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.