April 23, 2018

ON MY MIND | The Empty Promise of Academia

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“Just because you fight for something doesn’t mean you have to have a philosophical justification for it.”

By what was then the twelfth week of this semester, I had grown accustomed to 98% of the inane phrases which were tossed casually — as casually as one might toss a molotov cocktail — into the collective consciousness of my English/Comp Lit seminar. The ratio of neural/motor energy devoted to jotting down whatever convoluted statements followed the words, “This is important,” from one of professors’ mouths (it’s one of those rare two-professor courses) versus scrolling through Facebook and answering emails had gradually shifted in disproportionate favor of the latter.

But this sentence, uttered by an undergrad whose name I had not yet committed to memory (and probably never will), forced me to whip my head up in bewilderment and scan the room for any signs of incredulity which might mirror my own. Here, let me play it back for you:

“Just because you fight for something doesn’t mean you have to have a philosophical justification for it.”

My eyes flickered from the seated students to the professor standing at the front of the room. My professor paused, smiled, nodded, laughed, and agreed: “Yes, I guess you could say that.”

I wrote it down, appending seven question marks to the quotation. The class continued. I went back to reading emails.

I had hoped, in revisiting my notes from that particular day, that the rationale which prompted that particular undergrad to say that particular thing and be met with that particular assent from that particular professor would miraculously reveal itself — that I would be able to wipe my forehead and exclaim, “Ah, I see now what they meant! It really does make sense if you think about it.” But no such revelation has availed itself to me, no matter how hard I wrack my brain.

Would it help if I put the statement into context? Not really, but: the topic of the day was neoliberalism; we had read Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution; the inescapable ubiquity of neoliberalism was emphasized; the discussion led to Michel Foucault, as any given discussion in any given humanities class in any given university is wont to do; a student raised his hand to quote something he had heard from another professor in another class, ostensibly about Foucault (I wasn’t paying close attention); the statement was uttered; the professor agreed; the last remaining vestiges of intelligibility which I had, at one time, ascribed to academia imploded.

I use this episode neither to disparage nor discourage any young hopefuls out there sacrificing their intellectual and moral faculties in the name of a PhD (okay, maybe I am a little). I use it instead to say this: There is something deeply, disturbingly, fundamentally wrong with the system of reality which has taken hold of the academic “community” if not one, but two leading scholars in their fields lack the constitution to immediately repudiate the sentence, “Just because you fight for something doesn’t mean you have to have a philosophical justification for it,” in their own classroom.

This is not a matter of rhetoric, or semantics, or subjectivity, or discourse, or pedagogy. This is a matter of integrity. If what you do does not reflect what you believe, that makes you a hypocrite. And if what you teach deliberately refuses to impart any semblance of truth, that makes you a liar.

To paraphrase, incredibly, one of my professors from that same course: “All of you came to this class with a desire for theory, which is a promise of truth. This is a promise which the theorist (the professor) has no intention of fulfilling.”

Against the odds, I’ve found people here who have taught me that there is such a thing as truth, and have given me the courage to try to pursue it. But I am lucky; I know that most students haven’t been able to extricate themselves from the system of reality which the university conditions us to accept, no matter how miserable and confused it makes us or how far it alienates us from our responsibility to society (I know this because I have taken twenty-five classes over the course of six semesters here and also because I frequent Cornell’s meme page). If it weren’t for the intervention of a few exceptional, brilliant, compassionate people into my life, I would still accept this reality.

Looking back, it wasn’t so long ago that I “discovered” academia, so to speak; it wasn’t so long ago that I trusted the system of higher education enough to assume that all my professors knew what on earth they were talking about, even if I had no idea. I had every reason to believe this schema was true, and I owed my belief to the singular fact that it was all there, right in front of me: so many paragons of knowledge enfolded into an institution which towered, indisputably, over the rest of society. I was (and still am) insecure and perplexed by life; I yearned for clarity and conviction, and convinced myself that it was only a matter of time before those cryptic texts which I was reading and regurgitating so assiduously would become my reality. Instead, the confusions have multiplied. My self-doubt has worsened. I can no longer, in good conscience, believe what I am hearing.

The most celebrated intellectuals of the past half century have profited from the empty promise of truth and proliferated the production of nonsense masquerading as knowledge. They have bequeathed unto thousands of unsuspecting students a gospel of Questions-without-Answers, and stolen from these thousands any chance of becoming responsible, thinking human beings. All the while, the fabric of our society continues to unravel; for 99% of the world, those smoldering seeds of discontent sown by white supremacy, colonialism, and capitalism are ripening into conflagrations of scorching rage and contempt. At the risk of sounding over-dramatic, I cannot help but turn to James Baldwin’s prophetic words, taken from an old slave spiritual: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time!”