My frustration for academia largely comes from the importance I place upon learning and education. It comes from a place of feeling infuriated by the gatekeeping policies and structures that apparently bother so many in the institution but so few are in positions to even attempt changing them. It stems from the frustration that the few who could be noisy and try to do something about it refuse to do so because it seems as if they so frequently want to maintain the system that supports them, even as it continually throws away the many at the whims of a few.
This frustration has only continued to grow, related to my own attempts (and subsequent failures) to acquire one of the few coveted PhD candidate positions that I’ve applied to, hearing excuses such as my grades from 2014 “not being good enough” to do something in 2021. It’s fueled by seeing research positions posted in projects designed to study disabled people, particularly those with ADHD and autism, and seeing the inherent ableism in the project’s design and being told that there are no people with either ADHD or autism working on the project because we “would be too close to be objective.” Receiving rejections that, although displaying honesty, openly state that the research I’d like to engage in could “hurt relationships” with donors and “potentially disrupt” other projects hasn’t helped, either. And my frustration turns to absolute anger when I hear stories of students being given lower marks on their Masters work for respectfully critiquing institutions and projects associated with the university or some of their professors, jeopardising their chances at moving forward in the academic system.
Yet, I keep hearing these disjointed tall tales about how ‘the left’ has taken over academia and that we’re all being forced into conformity by ‘tenured radicals’. It seems to me that those of us on the left are being written out of academia and forced to create our own spaces, especially if we’re also part of a marginalised demographic. It also seems that people neglect to mention that it’s almost never any leftist professor doing this and that, more often than not, it’s those who buy into the structures that surround them, regardless of their political affiliation. It’s not purely a “liberal” or “conservative” tactic because both use it to their own advantage, even if they weaponise it differently. Both want for us to conform to their view of how that system works, and the differences between the two are miniscule at best.
And then there’s the whole refusal to recognise who gets targeted and by whom when harassment campaigns against professors start. Maybe it’s because white people don’t want to recognise their participation or complicity in painting targets on the backs of people of colour. Perhaps it’s because cisgender people want to overlook the lack of response they have to harassment campaigns against trans and nonbinary people. If they acknowledge this, the façade of being a “good educator” and “supportive of other perspectives” immediately falls apart.
But all of that really makes me question: Where are the so-called “tenured radicals” from the left in academia?
Writing in the 50th anniversary edition of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Donaldo Macedo discussed one of his final conversations with Paulo Freire. He recalled the following discussion:
Freire correctly opposed the pseudo-critical educator whose political project of social justice is betrayed by intellectual incoherence and a crass careerism fueled by what Freire often called the ‘ethics’ of the market under neoliberalism. In other words, the intellectual incoherence of many critical educators ultimately defines and confines their political project into mere neoliberal crass careerism. However, it is important to point out that Freire’s disgust with the crass careerist does not mean that he was against the pursuit of a career. There is a marked difference between having a career that is not instrumentalist and which is situated within a political project that strives for a world that, as Freire would often say, is more round, less unjust, and more democratic, and a careerist whose political project is his or her own individual advancement, marked by sophistry and obscene greed which almost always sacrifice equity, equality, and authentic democracy. That is to say, the careerist’s political project is, ultimately, his or her career, and to save his or her career, the careerist ‘will fail to initiate (or will abandon) dialogue, reflection, and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiqués, monologues, and instructions. Superficial conversions to the cause of liberation carry this danger.’
If anything, the institution of academia is fueled by these careerists who insist upon maintaining a system that benefits them as opposed to developing something that benefits everyone and creates spaces of genuine learning. Those who could most easily provide cover for the most vulnerable in their institutions and genuinely challenge the excessively unfair and abusive systems often seem to be conveniently missing or difficult to spot. Instead, at least in my experience, there are a number of people ‘performing’ diversity and inclusion and ‘performing’ political beliefs. They may even believe that they actually agree with those ideals, but they still ‘perform’ it instead of do it because they’ve been rewarded for saying something without putting forth any sustained action to make that ideal a reality.
Even among supposed “anarchist academics” who have achieved safe and protected positions while generating studies and literature about various aspects of anarchism, there are a number who are so comfortable in their own career that they spend precious little time carving out space to challenge the academic system; learn about, interact with, and elevate people that exist outside of their own bubble; and create programs that seek to assist others to develop similar structures elsewhere while supporting any who want to participate and learn. They’re happy to talk about it, in theory, but applying the principles to action seems incredibly lacking. Sadly, it feels more like they want to put gates around what they see as ‘anarchism’ in order to protect their own career rather than sharing it as widely as they can (beyond the related press houses, that is).
It’s honestly unfortunate that more of these so-called “tenured radicals” haven’t stepped up in the way that some untenured people have. One of the best known examples came out of Yale in 2005: David Graeber. Though we’ll only ever know his side of the story, it’s well-known that he was most likely released in response to his political activities. As he said in multiple interviews about the incident, he “wasn’t allowed to remain neutral” when he chose to defend a graduate student who had also participated in organising the Graduate Employees and Students Organisation that Yale was unfairly maligning. He often said that this support for her was the ‘final nail’ in the coffin that was his career at Yale (but never have I heard or read about him regretting it).
His story, and those like it, are generally so amazing because the number of times that this has happened feels all too rare. It’s a shame because this is precisely where the leftist ‘radicals’ with tenure could be of most assistance, and it seems like they choose to walk away from any conflict to benefit themselves or to maintain the comfort of the system (which is fine with making everyone else uncomfortable, at minimum). People with more to lose are more often the people who are sticking their necks out, even when they know it could potentially hurt them long-term.
To be honest, my perfect world wouldn’t include the system of academia.
I would want to create spaces that enable people to do in-depth research and work whenever they want to, even if it’s only for the sake of curiosity. It would be a space where people are encouraged to work together (to the extent that they want or need to) in order to study a question they want to explore. It wouldn’t matter if someone has already “answered” that question in the past, either, since not all answers are correct, complete, or entirely accurate.
If the people researching one project were to find that their work connects with another project being done, they would be encouraged to work together to better understand the connections. Competition wouldn’t be encouraged in this scenario, as collaboration would most likely lead to better results for everyone. Dismantling the separation of subjects and topics would make this far easier, enabling us to better recognise that all subjects are connected and require each other to be fully understood.
We’d also stop trying to figure out if the research was “profitable” or not because making researchers fight for the table scraps with which to fund their work is abhorrent and often forces them to make their work palatable to the person paying for it. Instead, we should be asking more useful questions: How can we do it? Who could this harm and how? What do we need? How can we share it?
We shouldn’t be living in a world that views education as a “means to get a job” because that simply isn’t the point of learning something. It should be something that benefits us both individually and as society. We should be challenging the systems, questioning why they exist and how they function.
It’s just frustrating that some of the people best placed to support those challenges are happy to ignore them all for the sake of personal comfort, their own careers, and their perceived power in a system that is content to harm everyone else.