It would be the worst of clichés, at this stage, to talk about how “unprecedented,” “difficult,” or “crazy” these times are. (But there, I just did it, in a clever sidelong way that you may have missed.) But literary quibbles aside, I’m struggling, as everyone is, with the awful moment the US is limping through.
I’ve benefited from the privilege that comes from being a straight, white, cis man in a country built around that precise set of qualifiers. One specific manifestation of privilege is my role as a tenure-track academic, with a gauranteed income (at least for now) when so many face insecurity. Now I’m alternating between horror and rage at the events unfolding daily in this failed republic and guilt over never having done anything substantive to improve the situation. And I deserve to feel this way: all of us who have benefited from an unjust system and the structural violences that support it deserve to carry that weight. In moments like this one, with the coronavirus still raging through the US and the powerful imperative to stay away from other humans still in effect, the weight can be enough to paralyze.
The Covid-19 pandemic has, as many have noted, laid bare the fault lines that have always existed in globalizing, capitalist societies, and by forcing us to sit and reflect on these realities–literally, as most of us have been on lock-down for the past two months and more–the virus has perhaps done us a favor. But now, even after the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor mobilized thousands of Americans despite the danger of exposure, I’m still left wondering if we can expect any real change down the line. That Minnesota has increased the charges against Floyd’s murderer does suggest, as Stephen Colbert recently pointed out, that protest works. But will this lead to real structural change? Countless people of color (to say nothing of other minority or otherwise non-normative humans) have suffered and died as a result of the rampant prejudice and injustice that are not vestigial traits within American society but central, defining elements of it. I’m not hopeful that the autocratic regime currently squatting in the White House will be removed this November, or that undoing its damage will be possible in the foreseeable future.
In my own world of the American university, the pandemic has cast an especially harsh light on the capitalist business-think that has undergirded education in this country since at least mid-century. An excellent recent piece by Honor Brabazon at St. Jerome’s University explores these issues via a list of assumptions made by the neoliberal university during the Covid-19 crisis. Brabazon argues, “Liminal times, in which the established social order is suspended, are opportunities, and this is an opportunity for university communities to have a broad discussion about what the university is, what we think it should be, and how to move toward that goal.”
The university’s goal is to create critical thinkers, able to contribute meaningfully not only to mechanical processes of production and “innovation” but to the humanistic discourses that help us work through what it means to be human. Obviously many administrative types disagree, and I don’t know how we can use this moment as an opportunity. The current moment of anti-intellectualism, disdain for expertise and evidence, and the accelerating slide toward fascism casts serious doubt over the possibility of education to make a difference in the immediate future. Brabazon is entirely right to challenge us all to rethink the mission of the university; I just don’t know how, in practical terms, to rise to that challenge.
Despair is a very real threat for all of us these days, and finding ways to push through it has to be our most immediate goal. I hope higher education can meaningfully contribute to this process, but we’ll have to get our own affairs in order first.