The Academy in the New America

I’ve always had a kind of lover’s quarrel with the American university and it seems to flare up in times of national crisis.

During the fall semester of 2001, I was teaching in the American Thought and Language department at Michigan State University. The day after 9/11 I walked into class and stared at a class of dazed 20-somethings. We did our best to try and make sense of what happened the day before but mostly, we just shook our heads in disbelief. Toward the end of class I asked the students what professors in their other classes were saying about the terror attacks. Most of the students replied that their classes were going on as if nothing happened and most of the students were disturbed that some of their professors pressed on with their lectures in the face of the attacks.  I know that wasn’t true for all classes across American universities, and I’m not judging the professors who chose not to discuss the attacks.

I think it’s pretty clear, though, that as a whole, the American university did basically nothing to deal with the national trauma of 9/11 aside from capitalize on the billions of federal dollars dedicated to the construction of the surveillance state by launching programs in Homeland Security and National Defense. There’s a legitimate argument, of course, that those efforts have paid off. Still, beyond some bells tolling on campuses every 9/11, can we honestly say the American university effectively responded to the crisis (and its aftermath)? The current generation of college students know virtually nothing about what happened on 9/11, why it happened nor the subsequent war(s) America has been waging in the middle east.

And it does raise the question about the role of the American university in times of national crisis.

Like the one we’re in right now.

I’ve been teaching abroad for nearly a year now, but I keep wondering what it’s like to be in a university classroom in the States. Are professors changing the content of their courses in order to reflect the seismic shifts taking place in American politics and culture?

Should we?

Are the shelves of university book stores filled with Orwell, Huxley and Hannah Arendt? (To my mind, science fiction is the only thing that really speaks to what’s happening right now.)

Are faculty and students talking about and reasoning through about what’s happening in America? Or, is Allison Stanger’s description of the recent mob violence that erupted at Middlebury College over a lecture by the controversial political scientist, Charles Murray, evidence to how far civic discourse has devolved, even in academia?

Are there newly-formed ‘task forces’ and ‘steering committees’ charged with developing university responses to the threats to the republic or even just helping ordinary people understand that it’s the rich white billionaires and not the blacks and the Indians and the Muslims and the Mexicans who are the problem?

Or, are things pretty much as they’ve always been, aside from some sarcastic remarks at the beginning of every class about the latest tweet?

I love my academic ‘interests’ just as much as any other professor. Reading and talking with young people about The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Lincoln’s speeches, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, and the songs of Nina Simone and Woody Guthrie is an abiding privilege and joy for me, and I never take for it for granted. But I realize, too, that my work in particular and the work of the American university in general is a part of something much bigger than narrow academic specialization and knowledge production. As a professor in American higher education, I have, in other words, a duty and an obligation (however ill- and nebulously-defined) to write and educate for the common good. I know that sounds idealistic (forgive me!) but I also know that most of my colleagues feel the same way, more or less.

I don’t, however, know how to move forward with my teaching and scholarly life in this new American any more than I did in the aftermath of 9/11.

If you do, or even if you disagree with that premise, I’d love to hear about it.

4 thoughts on “The Academy in the New America

  1. Hey Eric-
    While I can’t speak to what is happening on college campuses across the country, I am acutely aware of the frustrations that high school teachers are feeling. Our administration has made it very clear that the faculty must take an apolitical stance in front of our students. If a student complains that a teacher is leaning one way or the other, that teacher will surely be reprimanded by the powers that be. After Trump bragged about sexually assaulting women and then laughed it off as “locker room talk”, I had a very candid discussion with my boys soccer team. As the coach, I felt the locker room was my domain and I made it very clear that this was not how we discussed women. Sure enough, I was criticized for not giving equal attention to Hilary Clinton’s moral shortcomings.

    I think we are in the type of constitutional crisis that comes along once a generation. The checks and balances of our branches of government are being tested, yet we as educators feel handcuffed and unable to talk about it. We still do, of course, trying our best to present both sides of the argument. Does this mean we must also counterbalance facts with “alternative facts”?

    For me and my colleagues, at a private high school in Denver, there is a real fear about coming across as too political and then being reprimanded by the administration. Sad!!!!


    1. Hi Arty, It’s great to hear from you and I miss you. Thanks for this response. I have to say, I was quite taken aback by the response from your administration. I try as much as I can to pull back and see the bigger picture but . . . isn’t it your obligation as a coach and a teacher to have that conversation with your players? What if you didn’t say anything and allowed them to surmise that that sort of “locker room” talk was normal and okay? To my mind, Arty, you did the right thing. Hugs to the family and see you this summer!

  2. Eric–You DO know how to move forward. Since you’ve been on your journey, your perspectives have broadened and sharpened, your vision has clarified and deepened, and –the best thing–your voice has become steadier, wiser, more certain of itself. Something wonderful has blossomed within you. I implore you to continue to bring it to bear on the problems we are facing here, especially those of the academy. Your experience is growing you by leaps and bounds as an outsider. In the American tradition, at least, the responsibility of the outsider has always been to critique the center. More a moral duty than a political responsibility. I took my best shot in my last book (of which you were a part). Now it’s your turn. I’d like to see a book come out of you during your year in New Zealand. And one! David

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