think. I’ve not always been good about getting people things when they need them: I am genuinely easily distracted. But I’ve also done a lot of things that make me happy, in a lot of different areas.
I’ve been thinking especially about my blog writing, which I’ve decided to describe to my colleagues under the heading of “service”, for the most part. Which begs the question, why have I been doing this for five years? (My first entry at the old version of my blog was November 25, 2002.)
Maybe the most important part of what I’m doing is trying to understand how American (and global) society relate to institutions of higher education, and to carry on two parallel conversations about those perspectives. One with other academics, and one, however indirectly, with wider publics beyond the academy.
I remember reading a statement by the journalist Ray Suarez about the culture wars of the 1980s. Paraphrasing, what Suarez said was that he remembered watching academics get repeatedly attacked in those debates and either maintaining a dangerously Olympian distance from the public fray or getting their asses kicked because of rhetorical and political ineptitude when they did try to engage their critics. Suarez argued that the next time he’d advise academics to get involved early and to be smarter about their involvement.
I think Suarez is right. I think all that is valuable and productive about higher education (perhaps education in general) is now very much at stake politically in a way that it has not been in Western society since the mid-19th Century. That concerns me in terms of narrow self-interest but also because I really do believe in both the down-to-earth and abstract value of higher education. I blog because I want to understand how we’re seen, to hone my own ability to enter a wider public conversation, and to think about what it is that scholars and educators need to do to reform their own practices. I want to understand where we are at fault, where public critics of academia may be mistaken or malicious in their views, and where we’re entangled in some much more complex social matrix that isn’t easily encompassed by debates within the public sphere.
So when and where there is public anger in the United States at academia, where is it coming from? It’s important to note at the start that a lot of people aren’t angry at higher education. By some measures, higher education in the United States is more successful, more productive, and more valued than ever before. To some extent, the rhetoric of “crisis” is fundamentally misplaced. American higher education is the envy of the world, and not merely because of the resources we lavish upon it. It is also organized in a way that many admire, but that many more centralized national administrations hesitate to imitate for ideological reasons. I often have a hard time getting past the strange irony of seemingly “conservative” critics in the United States demanding a far more extensive role for centralized governmental administration and control over universities. You only have to look across the Atlantic to see the negative consequences of strong centralization in higher education.
That said, a lot of Americans really are angry or dismissive towards academic institutions and towards academic professionals. Some are that way all the time, some are only that way in response to particular incidents. Some are passionately angry, others are ironically bemused by what they see in academia. I take these feelings and arguments very seriously. Despite Suarez’ advice, I don’t think a lot of my peers do.
So why is there this structure of feeling in early 21st Century America?
1) Episodic reactions to specific public controversies involving academia. One reason I’m thinking about this whole topic this week is a discussion of K.C. Johnson’s long-running criticism of Duke University, specifically the “Group of 88” who signed a letter that presumed the criminal guilt of the accused lacrosse players. I have a lot of criticisms of what Johnson’s been writing and what some of his commentators have been saying in response, but at least some of the anger that both Johnson and his commentators show is a legitimately righteous response to a serious procedural and ethical mistake on the part of the faculty signatories, including to their collective unwillingness to simply say, “Sorry, we made a mistake”. The players, their families, their friends, their supporters in the community and anyone who cares about fairness and due process all have reason to be angry. Nor is Johnson wrong when he suggests that there are some deeper currents at stake here, such as the institutional vogue for dubious instruments like speech codes that swept through many universities and colleges in the 1980s and 1990s.
The key point here is that there are pockets of anger at higher education that are a direct response to consequential errors of judgement by academics in which those academics seem to have violated some important principle embedded in their own profession. If a faculty member embezzles, well, that happens in a lot of social and economic institutions in America. It’s bad, but it’s fairly isolated to the individual. If faculty violate a responsibility towards their students or some important trust that’s distinctive to education, that reverberates beyond the act itself.
2) Specific negative personal experiences with higher education (where the university or faculty are at fault). If you’re around higher education enough, you’re going to see an individual faculty member commit some kind of fairly serious malpractice towards an individual student. Not just the obvious like rape or harassment, but also just intellectual and interpersonal abuse. Using students as a pool of cheap labor, bullying a student into reproducing an academic’s own ideas, manipulating students into buttressing the fragile ego of a professor. Entire departments can commit other forms of malpractice that are similar. Entire institutions sometimes exploit their students: they bait-and-switch them, they construct curricular requirements and then throttle the supply of courses so that students have to take ten years to graduate, they promise and do not deliver.
A lot of students graduate with specific, legitimate reasons to feel bitter about their experience. Some public anger at the academy isn’t much different from an X-Box owner who has had the device fail on them for the fourth time. Some of this personal disappointment is more abstract: students who had one image of higher education only to find the reality something different. The responsibility for that is a bit more complicated, but we should bear some of it. My father wasn’t bitter about his experiences as an undergraduate and a law student, but he was pervasively skeptical about a lot of the teaching he saw. He used to tell stories that have had a lot of influence on me as a professional, about the difference between the few great teachers he had and the bulk of narrow-minded, orthodoxy-demanding teachers he endured. I don’t think that problem is a product of recent political or disciplinary shifts in academic life: it is a long-term struggle in our profession.
3) A general personal belief system opposed to academia. There are people with perfectly valid (for them, at least) personal philosophical views about pedagogy, knowledge and so on that are incompatible with the way that universities are organized. This runs the gamut from countercultural neo-hippies to the attitudinal descendents of Henry Ford. Spiritual questers, hard-nosed believers in the value of real-world experience, Animal House-style hedonist-skeptics, autodidacts, aren’t going to find much in most universities that’s satisfying, except maybe the company of other young people. In the 1920s or even the 1960s, no big deal. But today, with the university standing like a colossus atop almost all forms of social aspiration, a lot of people who might be better off chasing their own muse get corralled inside higher education. I don’t know that this is our fault, exactly, and I’m not sure that we could or should want to widen the tent to bring all those styles of learning and knowing inside. But I readily understand the resentment of someone who wants to be valued for what they’ve done and what they think, or for their raw potential, but finds that most institutions just want to know whether they have a B.A. or not.
4) Specific social antagonism #1 (academia in specific). It’s not exactly news that intellectuals who want to talk about class or social categories in general have a hard time applying that framework to their own lives. If they do, it often devolves into a particularly annoying contradiction that Bruce Robbins laid out very well in his book Secular Vocations. The academic intellectual who tries to address his own class or social position either ends up complimenting himself with a kind of backhanded Gramscianism, “Oh, we’re really minor players in existing class tensions and besides we’re helping a teeny-tiny bit to build counter-hegemony”) or by saying “Oh woe is me, we are still part of the ruling class, and must self-flagellate more aggressively until we commit a kind of class suicide and vanish into the laboring classes”). Less ideologically, you may get something a bit like the fiction of David Lodge or Jane Smiley, a rueful awareness of the cultural gap between life among the academics and life elsewhere.
But there are some real social issues to consider, especially in smaller communities where a college or university is a major employer. Academics aren’t a social class unto themselves, but within the broader professional class of American society, they have some pretty distinctive cultural and social markers. (When you’re going to a large academic conference and you get off a plane, can you spot all the professors and grad students on the hotel shuttle? I sure can.) There’s a political economy which I do not think should lead us to self-flagellate or apologize, but it’s real. We’re not nearly as well-paid as most other professionals, but tenure-track faculty have embedded compensations which almost no one, professional or otherwise, has in this economy. Job security is almost the least of it: the ability to work without direct supervision from a boss might be even more valuable. And faculty within their institutions are accustomed to at least think they are in control of the institution, and perhaps they should be. It’s not wrong for faculty to think that their work is at the center of higher education, that without them, the whole thing would be pointless. But these basic structural facts alone also tend to isolate academics even from other workers in their own institutions, and have a spill-over into the wider communities that they live within. Add to that some of the peculiar flourishes of scholarly and intellectual cultural life, and you have a reason for a structural antagonism between academic professionals and the wider society. I don’t think there’s much to be done about it except to know it is there, to soften its edges, and to be humble about its manifestations.
5) Specific social antagonism #2 (political economy of professionals). Academics are part of a larger professional class in American life, and some of the antagonism we see comes from that larger context. In some conversations and conflicts, academics may simply be the random target of popular anger that could just as easily settle on doctors, lawyers, psychologists, bureaucrats or other professionals. The professional elite sometimes angers people who’ve made their money through business, the “hard way”, both because other elites are dependent upon professionals for their services and because professionals are seen as cultural brokers who define the nature of success in American life. For lower middle-class and working-class Americans, professionals are sometimes targets almost for the same reasons: they don’t seem to have made their money “honestly”, and yet, are often seen as more directly taking money from people less privileged because they need professional services. Academics may be the “softest” target among all professionals because their services are less obviously necessary than medicine or law. On the other hand, because our services are tied to aspiration and to positively-felt cultural values, we may also be better regarded than lawyers or other “negative” professionals.
6) Specific social antagonism #3 (political economy of expertise/technocracy). This is closely tied to the social status of professionals, but it’s a bit wider. So many of our civic, political and cultural institutions are now dependent in complex ways upon the authority of expertise, often in ways that don’t seem particularly beneficial, and this is a pervasive reason for popular antagonism to expertise as a whole. I think this crops up in phenomena as widely dispersed as creationism, dietary choices, Wikipedia, and so on. There is a generalized tendency to regard expertise as a dubious value and to see experts as snake-oil salesmen, often with good reason. People who sell expertise and set up roadblocks requiring experts are expansively distributed through the political economy, and most of them aren’t academics. But academics are a lightning rod for popular frustration with expertise: we’re the most concentrated and visible institution dedicated to the production and circulation of expertise even when our institutions may actually be antagonistic to the more snake-oil kinds of expertise in the wider society (policy wonkery, pseudo-science, consultancies, and so on).
7) General social antagonism (blue state/red state, winner/loser). Academics are a soft target in the context of pervasive, unspecific kinds of cultural discourse about blue state/red state divisions in contemporary American life. And in an economy where the middle-class as a whole is losing ground, academics sometimes appear to resemble the professionals and business elite as a group that is at least holding their position. If you look at academia as a whole, rather than a handful of elite institutions, I don’t think that’s really true–the adjunctification of academic life is an indication that the slow erosion of middle-class position as a whole is affecting many academics as well. But when these very general discourses about social and cultural division are in play in our national life, academics are generally going to be visible targets on one side of the divide.
Philosophical and cultural views
8). The devaluation of higher education. This is so hard to summarize. It’s probably what I blog about most often at Easily Distracted, in various ways. I think that compared to the period between about 1920 and 1980, American society is simply less inclined to see scholarly and academic institutions as a source of precious or ineffable value, as a defining source of national and public virtue. Some of that slippage in value is our fault. I’ve said before that I think many faculty in the humanities are now like priests who’ve lost their faith. We say certain things about the value of culture or philosophy or the liberal arts, but many of the practicing academics who say those things don’t believe those statements in any deep way. Those are sentiments for the admissions catalog. There are specific intellectual reasons for that: both Western Marxism and poststructural views of knowledge have played a role.
But there’s an anomie that’s harder to pin down and not a specific result of those philosophical views. Careerism and departmentalization, a consequence of the expansion of higher education’s role after the GI Bill, has played a role in driving us to more and more specialized and narrow kinds of practice, away from public life. That hasn’t helped, particularly in the humanities. I think American society respects highly specialized scientific research, for good reason. I don’t think it respects the products of specialization in the humanities (also with good reason). It really isn’t what the mission of the humanities ought to be.
There’s other issues. A bit of it seems to me to resemble what the art critic Robert Hughes has said about 20th Century artists, that they were on a quest to create an art that the art-buying bourgeoisie would finally be so shocked and offended by that they would stop buying art, and thus extract the artists from a kind of dependence that they felt morally compromised by. Some academics maybe have been looking for the same thing.
Some of this isn’t our fault. There are a lot of forces in American life since 1950 that have pushed our culture away from valuing knowledge that is impractical or has no immediate application. Universities have colluded in defining the value of what they do in terms of careers and economic rewards, but that’s also been done to them by the relentless careerism of students and their parents. The ghastly cynicism of big-time college athletics has had a generally corrosive effect, often feeding a belief that college is primarily for parties, getting laid, and social networking.
The net effect, though, is that we claim to occupy a higher ground that has been dangerously hollowed out. At least some of what we have to do as academics is renew our faith in our own mission and thus renew the faith of others.
9) Deep tropes of anti-intellectualism. I put this way down the list not because it isn’t a powerful part of the reason why a lot of Americans are at least sporadically dismissive of academia, but because it’s often the first thing that academics will say about why people hate or mock them. It’s absolutely true that there is a very distinctive kind of anti-intellectual sentiment in American national culture that has exceptionally deep and complex roots, arguably all the way back to the founding of the country, and that this sentiment is frequently unfair, cruel, and destructive. I’m not sure what you do about a tendency that’s deep in the national character except to know about it, understand it, and try to figure out how to defang or defuse it when it rears up. One of the ways you defang it, I think, is by not using it as an all-purpose reason to avoid introspection, or as a cloak against legitimate criticism.
10) Specific ideological use of professoriate as “soft target” & distraction. No question about it: there is a network (if you’ll excuse the word) of activists, politicians and intellectuals who use the professoriate as an all-purpose whipping boy and scapegoatprecisely because they know about reasons 1-9 described above. All of that leaves academia highly exposed to instrumental, calculated demagoguery. The question of how to reply to this kind of attack is a difficult one. My general view is that I’d rather address the genuine problems and issues in the relationship between academia and American society and so take away some of the energy feeding the more malicious or opportunistic critics. Yes, that means conceding the partial truth of some of the kinds of criticisms they peddle, which in turn opens a window of vulnerability. But stonewalling is never a good idea. Reform always involves vulnerability, but failing to reform is far worse in the long run.
11) Specific personal experience where the student or former student was in the wrong. Students can commit malpractice as well, in a fashion, and it’s important not to believe that every individual who is bitter at professors or universities has a valid point. At least a few of the most bitter people I’ve run into, online and offline, strike me as operating with a supervillain-theory of justice. Having scarred themselves through their own mistakes, they’re now out for revenge against an uncaring world, to tear the whole thing down. At the most extreme, this kind of thinking leads to aberrant violence like the Virginia Tech shootings, but there’s plenty of angry people out there on the Internet who are almost the verbal equivalent in the way they attack universities, professors, other students and even the concept of education as a whole.