Thursday, July 14, 2016

I think it's time to put this blog to bed again. Indeed, I drafted this ten days ago, before a recent trip, and have left it sitting unpublished for that long, so this is really just a case of waking up only to go to sleep again. As the old hospital joke goes: wake up, it's time to take your sleeping pill.

As I remarked in a little colloquy on a previous post with Tony Williams, commentator extraordinaire, this is a tougher crisis to deal with. Last time around we had targets ready to hand. I'm reminded, perhaps unjustifiably, of the poem by Cavafy which ends

And now, what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
They were, those people, a kind of solution.

This isn't to deny that Cheng was a horrible Chancellor, nor is it to say that Rauner and Madigan aren't barbarous in their way, only that the larger context that's made it possible for folks like them to do this much damage strikes me as the real problem.
I'm not a cultural theorist, and indeed tend to be skeptical of Theory, but it's plain to see that there's been a sea-change in thinking—and not thinking—about the role of higher education in our society. Even defenders of higher education, at least those in the public realm, defend it entirely in economic terms. That wasn't true when I was a lad. These days, saying that a college education prepares you not just to make a living but to live a life—a life as a reflective person and engaged citizen—well, you might as well be talking Ptolemaic astronomy. In this climate there's no sense of a public duty to fund higher education, not to mention any number of other public goods. It's just a matter of one investment versus another, and especially for those who think that lower taxes are a sort of investment as well (not to mention those who regard all taxation as tantamount to theft), well, it's no big surprise if government can be allowed to fail. One side can't say what government is good for, save in economic terms, and the other doesn't think government is good for anything. Where there's no sense of a public good, there's no sense of duty to vie with political opportunism. The latter has always been with us, of course, but it's got no competition these days.

I suspect this is a great stretch, but I'm going to throw out the suggestion, to all you multitudes reading this out there, that the political crises we're facing in the West, from Grexit to Brexit to Trump, is due in large part to the triumph of homo economicus, and the diminished sense of any shared belief in something like EU (a.k.a. Europe, or the West) or the US as anything more than an engine for trading euros, pounds, and dollars. All those Brits who voted for Brexit and Americans who vote for Trump are being hoodwinked by lying scoundrels, and they are almost certainly wrong about their own narrow economic self-interest. But they aren't wrong to find something utterly lacking in the economic arguments of the meritocracy. It doesn't matter if the economists are right about free trade if they are only right about free trade. In the absence of any clear, progressive good, people turn to non-economic goods or a more atavistic kind: nationalism, racism, you name it. The Black Lives Matter crisis arguably reflects the same basic void in our culture: it doesn't matter how well you're doing economically if you can still end up dead for driving while black. 

Just what that public good is thankfully goes behind my remit. My own vague notions on that theme span a ridiculously large spectrum from Socrates to Marx. Perhaps that's another symptom of a situation in which we are all barbarians.

Okay, enough of that rant. More practical reasons to quit also beckon. We've got another stopgap, and likely won't get anything more until after November, so there will be little state news. Like many potential readers, I'm about to get out of town for a couple of breaks, so will have other things to do. Finally, come fall, I'll be FA president and thus should avoid sounding off on campus issues in a forum like this, lest my ramblings be taken as union chapter and verse.

See you around. 


  1. Dave, Congratulations on trying. Ceasing (apart from your other duties) is understandable. Nobody wants to know. But, I'd question your remarks on Brexit as the issue is much more complicated. Remain also had its share of "lying scoundrels" and all proponents of the debate revealed many flaws. Apart from those xenophobic types that would prevent any reasonable person being on the same platform with them, many people in the UK were concerned about the lack of control over their lives, decision making being done in Brussels, and the hideous austerity measures imposed on Greece and Spain that were encouraged by the EU to take out loans so that they would be caught in a trap of economic dependency resulting in cuts to welfare and pensions. Obama's TIPP/EUP strategy would have involved the privatization of the National Health Service and UK people were really angry at his usual mealy-mouthed comments and interference. It can not be reduced to the one dimensional aspect of regarding voters as stupid in terms of the class condescension and ageist smears used by the "sore losers. I immediately thought of "homo economicus" before reading it in your following paragraph. But the issue also involves that taboo aspect of class, deliberately ignored in this postmodernist era of identity politics used by the Right for its own divide-and-rule ends. You've tried to evoke consciousness of the serious issues going on but Cheng's ostritch metaphor now applies to them. It is to your credit that you at least tried.


I will review and post comments as quickly as I can. Comments that are substantive and not vicious will be posted promptly, including critical ones. "Substantive" here means that your comment needs to be more than a simple expression of approval or disapproval. "Vicious" refers to personal attacks, vile rhetoric, and anything else I end up deeming too nasty to post.