Campuses are complicated spaces, because they aren’t just one kind of space: There’s the classroom, the dorm, the public space that is the campus. Then there’s what we could call clubs, support centers—identity based or based on social categories or political interests. It’s a terrible mistake to confuse all of these and imagine that the classroom or the public space of the campus is the same as your home. …
Academic freedom needs to be appreciated as a collective right of the faculty to be free of interference in determining what we research and teach. We’re accountable to our disciplines, our peers. We can’t just do anything and have it called quality scholarship or teaching. But the idea of academic freedom is that we are free of external interference. Free speech is different. It’s an individual right for the civic and public sphere. It’s not about research and teaching. It’s not even about the classroom. It’s what you can say in public without infringement by others or the state. ….
[I]f we just focus on this generation’s political style—and we have to remember youth style always aggravates the elders—we ignore their rage at the world they’ve inherited, and their desperation for a more livable and just one, and their critique of our complacency. That is part of what is going on in the streets and on our campuses. But that remains different from educating that rage and helping young people learn not just the deep histories but even the contemporary practices that will make them more powerful thinkers and actors in this world. If they’re right about our complacency, what we still have to offer is knowledge and instruction and some space in a classroom to think.—Wendy Brown, interviewed in “Why Critics of Angry Woke College Kids Are Missing the Point,” New York Times Magazine, May 1, 2022
Free adults who undertake sustained and serious inquiry are not made from scratch—they are cultivated on trust. Education begins from the assumption that students are capable of taking responsibility for their own learning and that they are naturally motivated, even driven from within to pursue fundamental questions. That assumption is based on nothing other than the simple humanity of the student and the student’s free choice to take up an education.
It is a commonplace of the theory of human excellence, going back at least to Aristotle, that virtues are learned by imitation. If we wish to promote the virtue of seriousness in young people, to pass on free inquiry, to lead students into the depths where real insight and understanding take place, we must first cultivate ourselves. We should remind ourselves of the human questions that once gripped us. We should reconsider our work, our choices, the broad scope of our lives in light of those questions. We must form the community of equals that human seriousness makes possible, and invite our students to join us.—Zena Hitz, Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life (Princeton University Press, 2020), 196-197
Since I last wrote, a lot has changed, and a lot has become more clear.
First, virtually all of my friends working in schools and colleges are teaching remotely for the rest of the spring. It seems clear now that American higher education, as a whole, acted with admirable foresight in closing our campuses before public authorities recommended it, and indeed, in acting far more aggressively to protect our communities than officials advised at the time.
In fact, here in the United States, the federal response to this crisis has been disgraceful. Key politicians, including the president of the United States, have persisted in spreading blatant disinformation and delaying critical action for the sake of their own political benefit, endangering millions of extra lives and tens of millions of livelihoods. Theoretically apolitical federal agencies, notably the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, have also failed dramatically. The CDC was caught unprepared for the pandemic despite weeks or even months of specific advance warnings. Its recommendations for educational institutions, until recently, appear to have been entirely wrongheaded, being based on a presumption of widespread testing of affected individuals and communities—testing that we all already knew wasn’t happening anywhere in the United States.
A largely preventable disaster is unfolding. It appears that many American leaders are determined to let the very worst happen. On the other hand, many state and local officials are rising to the occasion, and so are countless millions of ordinary people.
My students and I are scheduled to reconvene next week after an extra-long spring break and spend the rest of the semester working online. So far, my students appear to be rising to the occasion. I am moved by the sacrifices they have already made, and I’m determined not to waste their time or money as we complete our tasks.
I don’t know what the future holds. I do assume that some people I know will die in the next year. I also strongly suspect that the pandemic, which is likely to cause a global economic depression, will end my teaching career in higher education, which was always tenuous. But those are problems to address when they arise.
This week, the nature of higher education in America changed, at least for the rest of the spring. Nobody knows what the long-term effects will be, or whether the choices our institutions have made will turn out to be worthwhile. Indeed, given the complexity of the situation, we may never get to be sure.
As recently as Monday morning, I could muse aloud that I had seen very little public discussion of the effects of spring break—when countless thousands of young Americans (and often their families) travel long distances at about the same time—on the spread of COVID-19 in the United States. Within hours, I could no longer say anything of the kind.