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.