Political Classes

‘American academia is being swamped by the backwaters of identity politics’

Academia European Eye North America

Academia is the one place that not only gets away with being dull, but is happy, even proud, to do so.  Granted, this won’t surprise anyone who has seen a university from the inside. Walking through dingy college hallways, sitting on fold-out chairs in a neon-lit lecture hall, listening to thoughts on the intricate shape of windmills in Don Quixote, you feel your energy receding along with the hairlines of the participants. To a European like myself, who has managed to visit a place like this, stayed for a few years, and then left, this dreariness is all too familiar. So I was taken aback to find that American academic discourse seems to have taken on a shrill ideological tone. On both sides of the Atlantic, however, the intrusion of ideology into academia has made the atmosphere even more stale and depressing.

This discovery hit me in New York, where I attended a meeting of sociologists, psychologists, historians and other scholars who were discussing a fashionable cross-disciplinary theme: the limits of memory — how we remember the past and how its challenges shape our future. An American friend warned me: “You will be surprised: the land of academia is being swamped by the backwaters of identity politics.”

With these cautionary words ringing in my ears, I made my way through Greenwich Village to the New School. Although there is nothing new about a New York institution that dates from 1919, the New School prides itself on being a “progressive university”. Founded by dissident professors at Columbia, the New School was home to the “University in Exile”, which offered a haven for mainly Jewish émigré European intellectuals who had fled Nazi and other persecution.

Passing a cheery young man handing out the usual flyers “against the war in Palestine”, I took the lift to the 12th floor. There, we heard the latest scholarly thoughts on memory and its next-door neighbours, forgetting and remembering.

However, what cropped up in every second or third talk was the call for a radical reassessment of this field. “We must not forget the political dimension,” warned a grey-haired professor, only to be upbraided by a young woman not to forget “women, people of colour and other minorities”. While the atmosphere wasn’t exactly riotous, there rapidly developed a kind of muted anger that doesn’t quite know its origins or direction. We were told we needed a new, radical, politicised academic discussion, and the name of Hannah Arendt was constantly invoked.

Thanks less to her philosophy than to her book Eichmann in Jerusalem in which she coined the phrase “the banality of evil”, Arendt is today probably the best-known of the many distinguished scholars who taught at the New School. After the fourth or fifth time her name came up in one afternoon, I was overcome at first by annoyance, and then by sadness about the state of academia.

What, I wondered, had gone wrong? Why did they prefer to use Hannah Arendt as a mantra instead of exploring her views on liberty and individual responsibility? Why was there so little dissonance voiced and why was the mood so uniform, even conformist? Why did I have the sense that my friend’s warning rang true? 

The New School is not, of course, representative of all New York universities-just as New York is not representative of all America. But that isn’t the issue here. The real question is whether identity politics isn’t pervading so much of academic discourse that it has grown stale. That would be fatal, since universities determine the ways in which we gather and distribute knowledge. Should academia pursue politics? Doesn’t ideology — whether Left, Right or anything in between — hinder the pursuit of knowledge?

Academia, especially the humanities, thrives on outrageous claims, quirky perspectives and even downright silliness. It is the last paradise of wilderness in an otherwise manicured world. This is how it should remain. However, for academics to do their job properly they must make arguments that are bold, not old.

Leaving Greenwich Village, the words “power”, “suppression”, “struggle” still echoing in my ears, I felt that these arguments had been recycled too many times — the worst that can happen to any scholarly endeavour. Minerva will be dowdy and grey, not fresh and enticing. As for her devotees, the professors, their battlegrounds have been fought over too often and their intellectual swords have grown rusty. Perhaps it is time for academics to step out of their political comfort zone and into an arena where the weapons of choice are risk and unpredictability. What I encountered in the New School was certainly not the banality of evil; but was it, perhaps, the evil of banality?