Friday, December 4, 2020

Justin Smith on the Contemporary University

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.


David said...

I get it that tens of millions of Americans love football and the lottery, and so our society is going to continue to spend tens of billions on those sorts of things. I also get that tens of millions of people are only interested in school if it's going to help them get a good job, and so we're going to spend less and less on the kinds of things I value, like studying old Safavid texts. And I can't at the moment think of any rational or moral argument that things should be otherwise. But no one will convince me not to regret the passing of the old way of doing things, or convince me that a world in which literally all decisions are made on the basis of market choices and statistically-demonstrated efficiency is desirable, that the world becoming that way would be a change for the better, that a person who values such things above other things shouldn't be embarrassed about it, or that our generation should feel any pride if we allow such a change to be finalized in our time.

David said...

I will add that, at a recent faculty event, we were introduced to a new scheme Stanford has either adopted or thought of adopting to replace the major system, where at the outset of college students propose a goal they have in mind, some change they want to make in the world, and then they and their advisors propose ways to get there. The go-to example for something a student would propose was "I want to end world hunger." Now, I want to end world hunger as much as the next guy, but as an educator, I found this appalling. What about the "voracious nerd," as Justin Smith puts it so well, who has no grandiose, narcissistic ambitions to propose, but just thinks biology or whatever is beautiful, and simply wants to spend all their time finding out about it and understanding it and never stop? What about Lewis Thomas? A world that doesn't have a place for such people will be a desert, and we will have made it that way.

David said...

Another thing, and then I will try to shut up: my experience is that students can sense when their professor is motivated by sheer love of the material, sheer voracious nerd-dom, and they appreciate and respect it. And, when they themselves get the chance to choose an elective, there is no shortage of students whose instinct is to look around for something that "I just think sounds cool." I've had some advisees whose first instinct was to choose courses that increase their market value, but it's by no means the majority. I've even had tough-guy athletes who say things like, "Do I have room to take another sculpture class? I can't get enough of it." (This latter story is true.)

G. Verloren said...


We're regressing, I sometimes think, toward a renaissance era state of being where the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of knowledge will largely only exist as a luxury for wealthy eccentrics, or those with wealthy and eccentric patrons willing to indulge.

But at the same time, I also look at projects like Guédelon Castle, where a loosely organized community of enthusiasts and volunteers are building a historically accurate medieval French castle using period appropriate tools, materials, and techniques; I look at crowdsourcing platforms like Kickstarter and Patreon where independent, passionate people are appealing to their fellow nerds to collectively fund media projects of all kinds; I look at how many people there are in the world outside of academia who manage to pursue and accomplish incredible-but-impractical things out of sheer nerdy love for their chosen obsessions, without any of the benefits (or detriments) of the college university system.

I think "academia" might be in danger of disappearing, but only in the sense of a formal construct beholden to an aged and stagnant institutional model. People aren't going to stop being passionate about things like Safavid texts, but I do think such things are going to have to find a new home outside of our for-profit education system, because we've allowed things to reach a point where that very quest for profit means we can no longer justify formally supporting less profitable things.

Also, I would point out that we're really only talking about American academia here - the rest of the world is still out there, and there are still many countries and institutions quite willing to keep funding knowledge for its own sake. Heck, there are lots of places in the world where college and university courses are free to anyone who wants them, because they prefer to spend taxpayer money on books and classrooms instead of bombs and corpses.