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One could not help but try to imagine the struggle session to which Mayhew was subjected that week, from which he emerged as if reborn. It seems hard to deny that he is sincere in his follow-up piece (the common view that he was writing as if a gun were held to his head misses the mark), but also totally and radically converted from one way of seeing the world to another, a conversion that typically occurs only when there is significant social and institutional pressure.
For what it’s worth, I have long believed that college athletics programs are racist, and for that among many other reasons I have long argued for their abolition. But I came to this conclusion precisely by not renouncing the inner voice of my reason and conscience. In the end Mayhew’s conversion has more to do with such a renunciation than with any mundane self-correction resulting from the consideration of new evidence. He is renouncing his former standing as a rational individual in order to blend into a mass movement that very emphatically makes no room for his individual rationality. This is an anthropological pattern that repeats itself, over and over again, in the history of new religions and of mass movements that have the character of religions even if they have no explicit theology: the effervescence of self-abnegation.
The large-scale turn to identity-focused topics and self-referential preoccupation with the university as an object of study are a betrayal of the legacy of humanism.
Read both pieces for yourself, and try to reconstruct what might be going on. What makes this particular road-to-Damascus moment so intriguing to me is what I was able to learn about Mayhew’s career prior to the conversion for which he was destined to become widely known. Although he and I are both technically academics, Mayhew is someone with whom I would have absolutely nothing to talk about if, by some unlikely twist of fate, I were seated next to him at some rubber-chicken-and-ice-water teaching-awards dinner. I consider myself a pretty wide-ranging conversation partner. You tell me you work on cosmic background radiation or Antarctic ice-core paleoclimatology or Jane Austen, and I will be into it. I will recognize in you a share in a common project that unites us under the umbrella of the university as it was understood from the 18th century until around 2008.
Mayhew’s career, which began well before that critical year but was also a harbinger of it, has been built entirely on tracking and echoing the transformations of the university itself. He obtains research funding for projects with names like “Assessment of Collegiate Residential Environments and Outcomes,” and publishes in volumes with titles like The Faculty Factor: A Vision for Developing Faculty Engagement With Living Learning Communities. He has an h-index, according to Google, of 34, which indicates that he is doing whatever it is he is supposed to do according to the rules — which increasingly is to say, the algorithms — that shape the profession. And this is where I think his spectacular public recantation is significant: Hewing so close in his career to the vicissitudes of the institution that both pays him and constitutes the object of his study, Mayhew sooner or later could not fail to embody and express, through his own personal conversion, the conversion of higher education to whatever you want to call this peculiar new sensibility that has transformed large sectors of American society in the Trump era.
The United States has never been good at producing public intellectuals, but new trends in the present century bring our country’s public discourse even further from anything one might dare to call the life of ideas. As in every other domain of public life, a peculiar political polarization has occurred: On the right (and among the defenders of classical liberalism, “reason,” and the “Enlightenment”), the guiding lights are coming from psychology departments, or from that strange hybrid zone between psychology and business. Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, and others are thus put on a public stage and expected to hold forth on all that is human, but their model of the human is one that for the most part extends back no further than the late 19th century, and for the most part takes us as bundles of instincts nudged this way and that by stimuli. They are not humanists, in the significant sense of this term that extends back to the Renaissance, and yet they are adjuncting as humanists for a culture that does not know to expect any better.
Meanwhile, on the progressive left, the academic fields that are churning out public figures are even more tenuously rooted in humanistic tradition. Roxane Gay, Robin DiAngelo, Freddie deBoer (who is great when he’s talking about anything other than his academic specialty), and many others first entered public life on the basis of their advanced credentials in the field of education, or of scholarly work focused on what happens in the classroom. I suppose if we were reading Rousseau or Dewey on the subject (just as if we were reading William James on psychology), we would maintain our connection to humanism. But this is not typically what goes on in graduate schools of education. There you are more likely to find books with titles like How College Affects Students: 21st-Century Evidence That Higher Education Works, to cite the title of one of Mayhew’s co-authored works.
Mine is to some extent an echo of a line Stanley Fish was pushing for a while (Fish’s postmodernism now appears positively humanistic in comparison with what followed it): A university is a place for discovering universes in grains of sand, drawing these universes out for others to see, enriching society by connecting to and preserving bonds with things that lie beyond our society (Mexica temple architecture, quasars, Great Zimbabwe, whales). The large-scale turn to identity-focused topics and the self-referential preoccupation with the university as an object of study — not the history of the university, but the university in its current administrative functions and social dimensions — are a betrayal of the legacy of humanism. I have resolved to spend the rest of my career, come what may, trying to preserve what I can of its surviving threads, like some sombre Isidore of Seville in the very last moments of late antiquity.
It is not that the sort of research I previously took for granted as “what one does” at a university has entirely disappeared. There are still people who “work on Milton” and so on. But most who do so, if they are still relatively young and have the energy left, are figuring out ways to restyle their initial specialization to fit within a university ecosystem that does not value such specialization nearly as much as they were led to believe it would be valued when they were in graduate school. Most people my age, who finished their Ph.D.s in the early years of the present century, have been fairly successful at remodeling themselves. Until around 2015 most were content to say, “I work on Descartes,” “I work on medieval nominalism,” and so on. But over the past few years they have begun contorting themselves to assure others right away that this is not all they do, and that they are also engaged in various forms of surmounting their own discipline, revising the philosophical canon, and exploding the conceits and biases of the generations that preceded us.
Now in fact there is nothing I would like more to see happen than for philosophers to surmount the narrow bounds of their disciplines, to strive harder to listen to submerged and forgotten voices, and so on. I have been arguing for the importance of this since long before the broad cultural transformation of the past years that I am attempting to describe here. I’ve written books about it. A decade ago I was still getting in trouble for it, and now I’m getting in trouble for not being strident enough about it. My considered view is that there is nothing more important or worthy than drawing out submerged and forgotten voices. What makes me sad is the pro forma character of the new emphasis on this among my contemporaries. I do not, to say the least, get the sense that it is motivated by intellectual curiosity. I detect something much more like a survival instinct — a desperate effort to adapt to a transformed university landscape, where different rules apply than the ones we signed up for.
The prevailing air of desperation today makes a temperamentally curious person into a rarity and an oddball in the university setting. You are supposed to affirm the value of including more non-Western traditions in the philosophy curriculum, for example, but only in a way that anchors this change to current social and political goals, even if in the end these goals only ever require fairly small-stakes adjustments that do not so much improve society as display conformity to a new moral sensibility. If you get into deciphering Nahuatl cosmological texts, but really into it, not because it is part of a concern to see greater Latinx representation in the philosophy curriculum, but simply in the same way you are into Paleolithic cave art or Aristotle on marine biology or Safavid pharmaceutical texts — because you are a voracious nerd and you thought when you were a student that that was precisely what made you prime professor material — then you are really not doing what is expected of you to adapt to the new academic ethos.
I say — for your own good, for everyone’s good — forget about representation. I believe that students, for the sake of their own thriving as human beings, should be required to study at university only things that have nothing to do with their own life up until that point. Curricula should not be made to be “relatable.” Students should be encouraged rather to discover and cultivate relations to ideas, values, and traditions they had not previously known to exist. This is the ideal of the university that was still more or less intact when I was an undergraduate, in California in the early 1990s. It is certainly the ideal that reigned at the University of Leningrad when I went there as an exchange student, in the waning hours of the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. developed world-class traditions in archaeology, linguistics, and philology in much the same way it produced astronauts and Olympic athletes even amid constant economic hardship. Give me a choice between the late-communist university and the late-neoliberal university, and there’s no question which one I prefer: I prefer the one that hasn’t forgotten what the humanities are.
Parts of this essay previously appeared on the author’s Substack newsletter.