December 28, 2021

So today is the 55th anniversary of my birth. (Do a little math and you’ll have my birth year, which is enough to check in at my orthopedist’s office but not much else.) Birthdays are generally weird, out-of-body experiences for me, as I think I do a pretty bad job of what Joan Didion once wrote that we should all do, namely “keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be,” and on my birthday those people tend to pop up whether I want to renew our acquaintance or not.

me a long time ago

It’s been a generally weird year too, if you haven’t noticed, and it’s ending with a bang. The pandemic that we’re supposed to be post- is not going away, even as the people who run our institutions are bowing to political pressure and acting like it is. My high schooler will in a few days return to a school that will no longer have a mask mandate, in large part because my state’s attorney general is bullying school districts into ending mandates. In a society that is as post-racial as it is post-pandemic, books are being banned in schools and hundreds of anti-antiracism (and other kids of bigotry) bills are lining up at state houses across the country. Republican-dominated state houses are also busy finding ways to rig future elections by gerrymander and wholesale replacement of election officials. And the January 6 conspirators are writing books laying out their plans, including the 100 lawmakers they had lined up to help them overturn the election, and as yet none of them seem to be paying any kind of price.

Peter Navarro, author and one of the president’s men

One of the people I used to be who popped up today is pictured up above, and tonight we’re getting reacquainted. I have no memory of that picture being taken, but from the haircut, the shirt, and the furniture, it was taken in the mid-1970s in the Jersey shore house on stilts where my family spent our summers. Seeing it has made me remember the summer of 1973–I’m guessing a year before this picture, but I’m really not sure–when my mother taught me how to draw faces while we watched the Watergate hearings. Lying on my stomach with a drawing pad, I had hours to sketch the faces of the president’s men on the TV screen. I also absorbed Watergate–if not the details of what had happened and was happening, then certainly the feelings of those hearings, the feelings in our beach house. I also learned something of the details about Nixon and company from Doonesbury, as I learned most of my popular culture from Mad magazine.

What I think I learned from the hearings and from Garry Trudeau (and, come to think of it, from Mad), in addition to how to draw a little, was complicated. It was scary to learn that there were men in charge who couldn’t be trusted, who did bad things and could (and should) be mocked for it. But there was something empowering about the second part, learning that there were places, in and outside of Washington, where those men could be called to account, either officially or through the power of words and drawings. So the loss of innocence about the president, about authority, was accompanied by the gaining of faith in the power of institutions and individuals to criticize and try to set things right.

Doonesbury July 5, 1973

I don’t know how much that kid could have articulated about all of this at the time. As I said, we haven’t kept in very good touch. But having him stare out at me tonight and remembering things about those summers down the shore–the games of kick the can in the sand streets, bodysurfing for hours, finding dead sand sharks and those little live crabs that burrow back into the sand when the waves roll back out–hasn’t been so bad. And it’s reminded me of one of the sources of the anger I can’t stop feeling these days at the people in positions of authority who risk our lives and the future of our country to further their careers, to line their pockets, maybe to hasten the apocalypse. But it’s also reminded me of what people were calling, for a little while, resistance.

I can’t help wondering what this particular person I used to be would think of the person I am now. Joan Didion, who died a few days ago, described the reappearance of the people we used to be like this: “they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends.” I really don’t know. I’ve ended up making a living talking about words and how we use them and sometimes using them to talk about bad actors and structures and about ways to resist them, but at 4 a.m. it sometimes doesn’t feel like much. Did I desert that kid with the wide-open face? My dad was born five months earlier than Didion, in July 1934. At moments like this, on birthdays, a couple of bourbons in, woken up out of our day-to-day half-slumber, we could be forgiven for wondering whether we’ve made our parents proud, whether at the end of our lives we will have made our younger selves proud, even whether our parents, near the end of their lives, are on speaking terms with the people they used to be. We could wonder whether our kids will remember themselves when they get to the middle of their lives, or nearer the end, and whether they will look back and know what the people they used to be would think of the people they’ve become. And we could wonder whether our children will have grown up in a world where it seemed like the bad guys could be fought off by word and deed and the institutions that shape their lives could be saved, so that their older selves might have some hope in the face of the inevitable fuckery of people who want to take advantage of power rather than use it to serve the people who put them in position to do so.

It’s a lot to think about.

Von Humboldt’s Gift

With apologies to Saul Bellow

In 1896, a biographer of Prussian linguist, philosopher, and government official Wilhelm von Humboldt discovered a fragmentary text by his subject and included it as an appendix to his biography. It was eighty-six years old and was instantly championed as foundational to the modern university as developed in Germany–in part by von Humboldt itself at the University of Berlin–which itself provided the model for the American research university. It was called “On the Internal Structure of the University in Berlin and Its Relationship to Other Organizations.” While scholars who study the history of the university argue about its importance or even the idea that Humboldtsches Bildungsideal or the Humboldtian model for the university is a unified and applicable thing, the story of its importance is itself important for how it has been used (as Louis Menand, Paul Reitter, and Chad Wellmon tell us in their introduction to The Rise of the Research University). Still, that discovered fragment and von Humboldt’s educational reforms have given us a way to frame what universities can and should be. At the center of this vision is Akademische Freiheit or academic freedom–composed of lehrfreiheit, freedom to teach, and lernfreiheit, freedom to learn. These freedoms, von Humboldt argued, must not be interfered with, writing, “the state must understand that intellectual work will go on infinitely better without it.”

As Menand, Reitter, and Wellmon also remind us, it was not that von Humboldt believed the state and the university must have nothing to do with each other; he was, after all, a government official when he created the University of Berlin. What he believed was that universities would be of most use to the state if the state respected the principles of academic freedom, allowing them to make and pass on Wissenschaft, the pure knowledge that could be used to shape the future.

A similar principle exists in the US, especially in its public universities, not only through the strong influence of the German university on those founded here but also through the influence of the first federal aid to higher education, the Morrill Acts, which granted land and the proceeds of sold land to public universities with the idea that these land grant institutions would serve the people of their state.

The contemporary public university is a complicated institution. With the turn to private foundations, to the federal government during the Cold War, and to corporations with public-private partnerships, what Clark Kerr called the “multiversity” exists in a web of financial arrangements that can threaten academic freedom. Add to this the now decades-long shrinking of federal and state funding for higher education and a political climate in which one party scores points off of its disdain for intellectuals and campus politics, and you’ve got a recipe for multiple disasters.

With apologies to the public good that is higher education

A pair of potential disasters now loom at my university, one more obviously a threat to academic freedom, the other less obviously one but not less threatening, and both similar to developments threatening universities across the country. The first is yet another attack on what opponents to the teaching of the history of race in the US insist on calling CRT and identifying with the 1619 Project. A state senator has pre-filed a bill that if passed would forbid any educational institution receiving state funding from employing “any curriculum implementing critical race theory” at penalty of the withholding of ten percent of the funding due to it. Critical race theory is a comically big umbrella in this bill, covering a variety of sins no competent educator would ever commit, a catalog of caricatures of teaching the history of slavery and discrimination. Like many extreme bills filed by my state’s legislators, it shouldn’t and probably won’t pass. Unless it does.

The second looming threat to academic freedom at my university is a change to the university’s Collected Rules and Regulations rushed through at a meeting of the governing board last week. They amended a recent rule change made to reflect the decision in favor of a lawsuit brought by a professor at the law school that said employees must be allowed to leave firearms in their parked cars. Removing all language pertaining to this rule, the amendment is intended to allow anyone, including students and visitors, to do the same. There is no language about the guns being secured or the cars being locked. The only language left about firearms forbids them being concealed- or open-carried on campus. A protest by the university president that campus police leadership was against this change, for obvious reasons including the increased chance of guns being stolen from remotely parked cars, was ignored, and the proposal, brought by the newly appointed former head of the state Republican party, passed.

With apologies to Florida

Without academic freedom, universities become arms of the state or service providers to private industry. We’ve seen this threat in the recent attempt by the University of Florida to muzzle members of its faculty who tried to testify against a voting initiative of the governor, saying their testimony represented a “conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida.” We see it in attempts to curtail the freedom of faculty to teach US history in ways that make some politicians uneasy. We will see it on campuses that allow guns closer and closer to classrooms and offices, chilling the ability of scholars, students, and teachers to speak truth to power or to anyone with a temper.

Contrary to an increasingly influential narrative, universities are not hotbeds of radicalism, safe spaces for coddled children to learn how to hate their country. They are crucial to democracy. If we let these people chuck the whole experiment of Akademische Freiheit and just watch whatever independence remains at public universities wither away, if we let them do this without a fight, we will get what we deserve and we will lose our democracy. And those who throw it away will lose the right to ever again talk about freedom, academic or otherwise.