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the end of us

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I imagine that most of you, at least those of you who look at the NYT, have already seen this.

Baby boomers, hired in large numbers during a huge expansion in higher education that continued into the ’70s, are being replaced by younger professors who many of the nearly 50 academics interviewed by The New York Times believe are different from their predecessors — less ideologically polarized and more politically moderate.

“There’s definitely something happening,” said Peter W. Wood, executive director of the National Association of Scholars, which was created in 1987 to counter attacks on Western culture and values. “I hear from quite a few faculty members and graduate students from around the country. They are not really interested in fighting the battles that have been fought over the last 20 years.”

Cohen is right, of course, to emphasize the changing nature of the American academic workplace and job market – it’s the first and last answer to the problem of the de-politicization of the faculties. But there is something else going on, I think, something deeply related to the material situation but not entirely continuous with it. It has to do with the failure of the ideological momentum of the left itself, the cul de sac that was mainline theory and the bigger, emptier cul de sac that the humanities found themselves in after they emerged (as they emerge) from it. The previous order was handy with a certain problem set – diversity issues, race and gender issues – but stumbled once it had attained many of its aims in these fields.

At the start of his career, Mr. Olneck traced the links between where someone’s family came from and where they ended up on the economic and social ladder. Although he has done quantitative research, 20 years ago he jettisoned number-centric studies for historical narrative, exploring how schools throughout the 20th century responded to immigrants and diversity. In his work one can detect some of the era’s preoccupations when he argues, for instance, that fights over bilingualism and standard English were about power.

The same goes for his extracurricular activities. In 1989 he worked to kick the R.O.T.C. off campus because of the Defense Department’s ban on homosexuals. (The effort failed.) More recently, his neighborhood was riled by a Walgreens plan to open a drugstore. “All these people who had protested the war and civil rights,” Mr. Olneck said, laughing; Walgreens “didn’t know what hit ’em.”

Lots more to say, but for now: it may be becoming clear, only as we lose it, that a progressively-minded academia, however ineffective it can be in attaining the real-world materializations of its aims and ideals, is worth something rather than nothing. And while the intensification of labor and deskilling that definine the business practices of the institutions that hire us are, yes, the first and last cause of the problem, the fading of the old paradigms, the lack of a viable framework that would enable new work and better communication, isn’t helping matters either.

In other words, what, at this point, would we even imagine a left academia to believe in at this point? What, reasonably, would they invest themselves in? Obamania? The permanostalgia that I increasingly feel characterizes my own political inclinations, and that I would love to transform (or even have transformed) into something a little more practicable?

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 3, 2008 at 9:13 pm

Posted in academia

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  1. That article is about Madison, my hometown, so I feel like I should respond to it at Gibbonesque length. But here I’ll confine myself to the observation that I was around for that Walgreen’s battle— the neighborhood in question is upscale, and its also-upscale grocery store had closed after decades in business. The residents wanted a neighborhood grocery store rather than a Walgreen’s; there was already a small independent pharmacy across the street. There were massive efforts to get the co-op grocery on the other side of town to open a branch in this space, but they never came to fruition. After 4 or 5 years, with the mayor threatening to condemn the property, they gave the lease to Trader Joe’s, and now there is a nice Trader Joe’s in the nice affluent neighborhood. It seems like a funny thing for Professor Olneck to boast about; I wonder how much he put up for the co-op.

    To me, the real news in that article was restricted to a single sentence: that taxpayer funding for the University of Wisconsin is down to 18% of its budget. Just enough to allow taxpayers to bitch about what their tax dollars are supporting; not enough for real support. “The University”, i.e. academia, is no longer much of a secure, venerable institution of perennial values and traditions; it’s been under financial siege for decades, and the commonwealth that once supported it has long since dried up. My question for further discussion: what does it mean for the future of politics in the academy that universities are now, basically, poor, with a few pockets of wealth (administration, corporate research, etc.)? I think this is a real change since the 1960s, and even since the turn of the century. If the university once seemed like a sleek and shiny tool to put towards the work of social change, it is now rusty, antiquated, in need of replacement parts long since out of production, and making it operational again takes money and time, and will, that almost no one has these days. Overhead just continues to rise, and rise, and rise, and investment is erratic, unreliable, and politically fraught. This is all relative, of course — the University of Wisconsin still has more money than I do. But I don’t think any university, let alone all of them, is in a position to manage and distribute social change for greater justice these days. The institution has taken a lot of direct hits.

    I assume that predicating the word “poor” of the word “university” would cause the NYT to blow up, however. ‘Nother story about Harvard’s endowment, pls!


    July 4, 2008 at 11:50 am

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