Since I began my career as a doctoral student at CUNY I have learned extensively on the history and the current state of higher education in the United States and its many contradictions. Yet, I still find it difficult and perhaps a bit arrogant to express an opinion on such topics, due to the fact that – luckily – I have not experienced them firsthand. So I will try to give authority to the critical claims coming from an outsider that follow by making use of a widespread remark credited to John Culkin and employed by both Marshall McLuhan in Understanding Media, and Jean Baudrillard in America: “We do not know who discovered water, but we are certain it was not fish.”
While reading The Risky Business, I couldn’t help but thinking of the paradox that arises from the clash between the centrality of the humanities in the development and history of the nation on the one hand (as argued by a text in a comment I mentioned a few weeks ago, Geoffrey Harpham’s The Humanities and the Dream of America), and the capitalistic and exclusive nature – often at the core of the discipline’s critique – of its higher education system, the very institution that is supposed to carry on its mission. This idea of being able to serve only privileged portions of the social stratum – leaving out those who would benefit the most from it – is itself in contradiction with the democratizing function of the humanities.
Some inspirational considerations on the topic come from texts Stefano Harney and Fred Moten’s The Undercommons, and from Roderick A. Ferguson, The Reorder of Things. The piece reminded me how crucial introducing these texts in English classes can be, so as to raise awareness among both white students and students of color. Here are some of the questions that they raised for me, as an educator – how do we distinguish ourselves from the very economic system and structures of power object of our critique? How do we escape the daunting scenario of being nothing but a cog in the machine – in other words, how can we differentiate ourselves from those who say that “slavery was a long time ago”? Does working in an elitarian system produce a negation to our values? From this perspective, is teaching nothing but a service we are providing to customers? If so, how do we reconcile with the fact that we are failing to provide our services to a certain category of customers who are paying for our services with the same currency as other students? In addition to the “customers” we are not serving right I am also concerned about those who are left out altogether. Is there a way for us to reach out to those who are left out from the academia? Finally, how do we reconcile with those questions and contradictions when we engage in academic research?
Both Harney and Moten’s and Fergusons texts offer, if not answers, then valuable insights in regard to the problems that arise from living within the system and dismantling it – or at least attempting to do so – at the same time. Both texts deal theoretically (and with different levels of explicitness) with the emergence of a sense of frustration caused by the impossibility to change the system, and to make an impact on society at large that goes beyond the circulation of one’s idea within the academic context. My personal take is that these goals cannot be reached on the part of the academia alone, in other words, I see the theoretical as in need of being strongly and necessarily tied to a too-often deaf political dimension. Ideally, the academic world should be able to act in synergy with other social institutions to achieve its goal. In other words, the outcome of academic research should inspire policy makers and mold the structure of powers.
To make room for the “postcolonial university” invoked by Gutierrez, we first have to make room for it by dismantling the old one. This process beings by spreading the word of books such as The Undercommons and The Reorder of Things and familiarizing ourselves and our students with theoretical frameworks such as CRT to “disrupt dominant racial narratives by “analyzing the myths, presuppositions, and received wisdoms that make up the common culture about race and that invariably render blacks and other minorities one-down.” (347)