Here’s the Newsletter I sent out on March 7th 2019:
Dear friends and fam,
Thanks for taking this wild ride with me. In this week’s post, “Total Recall,” I talk about the pernicious effect of the toxic culture of academia. How our self-worth and ability to empathize is steadily ripped from our identity the longer we stay in the ivory tower. How our how desire to make a valuable contribution to a shared sense of the collective good dissolves into nothing as our own individualistic drive for success eclipses all else.
The oft-cited tweet by Ja Rule about the infamous Fyre Festival kept popping into my mind as I wrote it. Check it out here, or by clicking on the image below.
Just last night, I was talking with a friend about a recent conversation I had had with an academic, when my friend suddenly rolled her eyes and proclaimed, it’s so sickening how they all want you to somehow do something about higher education, yet they aren’t willing to stick their necks out at all.
Obviously, that is not the entire truth if only for the reason that academics are anything but homogenous. But it does perhaps get to some of my frustration that has marked my reading this week.
I started with Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins from 1996. Readings begins the book discussing how critiques of the university by “middlebrow media” are dismissed by certain academics as being “motivated by media commentators’ resentment at their failure to gain access to the hallowed groves of academe. Forever deprived of the chance to sit on the Faculty Positions Committee, such pundits, it is claimed, take out their frustration on the University.”
Do you catch that? Academia’s response to rising concerns over the casualization of labor et al in 1996 was to dismiss those concerns before even evaluating their merit on the oh so petty retort that the journalists writing on this topic were.... jealous of them? Srsly?
This was the first plausible explanation I’ve found for why, exactly, even though academics themselves have been writing about the steady decline of higher education for decades, nothing has been done. After all, there’s no need to do anything about groundless attacks made by jealous adversaries. Hard eye-roll. Academia needs to get over itself.
Published in 1996, this book reads as a portent into what higher education has since devolved into. This beginning struck me as a perfect way to talk about the toxic intellectual elitism that is incubated within academia. Like anything toxic, this mentality infects all who touch it. And it makes us all assholes. In my process of becoming academically sober, I now see this elitist mentality through a very different lens. A lens that reveals the underbelly of not just academia, but every single individual within it.
I followed up Readings’ book with William Deresiewicz’s New York Times bestseller Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way To A Meaningful Life. And damn, I was not disappointed. I cannot recommend the book enough.
The book focuses on the rigorous demands of Ivy league undergraduate admissions, and how they are stripping students of creativity and imagination to make them all “excellent sheep.” As a former professor at Yale who stepped out of the Ivory Tower, Deresiewicz’s crippling critique of the state of education as a whole in the U.S. is nothing short of breathtaking. This is an academic who truly values the art of writing.
In the last chapter of Excellent Sheep, Deresiewicz articulates precisely what needs to happen for higher education to redeem itself: it must over-come its “hereditary meritocracy.” This is a radical notion that demands legacies and class-based admissions requirements be eliminated. This is coming from a professor at perhaps the most pretentious and self-congratulatory university to ever exist. Naturally, I reveled in his discussion of WASPs (my people) and how the steady de-funding of the public educational system in order to privilege the rich has in turn screwed over everyone, including the rich themselves. He said it folks, not me.
With that said, I do not think the blame-game is working anymore. In fact, as Reading (perhaps inadvertently) illustrates with his anecdote about how much academics belittle everyone who is not them, we did this to ourselves. Every single academic current and past participated in the demise of higher education. No one is exempt because we are complicit and complacent in its exploitative inequality.
This is the point of this week’s post, and I’m likely to ruffle quite a few feathers in the process. But it must be said: intellectual elitism is our downfall. We are responsible for this university in ruins.
In other news and worlds, I offer up the most pleasant of antidotes to all of the above foolishness:
This novel is beautifully written, alternating between the perspectives of a newly arrived immigrant from Ghana and her privileged counterpart who is the daughter of her new employers in London. It reverses the exotifying lens typically reserved for visions of Africa and places it squarely on London, making the west seem loud, insane, and utterly exotic.
As the friendship between the two unfolds, I found myself wavering in allegiance between the two girls, especially as the story unfolded into one of the most hauntingly accurate descriptions of the process of coming out as gay that I have ever read. It placed me right back in my own process of coming out and the love-sick heartbreaking wonderful reality of it all.
It is a truly beautiful read.
Also, I went with a friend to a Food Book Fair (I love New York) this weekend, where I ate a lot of amazing food and stumbled upon this beautifully done zine called Grl Squash, which is a decidedly feminist take on how we enjoy food- they even have field guide for sale titled How to Smash Garlic and the Patriarchy, and who doesn’t love puns about garlic and the patriarchy??
I’ll leave you with this image by an artist that I found nestled at the beginning of the magazine titled “Nasty Woman” by Kat Giordano- I mean, who doesn't love cheetos riiight? ;)
Until next time,
P.S. This one's for my trolls. I hate to do this, but such is life: to the trolls who email me all upset about my grammar, say that I am not smart enough to do 'justice' to a topic as important as higher education, pejoratively say things like "I really want to like your blog, but..." I have a tip for you: if what I have to say upsets you, just stop reading. Take your trolling elsewhere, your presence certainly won't be missed.
And because all of my trolls are literally all men (shocking, I know) who frequently put in a fake email so I cannot reply to their assaults on my intelligence, a warning: Dear Sirs: I do not have time for you. Which is to say, I will drag you publicly on twitter purely for the purposes of entertaining my fellow feminists. I also reserve the right to drag you on my blog, such as I do in this post. You have been warned.**
**want to see if you’ve already been the subject of a twitter drag? Follow me @postphdtheblog! xoxo