Hannah Arendt considered calling her magnum opus Amor Mundi: Love of the World. Instead, she settled upon The Human Condition. What is most difficult, Arendt writes, is to love the world as it is, with all the evil and suffering in it. And yet she came to do just that. Loving the world means neither uncritical acceptance nor contemptuous rejection. Above all it means the unwavering facing up to and comprehension of that which is.
Every Sunday, The Hannah Arendt Center Amor Mundi Weekly Newsletter will offer our favorite essays and blog posts from around the web. These essays will help you comprehend the world. And learn to love it.
Laura Kipnis wrote an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on sexual paranoia in the academy. She argued that new campus sexual misconduct codes "infantilized students while vastly increasing the power of university administrators over all our lives." She also asserted that "students' expanding sense of vulnerability, and new campus policies that fostered it, was actually impeding their educations as well as their chances of faring well in postcollegiate life, where a certain amount of resilience is required of us all." Students at her university, Northwestern, protested. Instead of responding to her arguments, they filed a petition with the University President to have her disciplined. Two students filed Title IX complaints against Kipnis, suggesting that her published essay "had a 'chilling effect' on students' ability to report sexual misconduct." Kipnis, noting the irony that such Title IX cases are having a chilling effect on professors and academic freedom, quickly found herself immersed in the non-transparent quasi-legal world of the Title IX kangaroo courts: "I'd plummeted into an underground world of secret tribunals and capricious, medieval rules, and I wasn't supposed to tell anyone about it.... The Title IX bureaucracy is expanding by the minute. A recent emailed update from my university announced new policies, programs, hires, surveys, procedures, websites, and educational initiatives devoted to sexual misconduct. What wasn't quantified is how much intellectual real estate is being grabbed in the process. It's a truism that the mission of bureaucracies is, above all, to perpetuate themselves, but with the extension of Title IX from gender discrimination into sexual misconduct has come a broadening of not just its mandate but even what constitutes sexual assault and rape. Ambivalent sex becomes coerced sex, with charges brought months or even years after the events in question. Title IX officers now adjudicate an increasing range of murky situations involving mutual drunkenness, conflicting stories, and relationships gone wrong. They pronounce on the thorniest of philosophical and psychological issues: What is consent? What is power? Should power differentials between romantic partners be proscribed? Should eliminating power differences in relationships even be a social goal--wouldn't that risk eliminating heterosexuality itself?" What is often forgotten in the debate around Title IX is that bureaucracies Title IX has spawned are aimed not simply at the real problem of rape and the potential problems of ambiguous sexual relations but also at the discussion, writing, or reading of anything sexual. There is a desire to make college campuses safe, not merely physically safe but intellectually safe, which flies in the face of the very idea of a university. Kipnis' essay is more than worth reading to see how the Title IX bureaucracy is morphing and expanding to insist upon intellectual and political conformity. And you can read a draft of my new essay discussing campus Title IX sexual misconduct codes here.
Colson Whitehead interrogates our obsession with photographs in an iPhone world, arguing in the NY Times Magazine that pictures offer a window into our souls. "Lynching photography proves the enduring truth of the phrase 'The eyes are the window of the soul.' In a 1919 picture of the burning corpse of William Brown, for example, dozens of men pose for the camera while the body is consumed by flames in the foreground. One man knows which is his 'best side' and offers his strong right profile to the lens. Some of the men are smiling over their accomplishment. One boy touches his fingers to his chin thoughtfully, his lips curled in amusement. What do we see in their eyes, what glimpse of their souls? Pure American darkness. 'When you gaze long into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.' That was Nietzsche, and he could have been describing the scene at the lynching of Rubin Stacy in 1935. It was an all-ages affair. In the intimate photograph, Stacy hangs from a tree, while a few feet away two young girls of 5 or 6 squint up at his limp body, their faces covered by a shadow. Another girl, a bit older, is more adventuresome and stands closer to the dangling man. She grins up at his corpse. Given her youth at the time of the picture, she may still be alive today, occasionally sifting through her box of souvenirs to reminisce. There were plenty of pics, and yet it didn't matter. 'Or it didn't happen' is a colossal mandate, undermining the brutalities that escape the lens. Certainly the current surfeit of footage chronicling lethal encounters doesn't speak to an increase in incidents, but merely an increase in our ability to capture and transmit. 'Or it didn't happen' erases all those victimized when there was no one present to record, the thousands of human beings strung up when there was no one to testify for them. When there was no one to say, This is our history, whether we want to remember it or not."
Amidst all the articles and analyses of the Great Recession over the last seven years, only a few pointed out the racial implications, that the retreat of public sector jobs and the attacks on public sector unions (whether right or wrong) has had a disproportional and disastrous impact on the Black middle class. Patricia Cohen has an essay in the NY Times that gives the issue some context. "Roughly one in five black adults works for the government, teaching school, delivering mail, driving buses, processing criminal justice and managing large staffs. They are about 30 percent more likely to have a public sector job than non-Hispanic whites, and twice as likely as Hispanics. 'Compared to the private sector, the public sector has offered black and female workers better pay, job stability and more professional and managerial opportunities,' said Jennifer Laird, a sociologist at the University of Washington who has been researching the subject. During the Great Recession, though, as tax revenues plunged, federal, state and local governments began shedding jobs. Even now, with the economy regaining strength, public sector employment has still not bounced back. An incomplete recovery is part of the reason, but a combination of strong anti-government and anti-tax sentiment in some places has kept down public payrolls. At the same time, attempts to curb collective bargaining, like those led by Wisconsin's governor, Scott Walker, a likely Republican presidential candidate, have weakened public unions."
Rebecca Onion takes a look at an online archive of 19th century boyhood, a "library" of nearly 60 hand-written books created by the three young Nelson brothers as a way to pass the long New Hampshire winters: "An existing set of 19th-century juvenilia produced by children like the Nelsons--farmers' kids, who lived in a rural setting and didn't go on to become famous authors--is rare. Reading the Nelsons' books, we get a unique perspective on late-19th-century American childhood, learning how farm kids felt about farm work; how young, rural readers processed and remixed the books and magazines they read; and how boys absorbed the era's ideas about manhood. Like the Brontës, the Nelsons created an imaginary world--what scholars call a 'paracosm'--and all of their stories took place inside of it. The Nelsons' paracosm, the Big, Long, and Round Continents, had a history of war and colonization and was undergoing rapid and enthusiastic infrastructural development and agricultural improvement. This backdrop provided plenty of room for adventure stories, but also for world-building of a more prosaic nature. Most of the publications that the Nelsons created were for imaginary readers who lived on one of the continents: newspapers like the Chit-Chat, which reported on the visits of residents of one continent to another; seed catalogs trumpeting varieties specially adapted to the growing conditions in an imaginary place; and 'history' books remembering military events like the fictional Battle of Poplington. The Nelsons were influenced by the print culture they had access to in rural New Hampshire. The town had a library during the years that the Nelsons were producing their books, though we don't know which titles that library held. (Walter Nelson, who wrote a history of Goshen in 1957, described the collection that formed the basis for the town library of the 1890s as 'rather extensive and cosmopolitan.') A few years after the boys ceased production on their collaborative writings, Elmer, the oldest brother, wrote a school assignment on the topic 'My Library'; from this composition we know that the Nelsons liked to read adventure fiction. Elmer mentioned Uncle Tom's Cabin ('intensely interesting'), one Oliver Optic book, a few James Fenimore Coopers, and Jules Verne's Michael Strogoff ('I consider [it] far ahead of some of his book[s] like "A Trip to Moon" [sic] "Twenty-thousand Leagues Under the Sea"'). Elmer wrote that he liked adventure books 'both for the story and for the word Pictures which I get of foreign or distant places.' 'Perhaps [because] I am restless whatever the season,' he wrote, 'such books interest me.'"
Samuel Moyn, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education, offers a critique of human rights that begins with the ancient King Croesus: "Imagine that one man owned everything. Call him Croesus, after the king of ancient lore who, Herodotus says, was so 'wonderfully rich' that he 'thought himself the happiest of mortals.' Impossibly elevated above his fellow men and women, this modern Croesus is also magnanimous. He does not want people to starve, and not only because he needs some of them for the upkeep of his global estate. Croesus insists on a floor of protection, so that everyone living under his benevolent but total ascendancy can escape destitution. Health, food, water, even paid vacations, Croesus funds them all." Croesus' world is, Moyn argues, largely the world of human rights, one in which a tiny rich minority applauds itself for keeping the vast majority alive and free from torture and the worst deprivations. Human rights offers a floor, but little more. Gone in a world where human rights represents our vision of the good is a vibrant vision of social democracy or welfarism. Thus human rights has little or nothing to offer in the fight against inequality. "After the 1970s, Croesus' world came closer and closer to being a reality, for his dreams became our dreams. To the extent that a utopia of justice survived, it was global but minimal, allowing for the worst state abuses to be decried, while in the socioeconomic domain it pictured a floor of protection without a ceiling on inequality. Whatever its potential in theory, the human rights movement adapted in practice to the new ambiance. For one thing, the idea of human rights followed the transformation of political economy to a global outlook. Further, activists no longer gave priority to the agency of states to launch and manage national welfare but rather to the rights of individuals to be free from harm and to enjoy a rudimentary government that averts disaster and abjection. In the economic realm, social equality was forsaken as an ideal. In exchange for its cosmopolitanism, the human rights movement abandoned postwar egalitarianism in both theory and practice."
Megan Garber suggests that, in the internet age, to be a comedian may mean being a public intellectual: "The point of comedy has always been, on some level, a kind of productive subversion. Observational comedy, situational comedy, slapstick comedy, comedy that both enlightens and offends--these are forms of creative destruction, at their height and in their depths, and they've long allowed us to talk about things that taboos, or at the very least taste, might otherwise preclude. Long before Jon Stewart came along, there was Richard Pryor and Joan Rivers and George Carlin. There were people who used laughter as a lubricant for cultural conversations--to help us to talk about the things that needed to be talked about. The difference now, though, is that comedians are doing their work not just in sweaty clubs or network variety shows or cable sitcoms, but also on the Internet. Wherever the jokes start--Comedy Central, The Tonight Show, Marc Maron's garage--they will end up, eventually and probably immediately, living online. They will, at their best, go 'really, insanely viral.' The frenzy to post a John Oliver rant after it airs on HBO has become a cliché at this point; its effect, though, is to create a kind of tentacular influence for an otherwise niche comedy show. Some people may watch Oliver's stuff live, or DVRed; but most watch it while riding the bus, or waiting for a meeting, or eating a sad desk lunch, delivered via Facebook or Twitter or the Huffington Post. Most people watch Schumer's stuff that way, too. And Wilmore's. And Stewart's. Comedy, like so much else in the culture, now exists largely of, by, and for the Internet. Which is to say that there are two broad things happening right now--comedy with moral messaging, and comedy with mass attention--and their combined effect is this: Comedians have taken on the role of public intellectuals. They're exploring and wrestling with important ideas. They're sharing their conclusions with the rest of us. They're providing fodder for discussion, not just of the minutiae of everyday experience, but of the biggest questions of the day. Amy Schumer on misogyny, Key and Peele on terrorism, Louis C.K. on parenting, Sarah Silverman on Rand Paul, John Oliver on FIFA ... these are bits intended not just to help us escape from the realities of the world, but also, and more so, to help us understand them. Comedians are fashioning themselves not just as joke-tellers, but as truth-tellers--as intellectual and moral guides through the cultural debates of the moment."
Frederick Bohrer places the recent destruction of Iraqi antiquities by ISIS into a global context: "The destruction of artworks and antiquities is hardly the unique behavior of a single group much less an essential property of any culture. We can recall the allied bombs that dropped on the Dresden Museum as on that of Baghdad, or the savage shelling of the Parthenon by Venetian armies that resulted in the disastrous collapse of its roof. If we had a video of the almost complete destruction during the French Revolution of the legendary medieval church of Cluny, or similar devastations wreaked on St. Denis or Notre Dame, it would likely have much the same effect as that of ISIS. Moreover, to any listing of secular destructions in the West must be added those of religious authorities, such as the systematic and wholesale destructions of images under the periods of Byzantine iconoclasm. As in ISIS', these attacks on the human image were accompanied by attacks on humans themselves in a long-running history of mutilations of the bodies of enemies--blinding, castration, rhinokopia (cutting off the nose), and more. Of course, the murderous activities on behalf of Christianity are hardly confined to Byzantium. The French wars of religion in the 17th century slaughtered as many as 4 million people. The massacre of St. Bartholomew's Day in Paris alone, in 1572, was responsible for the deaths of up to 30,000 lives of French Huguenots. For that event, 'The Pope ordered a Te Deum to be sung as special Thanksgiving (a practice continued for many years after) [...].' Accordingly, there is no unique Islamic propensity to perpetual iconoclasm and violence, much less one to be contrasted with a civilized and 'iconophilic' West. Rather, there are enough crimes to go around."
The short film Everyday Borders tracks "bordering from the margin into the center, from the extraordinary to the everyday life," which in the wake of the UK's 2014 immigration act "is threatening to destroy the conviviality of pluralist, metropolitan London and multicultural Britain in general," says Nira Yuval-Davis in the film's opening minutes. It goes on to consider what it means to be British, while not looking so, in an environment that encourages citizen surveillance and restricts the actions and movement of Britons, naturalized or not, within Britain.
HAC members at all levels are eligible to participate in a monthly reading group led online via a telecommunication website by Roger Berkowitz, Director of the Hannah Arendt Center.
For questions and to enroll in our virtual reading group, please email David Bisson, our Media Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Friday, June 5, 2015
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Thursday and Friday, October 15 and 16, 2015
The Hannah Arendt Center's eighth annual fall conference, "Why Privacy Matters," will be held this year on Thursday and Friday, October 15-16, 2015! We'll see you there!
This week on the Blog, Jennifer M. Hudson uses Arendt and David Eggers' The Circle to understand man's quest to free himself from nature and to infinitely expand his knowledge in the Quote of the Week. C. S. Lewis distinguishes a life dedicated to the pursuit of truth from one committed to finding comfort in this week's Thoughts on Thinking. Finally, we appreciate Hannah Arendt's copy of The Foundations of music in human consciousness in this week's Library feature.
This coming Friday, June 5th, the Hannah Arendt Center will host the ninth session of its Virtual Reading Group. We will be discussing Chapters 24-26 of The Human Condition.
The reading group is available to all members and is always welcoming new participants! Please click here to learn more, including how you can join!
"[T]here is another even more cogent reason for [the layman] concerning himself with a critical situation in which he is not immediately involved. And that is the opportunity, provided by the very fact of crisis—which tears away facades and obliterates prejudices—to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter…"
-Hannah Arendt, "The Crisis in Education"
It is often said that the Chinese word for “crisis,” or weiji, means a combination of “danger” and “opportunity,” and every so often the trope appears in the highest echelons of American politics. Linguist Benjamin Zimmer cites its frequent use by John F. Kennedy in speeches leading into the 1960 presidential election; and more recently, Al Gore in 2006-7 used weiji to anchor both his Congressional testimony on the problem of climate change, and his Vanity Fair article (“The Moment of Truth”) concerning the same. During her January 2007 trip to the Middle East, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told reporters of conditions in the region, "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity…And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."
This use of weiji has irked some linguists. Zimmer calls Gore’s Chinese riff a “linguistic canard” and writes that in all these cases, “[T]he trope was deployed for similar effect: as a framing technique for describing current perils posed by a particular world crisis and future possibilities for resolving that crisis. Thus it allows the speaker to shift rhetorical footing from pessimism to optimism, ending with an upbeat tone and a call to action.” Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese language and literature at UPenn, identifies a “fatal” error of interpretation that centers on the second character, ji, which rather than “opportunity,” here means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, “A weiji indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.”
To those still seeking New Age wisdom in the danger/opportunity coupling, Mair points to the old Greek usage. Modern “crisis” stems from the Greek krinein, meaning to separate, decide, or judge. The word reached Middle English in the 15th century via Latin, and the Oxford English Dictionary says that by mid-16th century it meant judgment related specifically to sickness and the sudden change of disease (The Online Etymology Dictionary cites Hippocrates using krinein in the same way.). Soon thereafter it referred more generally to “A vitally important or decisive stage in the progress of anything; a turning-point,” as well as judgment or decision simply, and “A point by which to judge; a criterion; token; sign.”
In moments of crisis the important connection between “danger” and “opportunity” centers on their common source in a disruption of normal order, a disruption that entails instability and volatility, but also openings to previously precluded or unimagined possibilities for action. The moment of crisis is transient, and in political matters the statesman’s virtue is two-fold—not only to manage (or “seize”) a crisis situation, but also to recognize the situation when it arises (See Lenin, “The Crisis Has Matured,” September 29, 1917) or foresee its coming. By recognizing a crisis for what it is—a moment of decision—we can wrest the decision to ourselves.
Hannah Arendt’s essay “The Crisis in Education” seems to offer a different understanding of social and political crisis—one less concerned with critical moments and more concerned with the “elemental structures” of modernity that “crystallize” over time and manifest today in a variety of ways. The essay starts by observing that “The general crisis that has overtaken the modern world everywhere and in almost every sphere of life manifests itself differently in each country, involving different areas and taking on different forms.” In America the general crisis has assumed the form of “the recurring crisis in education that, during the last decade at least, has become a political problem of the first magnitude[.]” This introduces a recurring theme in the essay, that while examining a particular political crisis in America, the essay is also—and perhaps more fundamentally—about “a more general crisis and instability in modern society.”
This more general crisis is the modern crisis of authority that is “closely connected with the crisis of tradition…the crisis in our attitude towards the realm of the past.” Seeing how this bears on the crisis of education requires examining “whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter, and the essence of education is natality, the fact that human beings are born into the world.” At the same time, Arendt writes, “Basically we are always educating for a world that is or is becoming out of joint,” a world that, because it is made by mortals, “runs the risk of becoming as mortal as they.” And thus—because the essence of education is natality, and the “newcomers” need a world in which to live and act, but the world in which we live and act constantly “is or is becoming out of joint”—the problem of education concerns how to stabilize this world for the “newcomers” without also stifling their capacity to renew or even drastically alter it: “Exactly for the sake of what is new and revolutionary in every child,” Arendt writes, “education must be conservative; it must preserve this newness and introduce it as a new thing into an old world[.]”
Here the crisis of modernity and education converge—for the process of giving students a world has historically relied on the authority of tradition and the past. But if these authorities can no longer be relied upon, then what remains? Stunningly, Arendt locates a new authority for modern conditions in the teacher’s “assumption of responsibility for that world.”
Arendt’s account of the American crisis of education illustrates the connection between local political crises around the world and a larger civilizational crisis. Indeed, a central goal of “The Crisis in Education” is to highlight the blind spots in understanding that result when one regards “a local phenomenon” like the crisis of education as “unconnected with the larger issues of the century, to be blamed on certain peculiarities of life in the United States” (as for example its history of “continuous immigration”). To localize such problems is tempting because “However clearly a general problem may present itself in a crisis, it is nevertheless impossible ever to isolate completely the universal element from the concrete and specific circumstances in which it makes its appearance.” But while “There is always a temptation to believe that we are dealing with specific problems confined within historical and national boundaries and of importance only to those immediately affected”— “It is precisely this belief that in our time has consistently proved false” (emphasis added).
This false belief prevents us from, among other things, ascertaining “which aspects of the modern world and its crisis have actually revealed themselves” (in a local crisis)—that is, “the true reasons that for decades things could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense.” And events continue in this manner due in part to the illusion that situation-specific and/or scientific solutions, which may (or may not) satisfactorily solve local problems in the short term, actually touch upon the heart of the matter. The illusion manifests in “repeat performance” of the crisis, “though perhaps different in form, since there are no limits to the possibilities of nonsense and capricious notions that can be decked out as the last word in science.” Arendt’s criticism of the futility of pragmatist pedagogy in addressing the crisis of authority in the classroom represents a case in point.
In recent months and years, few words have achieved more prominence in Washington politics than crisis. As recently as February 3, President Obama said in a CBS interview that “Washington cannot continually operate under a cloud of crisis.” And following the latest inconclusive negotiations over the country’s fiscal situation and looming (depending on who you ask) “debt crisis,” a recent article in the Huffington Post bemoans the “pattern of a Congress that governs from crisis to crisis” that has become “all too familiar—and predictable. The trend goes something like this: As a deadline approaches, Republicans repeat their calls for spending cuts. Democrats accuse Republicans of hostage-taking. A short-term agreement is then reached that averts economic calamity, but ultimately kicks the can down the road for yet another fight.”
What does it mean for a Congress to routinely “govern from crisis to crisis”? Does “governing by crisis” constitute functioning politics, or a political crisis of the first order? In The Crisis in Education Arendt writes that “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” and allows one “to explore and inquire into whatever has been laid bare of the essence of the matter.” But to state the obvious, if “the very fact of crisis…tears away facades and obliterates prejudices,” then such tearing and obliteration requires that “the very fact of crisis” be recognized and acknowledged. In the current governing crisis in Washington, what fundamentally new, to say nothing of unprejudiced, questions—other than how Washington’s two parties will “compromise” and avoid self-destruction—have been asked? Who has spoken seriously, truthfully, and critically, in an effort to lay bare the essence of the matter?
At a time when happenings in Washington “could be said and done in such glaring contradiction to common sense” (How else are we to understand “governing by crisis”?), Hannah Arendt reminds us to seek out and overcome those “prejudices” and “preformed judgments”—including the obligatory moves to technocratic and ideological narratives—that preclude the introduction of new questions and corresponding answers that require direct and original judgments and, perhaps most importantly, thinking and responsibility. Counterintuitively, in such situations Arendt highlights the importance of questions rather than solutions in confronting political crisis—that the proper response to crisis requires thinking rather than knowledge. To narrowly search for efficient policy “solutions” or ideological “compromises” based on prior prejudices simply misses the point.
If crisis does not seem especially urgent to Arendt in “The Crisis on Education,” she does warn that, in the end, “unreflective perseverance…can only…lead to ruin.” Ironically, one of the prejudiced assumptions that seems most prevalent in Congress today—that abandoning one’s prejudices and preformed judgments spells political death—may be most indicative of our current political crisis.–—And yet if, as Arendt suggests on more than one occasion, one answer to the modern crisis of authority lies in the “assumption of responsibility”—be it responsibility for the world in the classroom, responsibility for extraordinary action in politics (Arendt once attributed Lenin’s revolutionary authority to his singular willingness to “assume responsibility for the revolution after it happened.”), or even responsibility for truthful speech (as opposed to “mere talk”) and action in normal, everyday politics—then notwithstanding whatever the American crisis is, whoever has the courage to speak truthfully and accept political responsibility may wake up to find real power and opportunity suddenly within his grasp.
We have a higher education bubble. The combination of unsustainable debt loads on young people and the advent of technological alternatives is clearly set to upend the staid and often sclerotic world of higher education.
In this month’s The American Interest, Nathan Hardin—the author of Sex & God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness, and a Good Education Gone Bad (St. Martin’s, 2012) and editor of The College Fix—tries to quantify the destructive changes coming to higher education. Here is his opening paragraph:
In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.
Step back a second. Beware of all prognostications of this sort. Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow let alone 50 years from now. Even today the NY Times reports that the University of Cincinnati and the University of Arizona are turning to online courses as a way of increasing enrollment at their residential campuses. Whether this will work and how this will transform the very idea of a residential college are not yet clear. But the kinds of predictions Hardin makes can be provocative, thus inducing of thought. But they are rarely accurate and too often are simply irresponsible.
Beyond the hyperbole, here is something true. Colleges will exist so long as they can convince students and their parents that the value of education is worth the cost. One reason some colleges are suffering today is clearly the cost. But another reason is the declining perception of value. We should also remember that many colleges—especially the best and most expensive ones—are seeing record demand. If and when the college bubble bursts, not all colleges will be hit equally. Some will thrive and others will likely disappear. Still others will adapt. We should be wary of collapsing all colleges into a single narrative or thinking we can see the future.
Part of the problem is that colleges offer education, something inherently difficult to put a value on. For a long time, the “value” of higher education was intangible. It was the marker of elite status to be a Harvard man or some such thing. One learned Latin and Greek and studied poetry and genetics. But what really was being offered was sophistication, character, erudition, culture, and status, not to mention connections and access.
More recently, college is “sold” in a very different way. It promises earning power. This has brought a whole new generation and many new classes into university education as they seek the magic ticket granting access to an upper middle class lifestyle. As the percentage of college graduates increases, the distinction and thus market value of college education decreases. The problem colleges have is that in their rush to open the doors to all paying customers, they have devalued the product they are offering. The real reason colleges are threatened now—if they indeed are threatened—is less financial than it is intellectual and moral. Quite simply, many of our colleges have progressively abandoned their intangible mission to educate students and embraced the market-driven task of credentialing students for employment. When for-profit or internet-based colleges can do this more cheaply and more efficiently, it is only logical that they will succeed.
For many professors and graduate students, the predicted demise of the residential college will be a hard shock. Professors who thought they had earned lifetime security with tenure will be fired as their departments are shuttered or their entire universities closed down. Just as reporters, book sellers, and now lawyers around the country have seen their jobs evaporate by the disruption of the internet, so too will professors be replaced by technological efficiencies. And this may well happen fast.
Gregory Ferenstein, who describes himself as a writer and educator and writes for Techcrunch and the Huffington Post, has gone so far to offer a proposed timeline of the disappearance of most colleges as we know them. Here is his outline, which begins with the recently announced pilot program that will see basic courses at San Jose State University replaced by online courses administered by the private company Udacity:
- [The] Pilot [program in which Udacity is offering online courses for the largest university system in the world, the California State University System] succeeds, expands to more universities and classes
- Part-time faculty get laid off, more community colleges are shuttered, extracurricular college services are closed, and humanities and arts departments are dissolved for lack of enrollment (science enrollment increases–yay!?)
- Graduate programs dry up, once master’s and PhD students realize there are no teaching jobs. Fewer graduate students means fewer teaching assistants and, therefore, fewer classes
- Competency-based measures begin to find the online students perform on par with, if not better than, campus-based students. Major accredited state college systems offer fully online university degrees, then shutter more and more college campuses
- A few Ivy League universities begin to control most of the online content, as universities all over the world converge toward the classes that produce the highest success rates
- In the near future, learning on a college campus returns to its elite roots, where a much smaller percentage of students are personally mentored by research and expert faculty
I put little faith in things working out exactly as Ferenstein predicts, and yet I can’t imagine he is that far off the mark. As long as colleges see themselves in the knowledge-production business and the earnings-power business, they will be vulnerable to cheaper alternatives. Such quantifiable ends can be done more cheaply and sometimes better using technology and distance learning. Only education—the leading of students into a common world of tradition, values, and common sense—depends on the residential model of one-to-one in-person learning associated with the liberal arts college. The large university lecture course is clearly an endangered species.
Which is why it is so surprising to read a nearly diametrically opposed position suggesting that we are about to enter a golden age for untenured and adjunct faculty. This it the opinion of Michael Bérubé, the President of the Modern Language Association. Bérubé gave the Presidential Address at the 2013 MLA meetings in Boston earlier this month.
It is helpful and instructive to compare Hardin’s technophilic optimism with Bérubé’s recent remarks . He dedicated much of his speech to a very different optimism, namely that contingent and adjunct faculty would finally get the increased salaries and respect that they deserved. According to Bérubé:
[F]or the first time, MLA recommendations for faculty working conditions [are] being aggressively promoted by way of social media…. After this, I think, it really will be impossible for people to treat contingent faculty as an invisible labor force. What will come of this development I do not know, but I can say that I am ending the year with more optimism for contingent faculty members than I had when I began the year, and that’s certainly not something I thought I would be able to say tonight.
Bérubé’s talk is above all a defense of professionalization in the humanities. He defends graduate training in theory as a way to approach literary texts. He extols the virtues of specialized academic research over and above teaching. He embraces and justifies “careers of study in the humanities” over and against the humanities themselves. Above all, he argues that there are good reasons to “bother with advanced study in the humanities?” In short, Bérubé defends not the humanities, but the specialized study of the humanities by a small group of graduate students and professors.
I understand what Bérubé means. There is a joy in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge even if he eschews the idea of joy wanting instead to identify his pursuit work and professionalized labor. But to think that there is an optimistic future for the thousands of young graduate students and contingent faculty who are currently hoping to make professional careers in the advanced study of the humanities is lunacy. Yes advanced study of the humanities is joyful for some? But why should it be a paying job? There is a real blindness not only to the technological and economic imperatives of the moment in Bérubé’s speech, but also to the idea of the humanities.
As Hannah Arendt wrote 50 years ago in her essay On Violence, humanities scholars today are better served by being learned and erudite than by seeking to do original research by uncovering some new or forgotten scrap. What we need is not professional humanities scholars so much as educated and curious thinkers and readers.
As I have written before:
To say that excessively specialized humanities scholarship today is irrelevant is not to say that the humanities are irrelevant. The humanities are that space in the university system where power does not have the last word, where truth and beauty as well as insight and eccentricity reign supreme and where young people come into contact with the great traditions, writing, and thinking that have made us whom we are today. The humanities introduce us to our ancestors and our forebears and acculturate students into their common heritage. It is in the humanities that we learn to judge the good from the bad and thus where we first encounter the basic moral facility for making judgments. It is because the humanities teach taste and judgment that they are absolutely essential to politics. It is even likely that the decline of politics today is profoundly connected to the corruption of the humanities.
If humanities programs and liberal arts colleges go the way of the duck-billed platypus, it will only partly be because of new technologies and rising debt. It will also be because the over-professionalization of the humanities has led—in some but not all colleges—to a course of study that simply is not seen as valuable by many young people. The changes that Hardin and Ferenstein see coming will certainly shake up the all-too-comfortable world of professional higher education. That is not bad at all. The question is whether educators can adapt and begin to offer courses and learning that is valuable. But that will only happen if we abandon the hyper-professionalized self-image defended by scholars like Michael Bérubé. One model for such a change is, of course, the public intellectual writing and thinking of Hannah Arendt.