Small World; or, Bettering in the Neoliberal Age

Today was the first day I was properly happy with my post-graduation life. This morning I used the Wonders of Modern Technology to talk on the phone with a friend fifteen time zones away; from only eight time zones away, I got a delightful unexpected email from another friend I know in quite another context. Then my parents and I drove at 75 miles an hour across the California desert-scape to campus, where I spent much of the afternoon sitting at a table outside under the cloudless sky, wearing sunglasses and linen trousers and attempting to do some editorial work on a project I love dearly for which I’m even (gasp!) being paid.

At one point, I took a break to wander into the campus bookstore, where I failed to find a copy of A Passage to India but did, in an unforeseen coincidence, run into a new paperback edition of David Lodge’s trilogy of campus novels, Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work. I’ve been thinking about David Lodge’s books a lot recently, because as my parents and I talk academic politics at the dinner table, and as I myself flit between continents and universities, it seems as if very little has changed since the 1970s, with the exception of one extremely important plot point. The Rummidges of this world are still being pushed into bizarre Thatcherite partnerships with business, Anglo-American academics still find excuses to pursue exciting conference travel, people still get laid at the MLA, and the entire subculture still takes on a sort of darkly comic tone. But the great public university system that once enabled Morris Zapp’s life of glamor and ease is now crumbling (in fact, literally, as I saw from one building I passed through today), and it’s definitely not a paradise for anyone in the humanities or even the human sciences now. The sunshine and occasional ocean views obscure scarce and badly-apportioned resources, a real mess that can’t quite be turned to comic ends.

But, perversely, it was my anger about the UC situation today (and, indeed, the present state of affairs at UVA) that afforded me at least some measure of self-acceptance. For as I sat garnering a sunburn amidst what was once part of the United States’ great testament to what public money could do, I posted links about UVA to Facebook, and I felt sufficiently fuelled to fire off angry emails about much smaller-time political wranglings at Princeton—still so well-to-do and so insulated, but not always absolved of the need for a few strongly-worded missives. And as I was doing this, a letter came in from my dear advisor, who is always an apt person to be recalled to mind when one wishes to remember what kinds of teaching, learning, and preservation are at stake in the battles for the heart and soul of the university. A report from overseas, from the Small World of academic life, that letter reminded me (as if I needed reminding) what good is done to the greater world by our small one, and why it is so morally, spiritually, emotionally worth paying quite learned people to study what they love and to pass it on to young people who need most in the world to come into contact with that guiding spirit of love.

The pedagogic eros: it works in mysterious ways, and in more wholesome and heart-stirring and profound ways than any use of the term “pedagogic eros” would usually care to admit. It connects friends across the world, and scholars to their work and to their students amidst a wide range of working conditions. It breathes connection—to people and places, texts and ideas—into the air of anywhere that honors Wisdom, and it has the power—if not cruelly debased by the rule of the market—to turn even the humblest concrete campus into its own city of dreaming spires. It can help us to bear with each other, to lighten the load of the accumulation of small daily troubles, to ease the anxiety of wondering whether the “terrible disease of loneliness” will ever be cured. Since at least the days of Plato—that is, in the story of the days of Plato that we tell—it has taught us to sublimate, sublimate, sublimate, but also that there are more erotes, and more ways to connect, than a paradigm in which all is sublimation might lead us to think.

Which is all to say that if my undergraduate days are over, the battle for the soul of the university is not, and my ability to play a part in that battle is only beginning. Though it may be tempting to mourn lost youth, and indeed rather difficult not to, it is only through some modicum of self-acceptance and perhaps even self-love that we can purpose ourselves to the higher causes of loving the others and the great moral principles for which we live. And so look for me on the barricades—we shall not be moved!

David Lodge, Collected Works
Jeff Nunokawa, Collected Notes

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