In the movie Examined Life, Slavoj Zizek wanders about a garbage dump talking about ecology as involving a profoundly conservative set of beliefs, as the contemporary exemplar of ideology. Zizek asserts that the impulse toward “saving the planet” or conservationism is not, in fact, a “liberal” impulse, and so his position is that the more radical gesture is in fact to turn away from “nature” as an ideological good.
Now, whether you agree with Zizek or not about the politics of ecology, I think his formulation here is a useful one for thinking about the “liberal” professoriate. Because here’s the thing: professors, as a group, are not, actually, a bunch of radicals hell bent on destroying the fabric of culture and society. I realize this is a shocking assertion to make. We’re supposed to be brainwashing the youth with our lack of family values, with our political correctness, with our antipathy to all that is moral and right and true. Especially those of us who teach in humanities disciplines.
But let’s think, for a moment, about what your average English professor (or history professor or philosophy professor) actually does in a given day.
- We introduce students to cultural artifacts (literary texts, historical documents, philosophical treatises, music, works of art) and attempt to convince them that these objects hold some sort of intrinsic value to humanity and thus should be studied and preserved.
- We insist that our students meet certain agreed upon academic standards of research and writing, which involve writing in standard English, following the protocols of proper citation and formatting, and using authoritative and peer-reviewed scholarly sources.
- We produce scholarship that is about conserving and preserving the status of cultural artifacts that give insight into the human condition. (Even scholarship that is critical of “traditional” approaches or texts ultimately does this; even scholarship that introduces new approaches or texts participates in an economy of conservation and preservation of ideas/texts/thoughts that are “worthy.” There is no outside of power and all that.)
- We work at institutions that are authorized by government and society, performing various bureaucratic tasks to insure the continuance of those institutions. (While I know those who like to attack the professoriate think that we lead lives of glamor and intrigue, I am going to go out on a limb and say that there is absolutely nothing less glamorous and intriguing than the regular slog of committee work. Even grading is more glamorous and intriguing than committee work.)
- We live solidly middle-class lives that are grounded in a mythology of meritocratic achievement, and however self-aware we may be about the lie of meritocracy, our livelihoods depend on meeting various benchmarks and jumping through various hoops (the process toward earning a Ph.D., the job market, the path toward tenure and promotion, etc.)
For the most part, none of us are changing the world. For the most part, we are boring as hell.
And beyond all that, I really don’t think I have all that much influence on my students’ beliefs about anything. For example, I have been waging a war on the passive voice in student writing for, lo, these many years. In paper after paper that a student submits I will attack convoluted sentence structure and unnecessary wordiness. In class I will insist that this is not the best way to write and I will model how to write differently. I’m sorry to report that my lectures and my lengthy comments on papers go largely unheeded. And students don’t even actually care about the passive voice. They don’t have a deep commitment to it. Do you really think that if I tried to convince my students to become atheist, communist, queer rebels that I would have that power? Really?
You’d think conservatives would actually love a person like me. I mean, instead of getting out there and organizing and protesting and sticking it to The Man, I spend my time reading books, harping on students about the quality of their prose, and spending endless hours in meetings and doing paperwork. I mean, sure, I might read books and teach books that “offend,” but as Auden so wisely notes, “For poetry makes nothing happen: it survives / In the valley of its making where executives / Would never want to tamper…”
But so if I believe these things (and I do), you may wonder what the point of teaching is or what the point of an academic life is. And my answer is that I believe in carving out a space for contemplation and ideas that is distinct from a space of utility. I believe that in the conversations I have with my students they learn to think deeply and critically about their beliefs, even if their beliefs remain the same. I believe that the work that I do contributes to the growth of my community, and I believe that there is something to be gained for all people from aesthetic pleasure in everyday life.