Past and Present; or, Sesame Street and Lilies: A Scene of Academic Life

I remember when I was a radical, and when I was an activist. I remember my “welcome to college” moment, in the days before I was a historian, before I discovered Symonds, when I sat up late with some friends and a guitar writing comedic and ultimately nonsensical lyrics about keeping freshmen off the grass to the tune of “This Land is Your Land” because my friends and I had a bright idea about how to make fun of California’s Proposition 8. I remember meeting one of my best friends when we got together to blast “It’s Raining Men” at the headquarters of the so-called National Organization for Marriage across the street from our dining hall. I remember going alone to talk to the Board of Trustees about gender-neutral housing. I remember being attacked for being too masculine-looking in the right-wing press from here to Washington. I remember when I took the early morning bus down to Washington and marched in the streets.

A couple weeks ago I was walking with a friend through a collegiate neo-Gothic arch at dusk, prattling on about virtue ethics, or the evils of political economy, or the value of agrarianism, or maybe that particular neo-Gothic arch, or something, and this friend—whom I had not hitherto taken as particularly familiar with the canonical Victorian essayists—said to me, “You’re really a Ruskinian conservative, aren’t you?”

Reader, I am.

The thing is, I am honestly exhausted by social engagement, by participating in a marketplace of ideas whose undergirding metaphor I am uninterested by. I do not believe in the values enshrined by the government of the country in whose elections I have voted, and I cannot be bothered to play along with its discourse to the extent required to try to fix it. I have never made change through statistics and “accountability,” and I have no intention of starting now. I don’t believe in “winning the future,” or indeed in winning full-stop. And I haven’t marched in the streets many times, but I have marched in the streets enough times to have gained the sense that the great change marching in the streets promises is not something I can believe in.

What can I believe in, then? Well, a lot actually. I can believe in going to class or going to a meeting with my advisor or another professor and coming home with a new idea. I can believe in spending an hour over lunch in hall bitching with my friend about the school newspaper, and coming up with a cogent critique of a campus problem; or in spending months with the same friend building up complex theoretical models to describe the world around us and the texts we’re reading. I can believe in helping the freshman advisee who wants course advice, or the fellow senior who wants to vent to me about her job hunt, or the sophomore torn between joining her friends’ eating club and her general distaste for the Street, or the junior who wants to know how I handled my workload when I was writing my first JP. I can believe in the community of my cooking co-op, where we all (mostly) do our part absent any reward but each other’s satisfaction. I can believe in the transcendent beauty of seeing Symonds work his ponderous Victorian dialectical way to a vision of sexual freedom no one has ever had before. I can believe in the transcendent beauty of a freshman, coming out for the first time, recreating that process, or an upperclass student, redefining his sexual identity having gained a little more theoretical apparatus, doing the same. I can believe in the big-government best intentions of our administration’s efforts to keep grading fair and to make sure there are social options on campus in which everyone can feel included. I can believe in the camaraderie in my college, in my co-op, and in my new home, the History Graduate Study Room. I can believe in the value of a place that tells undergraduates, “Here are four years that are yours. We’re fortunate enough to be able to give you all the resources you could ever possibly want to realize your best self in those four years. Use them well.” And I can believe in the value of being, year after year, part of an institution that helps young people have a shot at being better. I can believe in the value of a place that, to its graduate students and its faculty and its staff, embodies the only lifestyle they could ever possibly live and live well. And I can believe in the value of being, year after year, there for the next kid who comes through it and needs to discover that there is actually a place for those who love knowledge and wisdom above all else, and that they can be taken care of, respected, and even perhaps loved in turn therein.

Defending the ivory tower—the impregnable fortress of the world’s knowledge, guarded by its lovers of wisdom—is, as readers will no doubt know, nearly impossible in today’s politico-economic discourse. In a world whose terms are so much set by the calculus of utility, how can we defend something whose virtue lies precisely in its un-usefulness? Well, after years of asking this question, I’m beginning to think that we can’t—not in so many words.

Instead, we have to live it. We have to turn conversations toward why we love what we study and away from our anxiety about what we’re going to do about it afterwards. We have to make space for unstructured free time in our lives, and we have to talk about not why you should do one job instead of another, but why everyone, no matter their job, deserves the right to an eight-hour day and a forty-hour week. We have to demonstrate that two hours spent playfully joking and arguing over after-dinner cups of tea isn’t (as one friend suggested to me last night) a luxury, but is rather the just desserts of stepping off the hamster wheel. Think of it like slow food: this is slow college. This is living deliberately, learning deliberately, learning for its own sake, and loving to learn: about our fields of academic study, yes, but also about others and about ourselves. And maybe, in the process, some of us will become conscious of our own alienation, and resent that the wringer of elite universities in the western world today has turned us into automatons trained to produce. And maybe we will think more about how to be good, whole, loving beings.

Why haven’t I picked up shop and moved to Occupy Wall Street? Because refusing to engage with the terms of a discourse of wealth and production that I loathe is my job. Because spending every day in a basement three floors underground writing about a subject I adore is my job. Because helping freshmen—and everyone—find their way is my job. Because making food and eating it with my friends at my co-op is my job. Because being home if someone knocks on my door needing to talk is my job. Because I love any one of these things that I do more than a job, and more than I love standing outside with a sign. I love that I make a living—a spiritual as well as a material living—through my mind, through my pen, and through my conversation. I love that my conversations have the power to change hearts, and minds, and lives—or, well, if they don’t now, they will someday. I love that when the world seems very, very dark and I feel very, very alone, it is a life full of books and ideas that makes me feel as if I can go on.

This is my world. This is a world that I believe in—that I will always believe in—and that I will always fight for. I may have long since ceased to be “the campus radical,” may have long since stopped caring about gay marriage, but I will always be on the front lines for the right to sit and think. Knock on my door, and sit on my window seat next to my Bert and Ernie plush figures, and let me make you a cup of tea.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

And then sing with me: Solidarity forever. We shall not be moved.

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