Today we buried my stepfather, Alan Romm. He died Tuesday morning, having lived ninety good years, the last thirty-three with my mother, and we gave him a good send-off and are sad. We talked about him a lot, at the funeral in the temple on the Upper East side, the burial in New Jersey, and back in the city, hanging out in their apartment over bagels and lox. One thing that came up again and again was his curiosity. He was a mensch and he was a curious man, curious about the world and about you. When you saw him, whether you hadn’t seen him in six months or had talked to him on the phone six days ago, he was full of questions about what you were up to, how school or work or life was, what you thought the future held for you. And the curiosity about the world, like the curiosity about you, wasn’t bullshit. At first, I thought it was, but I soon realized I was wrong. He really wanted to know.


Flying to New York Wednesday morning, I was thinking about this quality of his. I was also thinking, separately, about the state of higher education in the US, as I often do these days, in particular about recent efforts in states like Florida and Idaho to infringe on the freedom of instructors to teach as they see fit, and I was reminded of an infuriatingly wrongheaded essay that had been reprinted earlier in the week in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Jonathan Haidt (originally appearing as a Heterodox Academy blog post) in which he announced his resignation from his scholarly society because of its attempts to address DEI concerns (by impertinently asking a question, one on a form containing many, about how his work might promote anti-racism). In a masterpiece of special pleading, Haidt claims that the university’s “fiduciary duty” to truth cannot coexist with these efforts to promote “social justice.” I realized that the conversation about the right’s attempts to outlaw teaching it doesn’t like reminded me of Haidt’s exercise in intellectual dishonesty posing as principled, voice-in-the-wilderness bravery because neither seems interested in accounting for something that is at the heart of higher education, the thing that was also at the heart of the man my family buried today: curiosity.

Ron Desantis, whoever it is who is telling employees of the state of Idaho that they can’t discuss abortion, and Christopher Rufo and all the other culture warriors who have made full-time jobs of attacking education do so for various reasons. Those reasons include a heartfelt belief that children need to be protected from extra-biblical ideas (ideas outside of their cramped interpretation, anyway); a base strategy to throw the red meat of racism, homophobia, and the fantasy of the persecuted Christian to the base; a desire to destroy public higher education in order to keep potential voters from asking too many questions. Curiosity–asking questions about the world–is anathema for all of these people just as it is anathema to the authoritarian personality and the authoritarians who take advantage of it.

The attitude of conservative politicians toward the modern research university is fluid. They love the university when it’s producing future workers and hate it pretty much all the rest of the time, except maybe at tailgates. They tolerate it when it’s throwing up STEM-devoted buildings they can put their names on and when it sticks to producing employees for the businessmen who keep them in power. They hate it when the faculty it employs and the students it charges tuition to question their policies and the ways of seeing the world that informs those policies.

Unfortunately for them, questioning is what universities are for. I don’t think Jonathan Haidt’s “truth” is quite right: truth might be one way of framing the telos of the university, as he puts it, its end goal, but it’s a mistake to think it’s anything but a distant goal. Outside of the hard mathematical and scientific facts on which we build our machines and fix our bodies (facts which themselves do get revised as science advances), there is “truth,” and nobody should think they’ve reached the truth, that they possess it; that’s for religious fundamentalists and people who think the Laffer Curve is a real thing. Truth is the thing we work towards, endlessly, by asking questions about the world and what we think we know about it. We test what we think we know, confirm it until somebody else finds a new way to test it that disproves it. We construct ways of seeing things that work for us until somebody shows things to us from a different angle, in a different light. And then we work from there. The work of scholarship–the work of the university–is the work of finding new questions to ask and teaching students how to ask them too.

The curiosity at the heart of this work, like my stepfather’s curiosity, is a whole orientation toward the world. Alan let you know he loved you by the way he asked endless questions of you; the questions he asked about the world were how you knew he loved the world. Working to keep people from asking questions is also a whole orientation to the world, and it’s not just wrong in itself, it’s opposed to the love the people who ask the questions have. It’s about mastery, about domesticating, about pinning the world down and sitting on its chest; it’s not about loving the world, about expressing the joy of exploring it, getting to know it, not thinking you’ve got it all figured out and can safely ignore it.

It’s a tradition at Jewish burials for each mourner to drop three shovels of dirt onto the casket after it’s lowered. It’s a hard thing to do, but as the rabbi today put it, it’s a reciprocal act, returning the care shown to you. As I took my turn, I noticed two thick roots cut off at the end of the hole; they seemed to come from an evergreen growing just behind the plot. Another tradition of Jewish burials is to be buried in a plain pine box, one that doesn’t interrupt the returning of the body to the earth. I’m not a believer, but I believe in this practice because of what it does for the earth and what it says about our relation to it. When I think of today, I will think of his orientation to the world, of the cycle of curiosity and care, and of those roots. And I will remember that the root of curious is care.

What Are We Gonna Do Now

I spent part of the morning just now trying to put together a roundtable for the upcoming Modern Language Association convention on the subject of nationwide attempts to control what instructors in higher ed (though of course not just in higher ed) are allowed to teach. Then I got an email from my textbook publisher granting me access to a digital sample of the new edition of the composition textbook I author. So of course I immediately shared a blurry shot of the new cover on social media (with a link to the publisher website because once a salesman, &c.). Then as I was scrolling through the sample, I ran across a new section we’d added to the introduction and, reading it, saw some connections.

The new section was added at the request of my editor, who felt that it was an important subject to broach, and I think she was right. I’m going to share it here.

The roundtable, should it make it into the program, will be framed as a response to a speech by the Manhattan Institute’s Christopher Rufo delivered at Hillsdale College on April 5, 2022 entitled “Laying Siege to the Institutions.” In the speech, Rufo, the architect of the campaign against public education using the attack on the largely imaginary presence of Critical Race Theory in our schools, broadens his attack on education to explicitly call for universal school choice in K-12 education and for state legislator control over public higher ed institutions. That control, in Rufo’s vision, can be exerted in a number of ways, from the more direct tightening of purse strings, to the more indirect surveys of faculty’s beliefs, establishing of conservative centers within state university flagships, and removing requirements for K-12 teachers to hold advanced degrees in education.

The goal of Rufo–and DeSantis and Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick and the many other Republicans he’s influenced–is to dismantle public education in order to defuse the dangerous powder keg that is an informed citizenry. That isn’t quite the way they’d put it, of course. A state senator from Missouri, speaking on the floor of the state house yesterday, said just as important to him as saving the unborn is fighting back against the dangerous radical left-wing ideology that’s infecting our schools (and he did use most of those words, and also he’s a doctor).

As I say in the introduction to the new edition of my textbook: counter to what the anti-“CRT” operatives and politicians believe, as long as do it with respect, empathy, and honesty, we should be able to talk about any subject in the classroom. As Bill Germano and Kit Nicholls say in Syllabus, empathetic engagement is at the center of what we do: we learn together. It’s what knowledge is. Storming school board meetings and state houses, passing laws that impose penalties on instructors and institutions for teaching what those in power don’t want taught: that’s not learning. It doesn’t produce knowledge. And it certainly isn’t about community. It’s about control.

No I don’t think I’m being dramatic just listen to the fellas