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Here’s some of our conversation: about teaching and technology, the future of the liberal arts, the arbitrariness of philanthropy, and political threats to the university. The text has been edited for clarity and length.
The effect of Covid on the higher-education sector has not been as catastrophic as some analysts predicted early on. But it’s still been very damaging, and it continues to be. Bard prizes small seminar discussions, face to face around a table in a room. And it’s a center for the performing arts. Both of these enterprises are made much more difficult by masking and social distancing.
What that pandemic has shown, more than anything else, is the enormous value of teaching and learning — in real time and real space. I’ll put this in a provocative way. Learning and teaching are probably, if you’ll excuse the comparison, similar to sex in their relationship to technology. Technology can improve things at the margins, but the basic transaction remains the same.
The really great teaching that goes on in any institution of any size is between people in real time.
The same goes for politics. Virtual communication is a breeding ground for tyranny and autocracy, not democracy. Real politics requires real-time, real-place interaction. If we’re going to communicate with people who don’t agree with us, who are different from is, it can’t be done virtually, through social media.
The pandemic taught us that what we took for granted is absolutely indispensable — the significance of making contact with students, of teaching well, of human community.
We lived through a decade of utopian hot air about how all of this — classrooms, university buildings — was a complete irrelevancy, out of date, the horse and buggy of education. That turned out to be fraudulent.
The second major lesson, though, is that the technology can be wildly helpful. It doesn’t offer a utopian alternative, but we learned how to use it better.
There are some areas in the university that are under a kind of pressure now that I don’t think they’ve been under in my lifetime, parts of the humanities like literary study, musicology, art history. You’re a humanist, a musician, and a college administrator. What can colleges like yours do to stem this tide?
The decline of the humanities is something we have to answer. And some of the reasons are self-inflicted. The reason that, at Bard, literature is vital, is because the writing of literature and the study of literature are combined. We don’t run our faculty through specialized departments. The discipline and the specialization don’t overlap. We respect specialization, we respect scholarship, we encourage it. But the way problems are framed and answered doesn’t necessarily cohere with the way graduate universities produce Ph.D.s in the humanities.
So we have to stop worrying that we as humanists are not in a monopoly professional situation about a subject that someone who’s a physicist, or a biotechnology expert, is. We need not to worry that we could be a service discipline; there’s nothing wrong with that. We love having people in our classes who are not musicians and don’t want to become professional musicians — who are amateurs. That’s great.
The humanities have to make the argument for themselves in a way that doesn’t necessarily fall into the patterns of professional career development, as defined by the graduate schools.
It seems like the university as a concept is more imperiled, globally, than it has been in the past. How can university leaders meet what seems to be an increasing incidence of political interference?
On the one hand, the university is seen by governments, even in the United States, as ever-more indispensable. You need the university to produce people who can produce vaccines, who can actually make a better electric car. We’re completely dependent on the technological and scientific progress which has its core in the university.
That dependence puts pressure on the other ambition of the university, which is to be a place of dissent. A place that’s insulated from fashion, a place that is contrary, a place in which eccentricity and independence of thought is cultivated.
Now the record of the university doing that is very spotty. Russian universities played along with Communism for 40, 50 years; universities didn’t put up a big fight against fascism. Universities are not necessarily known for excessive courage, but they’re probably better than the average collection of people.
So, the task for us now is to protect the idea of freedom of expression and dissent from two countervailing pressures. First is the pressure of conformity to claims about what’s useful or not useful. “Efficiency.” But a university is great when it’s inefficient! We’re not a manufacturing operation. We take risks, and some of them don’t pan out.
Second, there’s the pressure in our own communities for our own form of conformism, especially with social media. People engage in self-censorship, and they’re frightened of being outed by their peers, whether in a very conservative university environment or in so-called liberal institutions.
I just watched the Netflix show The Chair, a dramedy about the chair of an English department. She has a lot of problems. Her star professor is in trouble: While teaching a class on modernism, he does a Sieg Heil while trying to colorfully evoke the forces of history. Some students get it on video, and student activists go into combat mode.
A lot of the discussion around the show has been about whether this plot line is plausible. Are students in fact this vindictive, this punitive? And even if there are excesses among the activists, is concern with this stuff just doing the bidding of a sort of Fox News-driven, right-wing narrative?
I’m a battlefield witness; I don’t want to assume the mantle of expertise.
I haven’t seen the show, but my takeaway is that there are certain theatrical devices which are better left alone. I would think that’s one of them — that’s high on my list. So I have no particularly sympathy for the lapse in judgment.
But the trouble is that there is so much emphasis on punishment. That is very disturbing.
I have an allergy to orthodoxy. There have always been orthodoxies reigning on the campus — when I was a student, there were minority views, and people were ostracized. But not to the same extent as now. I think the cause is not a change in campus culture, but the fuel that drives it, and that is social media. There is an explosion, the fire burns out of control rapidly. And it becomes very hard to negotiate solutions.
In addition, with a lot of recording, there is a vanishing of forgetfulness. Forgetfulness is a crucial means of survival. Bringing back grudges and memories and offenses and errors to Stage One is a kind of imprisonment. That should be rejected.
There’s a great scene in the opera Henry VIII by Camille Saint-Saëns where Anne Boleyn meets Catherine. Catherine has gotten the letters about Anne’s previous infidelities. In this fantastic closing scene, Catherine has the grace of throwing the letters in the fire. Now what does that tell you? There were no copies in an iCloud, and therefore burning the goddamn letters was actually a way of trying to advance human reconciliation.
There have always been orthodoxies. But orthodoxies do rage out of control, and they spill over into public discourse. The boundaries between private and public explode. We have a much more difficult situation to manage.
So the right wing has made a kind of a caricature about a problem which has always plagued the university but has gotten considerably worse. But one of the things the right wing complains about are safe spaces. Well, you know, Jewish students, when they came into the WASP-controlled university had Hillel houses; Catholic students had Cardinal Newman societies. We have an obligation to provide safety to all our students, and as they become more diverse we have to adapt to that.
Bard has recently received an enormous amount of money from the philanthropist George Soros. As an alum, I’m thrilled that an institution that I love will continue to be able to do what it does for a very long time. But as an observer of higher education in general, I’m distressed about the idea that the survival of these very important institutions might depend on the whims of superrich.
There is no doubt that the system of financing higher education, public and private, in the United States is completely irrational and broken. You can’t push the cost of higher education onto the consumer. There has to be much more tax-based support for the public universities. I would refinance all the public universities and also private institutions.
The inequality of wealth we live with is incompatible with democracy and incompatible, in my view, with a free society. But who’s going to have the will to change that without being tarred and feathered as a Socialist? So now that we have the superrich, we’re back to a period similar to when John D. Rockefeller single-handedly put the University of Chicago into business — the time of Leland Stanford, Hopkins, Carnegie Mellon. The history of great wealth investing in the public interest is long in the United States, and it’s an admirable history.
In my view, philanthropy is no longer going to be based on nostalgia — “I went there, my child went there” — that brought a lot of colleges into wealth. I think the future will be on mission, on ideas, on what contribution private institutions can make to the public welfare.