Philosophy professor Justin Smith used to be considered something of a left-wing rebel for arguing that philosophy curricula should include more material by Chinese and Indian thinkers. But he finds he has been left behind by events:
Now in fact there is nothing I would like more to see happen than for philosophers to surmount the narrow bounds of their disciplines, to strive harder to listen to submerged and forgotten voices, and so on. I have been arguing for the importance of this since long before the broad cultural transformation of the past years that I am attempting to describe here. I’ve written books about it. A decade ago I was still getting in trouble for it, and now I’m getting in trouble for not being strident enough about it. My considered view is that there is nothing more important or worthy than drawing out submerged and forgotten voices. What makes me sad is the pro forma character of the new emphasis on this among my contemporaries. I do not, to say the least, get the sense that it is motivated by intellectual curiosity. I detect something much more like a survival instinct — a desperate effort to adapt to a transformed university landscape, where different rules apply than the ones we signed up for.
The prevailing air of desperation today makes a temperamentally curious person into a rarity and an oddball in the university setting. You are supposed to affirm the value of including more non-Western traditions in the philosophy curriculum, for example, but only in a way that anchors this change to current social and political goals, even if in the end these goals only ever require fairly small-stakes adjustments that do not so much improve society as display conformity to a new moral sensibility. If you get into deciphering Nahuatl cosmological texts, but really into it, not because it is part of a concern to see greater Latinx representation in the philosophy curriculum, but simply in the same way you are into Paleolithic cave art or Aristotle on marine biology or Safavid pharmaceutical texts — because you are a voracious nerd and you thought when you were a student that that was precisely what made you prime professor material — then you are really not doing what is expected of you to adapt to the new academic ethos.
I say — for your own good, for everyone’s good — forget about representation. I believe that students, for the sake of their own thriving as human beings, should be required to study at university only things that have nothing to do with their own life up until that point. Curricula should not be made to be “relatable.” Students should be encouraged rather to discover and cultivate relations to ideas, values, and traditions they had not previously known to exist. This is the ideal of the university that was still more or less intact when I was an undergraduate, in California in the early 1990s. It is certainly the ideal that reigned at the University of Leningrad when I went there as an exchange student, in the waning hours of the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. developed world-class traditions in archaeology, linguistics, and philology in much the same way it produced astronauts and Olympic athletes even amid constant economic hardship. Give me a choice between the late-communist university and the late-neoliberal university, and there’s no question which one I prefer: I prefer the one that hasn’t forgotten what the humanities are.
Temperamentally, to use Smith's language, I agree completely; for me academic life has always been about indulging my curiosity and sharing what I learn with others. But if pushed I would find it difficult to proclaim that our society should be supporting my curiosity with billions of dollars in education funding. I agree that many smart young people are too caught up in their own identities and should be pushed to get outside them, but the way universities are now set up they can choose their courses and therefore opt out of anything that bores them. If students won't sign up for your courses, and only a handful of other professors can even understand your publications, why should taxpayers subsidize your job? The desperation Smith writes of comes not just from identitarian politics, but from declining enrollments and other signs that the whole apparatus of humanistic education might disappear. Some recent calculations suggest that at least 10% of private American colleges will soon have to close. In the face of that, only tenured professors at rich institutions can afford not to be at least a little desperate.