A Response

George Will’s new column at The Washington Post is a very sympathetic read of my recent essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education. His is here, mine here.

I’m grateful for the attention to my piece—and even moreso for his enthusiastic recommendation of Mark Sinnett’s masterful St. John’s College commencement address, which deserves to be seen by everyone on the planet with a grasp of English and a sound and functioning soul. But in trying to improve on my argument, he mischaracterizes my claim: far from advocating “technological determinism,” my point was that social media functions as a playground for academics made anxious by the political economy of neoliberal higher education. Twitter is a place for anxious academics to lose themselves in the Gereden of the day and forget whatever wisdom they’ve gleaned from their years of study. The technology is catalyst, not cause—it facilitates professorial sophistry, but the original impulse comes from elsewhere.

I would welcome George’s thoughts on how this problem might be fixed. I’m largely unfamiliar with his writing and thought, but I have a suspicion that we’d find ourselves in some opposition on the details: my criticism of academic insanity comes from a bone-deep love of thinking and learning, and a conviction that the modern research university is falling far short of its promise of providing anything we can call “an education” to a vast majority of people it serves (not to mention those it doesn’t). I want a de-frivolizing of the academic humanities because I love the humanities, and I want it to be possible for anyone with an earnest desire to engage in study of them. Consider how many broad-minded and deep-souled scholars of literature, philosophy, and the classics were working-class kids who enrolled at Brooklyn College in the middle of the 20th Century. Now imagine this—or something like it—in as many American cities as possible. This is, roughly speaking, my ideal future.

There are many barriers to this kind of future, and most of them come from within the structure of the university: social media silliness is utterly secondary to the very serious problems facing the liberal arts. But it’s certainly not making anything better, and curious people who feel a pull toward the study of philosophy, history, literature, or the liberal arts more broadly would not be foolish to be dissuaded after witnessing the antics of professorial discourse-mongers. There are already so many incentives pulling learners (especially young ones) toward computer science, engineering, or sociology. The importance of liberal arts education has always been best demonstrated in the demeanor of those who regard them as important—so if there’s no money in it anyway, who in their right mind would choose to associate themselves with clowns?

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