Critiquing the Academy Is Not (Always) about Nostalgia

November 4, 2013

Academic Twitter is both one of my greatest sources of solidarity and one of my greatest sources of annoyance.

This is my first simultaneous truth. What I mean by “simultaneous truths” is a pair of things that people treat as dichotomous opposites, which, in fact, are not opposed and can both be true at the same time.

I bring this up because, in one of those sources of annoyance, someone on Twitter put forth the exceptionally foolish idea that critique of the present is always about a nostalgic desire to return to a previous status quo, in which elites held power.* This was, of course, in relation to the death of the humanities and critiques of the current university system. This person then pointed out that academia now has a greater level of representation of women and minorities than it ever did before, so a desire for something like greater support of the humanities must be a desire to shore up the walls of the Ivory Tower to keep out the barbarians at the gate.

Leaving aside the fact that this person has most likely not read José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia, which argues that finding the utopian potential in past moments is what drives forward momentum in social movements (Very big gloss there, I know. Read the book.), this view of nostalgia about the academy is flawed. Most people who are bemoaning the state of the university are not doing so from a position of elites who have lost power. (There are a few of those folks, of course, and they tend to be loud jerks; don’t listen to them.) Instead, it’s more productive to think of the more complicated truths about the university that have led to critiques of the present moment. These may be mixed with nostalgia, but it’s far more nuanced than that.

It is simultaneously true that the public university system in the United States had a golden age of funding and expansion in the 1950s and 1960s, even as it excluded many categories of people (such as women and minorities, and, of course, women minorities). Things like the GI Bill, the establishment of federal grants, loans, and work-study led to a much wider scope of students attending the university, mostly in terms of class. At the same time, federal and state funding of public universities was at a high point. A desire for increases in federal and state funding of universities, paired with an argument that the funding was measurably much greater in the past, is not a desire to return to a university that replicates the elitism of Harvard at the turn of the last century.

It is simultaneously true that universities have record attendance, which used to be thought of as a sign of economic expansion, and that there’s a growing level of income inequality in the United States. Tressie McMillan Cottom does an excellent analysis of this issue on Slate, and, if you haven’t already, you should check out her piece there.

It is simultaneously true that elites can freak out over the crisis in the humanities, and, at the same time, those who studied the humanities to gain access to culture not afforded to those in their social class can also freak out over the crisis in the humanities. Elites bemoan the loss of studying the classics. Others bemoan the elimination of disciplines after they became representative of more people.

It is simultaneously true that more people are attending universities than ever before, and that this demand for education has not led to an increase in tenure lines, living wages for adjuncts, or anything resembling equality for instructors.

It is simultaneously true that the university has more women and minorities (and women minorities, for that matter) working at it than ever before. It is also true that there are fewer good jobs overall. And, in fact, it may be precisely because the jobs are less desirable that they are going to categories of humans other than “straight, white male.” To be fair, tons of straight, white males are also in the adjunct boat, due to the sheer enormity of the problem.

Desiring a return to public funding of universities, to increased research opportunities, to more affordable education, to a place where the humanities are valued, or to a recognition of instructors’ importance, is not a desire to return to the time when straight, white men ruled the earth. Rather, it is a desire to increase opportunities for the key personnel of the university: teachers and students. This is something moving people forward, even if it is inspired by imperfect conditions of the past.

And this actually brings me back to Muñoz. If people are being nostalgic about the mid-century university system, even if they would themselves have been excluded from it, they are being nostalgic about the potentiality of that moment. What if the promise of the great American university system had come true, and included affordable education for all types of students, as well as a living wage for those teaching them? Recognizing the unfulfilled potential of that moment is what drives our work for change in the future. It is what keeps us from giving up in despair.

Up next on Wednesday: Neoliberalism and the discourse of “good work.”

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*I may have taken more issue with this than most things, because a lot of my recent work is on nostalgia. The flippant comment that all critique of the present is about uncomplicated nostalgia is a load of shit to anyone who’s ever read anything about nostalgia, whether social theory or the science of nostalgia.

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