Naturalized Angeleno and TGR editor Dan Pecchenino has a new review essay in DIALOGIST. It considers a fascinating new anthology of poetry about Los Angeles. RIYL good writing in general.
For your reading pleasure: TGR editor Ryan Boyd (@ryanaboyd) has a review essay on Carl A. Zimring’s Clean and White: A History of Environmental Racism in the United States, published at the Los Angeles Review. Check it out!
The weekend—the weekend, first of the NFL season—is approaching like an ecstatic freight train, way better than the phallic ice-locomotive in those Coors Light commercials. We at the Reader have gathered some edifying texts, jams, and sundries to share. None of them are football-related, so don’t worry if you aren’t into wonderful things like sports. (You philistine.)
- Because I’m a bearded person who teaches college in America in 2014, most people assume that my beliefs are smugly left-wing (COEXIST sticker on my Prius and all that), which I suppose in some sense they are. Heads might explode or spin around cartoon-style when I say that I’m a conservative. Conservative how? Basically—here is my elevator talk—conservatism is a general philosophical orientation that sees change as something that ideally occurs within durable sociocultural traditions and institutions; or, failing that, something that unfolds carefully and gradually in opposition to (or as a replacement for) such traditions and institutions. It is a broad attitude toward the historical world, not a collection of particular ideas, and so one could potentially hold views that code as USA LIBERAL but still be a conservative. I’m with Edmund Burke: conservatism is not inherently anti-change. It is just hesitant to approve of change simply because it is change. For example, to support nationwide marriage equality, a.k.a. Gay Marriage, is to take a fundamentally conservative position, because (and I’m repeating Andrew Sullivan here) it boils down to inviting new cohorts of Americans into a socioeconomically valuable tradition wherein people commit to each other, buy homes, raise kids, and join local communities. Or: even lefty humanities professors are conservative, to the extent that they have bought into the idea that it is worth shielding universities from contemporary market whims. But most of the time, no one buys my shit about this, so it was comforting to see that four years ago Jonny Thakkar, a philosopher who teaches at Princeton, explained the position much more eloquently, organizing his essay “Why Conservatives Should Read Marx” around the tension between free-market ideology (with its emphasis on disruption, global hyper-networking, the flattening of local difference, and the fluid distribution of abstract capital) and conservatism (with its supposed devotion to history, prudence, care, continuity, and stability). As Thakkar points out, it is strange to hear American Republicans proclaiming themselves “free-market conservatives.” Left conservatism, as he puts it, is possible.
- Here is a YouTube link to the British-born, Nashville-dwelling composer/soul-singer Jamie Lidell’s best song, the title single from his 2005 album Multiply. Play it loud on your iPhone, maybe on the bus, like a dickhead teenager. Trust me, it’s still hot nine years later. I have read that the TV show Grey’s Anatomy, which I don’t watch, used it in some way a few years ago, which is fucking gross. Welcome to capitalism. This nuke-hot track isn’t quite the Dusty Springfield Experience (that moment of first hearing a white singer whose voice would immediately suggest that s/he is African American), but you get a hint of that when Lidell starts hitting those drawn-out vowels around 1:40.
- Last week Sinclair McKay (what a name!) wrote a deft trifle for the London Telegraph, reviewing Olivia Williams’s Gin, Glorious Gin: How Mother’s Ruin Became the Spirit of London (Headline, 2014). A lovely little book, sounds like. McKay’s review is sharp, too. But allow me to remind everyone that, in terms of pure carnival force, the gold standard of gin-depictions remains William Hogarth’s Beer Street vs. Gin Lane paintings (1751), those exuberant reactions to eighteenth-century London which transcend their immediate historical circumstances and embody larger Anglo-American fears about drugs, as well as our often-misplaced faith in the possibility of prudent self-restraint.
Intoxicated people are enjoying (and exploiting) other bodies, and Industry is the standard of one’s social value (or absence of it), and modern urban buildings are beginning to exist! Welcome to capitalism. Hogarth’s middle-class voluptuousness will appeal to visually oriented contemporary audiences. In conclusion, gin is so great. In moderation. Or not in moderation. Whatever.
- Adam Gopnik remains a crowd-pleaser, his essays erudite and affable. His punningly titled recent article in The New Yorker, “Heaven’s Gaits” (hi-yo!), starts with biomechanical science but shifts to the para-biological realm of cultural history: the lure of walking in big cities, taking in the enormous buffet of faces that Walt Whitman loved. Worth your time, reader. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell that you that there are also some captivating academic studies of walking out there. No, really. They are smooth reads. Accessible. Stop laughing like that! Anyway, here are three favorites: Ian Marshall, Peak Experiences: Walking Meditations on Literature, Nature, and Need (University of Virginia Press, 2003); Roger Gilbert Walks in the World (Northeastern UP, 1991), which is, fair warning, all about poetry; Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking (Penguin, 2001).
- The Canadian critic Jeet Heer consistently drops intellectual fire on Twitter. If the idea of breaking an already short essay into tweets strikes you as superficial and dumb, you might be surprised by how much liberal intelligence Heer wrings from the Twitter-essay genre. Check out his recent series on why Sideshow Bob is a fascinating Simpsons character. What does it mean to be a “cultural elitist” like Bob? Can you even actually be one in contemporary mass America? Well, can you? Heer pokes that beast. Fantastic.
Have a lovely weekend, y’all. Wear sunscreen and don’t take the brown acid.
My grades have been in for a little over two weeks now. I’ve yet to get a complaint from a student about said grades, so I think it might be safe to call it: summer is here. Now, I realize that for everyone not working in education, summer is just a hotter version of the rest of the year. Maybe there are more weekend cookouts. Maybe more white wine is uncorked. Maybe there’s a pilgrimage to some family homestead. But, dammit, even if you don’t get a real summer (and the truth is that most people working in education don’t really have that much time off either, what with summer teaching, course prep, and assorted kinds of career development), there’s a chance that on a warm summer afternoon, you might find yourself with a little time to read. The following are some suggestions for how to fill that time, though we will have more throughout the summer.
- Let’s just get this one out of the way first. If you’ve yet to read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ massive Atlantic article “The Case for Reparations,” you should carve out about an hour and do so. Coates is acknowledged, even by many of his conservative critics, as a great writer. His blog posts and articles about the Civil War, his trip to France, and being a black man in America are always worth reading. Like many writers, his blog posts can be messy, but they’re always lucid, and his longform, and I’d assume more stringently edited pieces, are good examples of what I wish more academics would produce. That is to say, I wish academics, many of whom allegedly study narrative and rhetoric, would spend less time theorizing, and more time time telling compelling stories about the world as it was, is, and could be. When it comes down to it, glossing Foucault doesn’t do what Coates does in the passage below. The tenure system’s perverse relationship with academic publishing is part of what will eventually be the undoing of many colleges and universities. The places that survive will do so because they understand that teaching and public scholarship, like Coates’ work and that of Yunte Huang (notice that he lists “writer” first), are more important than impenetrable “studies” that no one reads.
When Clyde Ross was still a child, Mississippi authorities claimed his father owed $3,000 in back taxes. The elder Ross could not read. He did not have a lawyer. He did not know anyone at the local courthouse. He could not expect the police to be impartial. Effectively, the Ross family had no way to contest the claim and no protection under the law. The authorities seized the land. They seized the buggy. They took the cows, hogs, and mules. And so for the upkeep of separate but equal, the entire Ross family was reduced to sharecropping.
This was hardly unusual. In 2001, the Associated Press published a three-part investigation into the theft of black-owned land stretching back to the antebellum period. The series documented some 406 victims and 24,000 acres of land valued at tens of millions of dollars. The land was taken through means ranging from legal chicanery to terrorism. “Some of the land taken from black families has become a country club in Virginia,” the AP reported, as well as “oil fields in Mississippi” and “a baseball spring training facility in Florida.”
- If you’re in the mood for something a little shorter, Dennis Romero at the LA Weekly just nails why people in Los Angeles should sneer at the culture in San Francisco (and not the other way around). Having grown up in the Bay Area, it’s pretty appalling to see what’s happened to the place. Silicon Valley has become synonymous with a utopian mindset that makes me glad it was people like Axl Rose taking buses out to LA instead of people like Eric Schmidt. When people in San Francisco are done “disrupting” the world, they should consider the following, per Romero:
It’s the Bay that has become a parody of smug white privilege… The preachiness of a McMansion-dwelling Westsider telling you to conserve energy will never be as annoying as some Silicon Valley trust-funder telling you he’s going to change the world when you know all he really wants to do is change his wallet. One is trying. One is lying.
- The New York Review of Books is always on its game, but I especially love when it produces a little gem of an article about something I previously knew almost nothing about. It does this all the time, mostly because, like most people I really don’t know all that much. So you shouldn’t be surprised to hear that my familiarity with the life of John Quincy Adams, our sixth president and the grandfather of one of America’s weirdest intellectuals, was, uh, lacking. Thanks to Susan Dunn, I now know that JQ Adams had a frustrating marriage, hated slavery, was addicted to politics, knew both Washington and Lincoln, was mocked for lobbying for better education and scientific research, and was a total dick to his children. As Ryan and I like to say, “In America!”
- Finally, this isn’t strictly a reading recommendation, but a film about a voracious reader and writer seems like an appropriate substitute (famous last words…) Plimpton!, the latest American Masters biopic is about, wait for it, George Plimpton, the longtime editor of The Paris Review and “participatory journalist” who famously tried his hand at many different glamorous professions, mostly within the sporting world. He turned these experiences into big pieces for Sports Illustrated, and sometimes later into books. He also wrote light novels, showed up in movies, and had his own falconry video game for ColecoVision (yes, this was a real thing). But I think Plimpton was most important as a curator of an American literary culture that took itself seriously, but also knew how to have a good time. One that wasn’t so political, whiny, and boring. One that didn’t give two shits about MFA programs or “critical theory.” One that would have laughed at “trigger warnings” (thanks, UCSB) and “splaining.” Oh, I know, he was a rich kid who basically just didn’t screw up his life, but I really don’t care. The guy loved writers and writing in a way that most people (including many writers) don’t, so that earns him a lot of points in my book.
Oh, hey. General Reader here. These are some texts we liked reading that you would probably also like to read. There are things to listen to as well. Enjoy them on this lovely Mother’s Day.
- For many pundits, Barack Obama’s refusal to ignore the electorate and get the USA involved in reputation-killing trillion-dollar military disasters is a sign of weakness. As John Cassidy observes at the New Yorker, this line of criticism ignores the arrogance and waste of the Bush regime: Obama is only a foreign-policy bungler if you think that the Iraq War went well and that things will work out in Afghanistan somehow. Otherwise the President is a realist who operates according to historical precedent and geopolitical fact, not foolish proclamations about shocking and awing our way around the world. Obama has, remarks Cassidy, remembered his Machiavelli—it is strength, not weakness, to avoid fights that can, at best, end in Pyrrhic victories (and at worst, end in Iraq).
- We all need Shakespeare. I know that he often suffers the Gatsby fate: assigned so much in English courses that people end up thinking he’s perfunctory and boring, “classic” mainly through cultural inertia or pedagogical convention. “Yeah, yeah, Hamlet is great, got it”—most educated individuals acknowledge that he’s Very Important and thus, ironically, end up not reading him beyond school. Which is a shame, because as with The Great Gatsby, most of Shakespeare’s work (not Coriolanus, oh god not Coriolanus) is shockingly beautiful and repays multiple readings. Go ahead. Open up Hamlet or Macbeth or the Sonnets or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, flip to a random page, and experience one of those “Holy shit, how did a human being think to say it that way?” moments Shakespeare provokes. You’ll never get to the end of his wonders. With that in mind, here is one of my favorite sonnets, #29:
When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes,
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state,
Like to the lark at break of day arising
From sullen earth, sings hymns at heaven’s gate;
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.
- Hey, parents and students, here is the narrative that will bond you with contingent faculty in the fight to save higher education: The adjunct system exploits teachers and wastes your money, because your tuition dollars end up going mostly to redundant deans and resplendent landscaping, not undergraduate education. Susan McNamara, a professor in Boston, has written a bang-up explanation of this for the Globe. (Plus the professor in the article image is wearing jeans and a navy blazer, which I can totally get behind.) Read it now.
- Some tenured and tenure-track professors have long been part of the effort to improve the working conditions of adjuncts (and thus the learning conditions of students), and many more have recently climbed aboard. Some of the staunchest labor allies I’ve met are tenured full professors in the University of California. But in the UK and the US, too many TT faculty have been complicit in the forty-year ascension of a managerial class that now controls most colleges and universities despite having little experience or interest in education. Some faculty saw a way to profit, in terms of money and/or prestige, from neoliberal “reforms” that weakened the professoriate as a whole; too many others stood idle while this happened. Like I said, if they haven’t already, most TT profs are coming around to a more enlightened, pro-labor view of things, but Tarak Barkawi (himself a tenured scholar) implores us to remember our institutional past in order to salvage the future. Power has many ways to recruit relatively powerless enablers. Barkawi’s editorial focuses on the UK, but its lesson is transatlantic.
- My friend Jarret, who has introduced me to probably 60-65% of the music I love, played Arthur Russell for me about ten years ago while we were chillin’ in a post-college basement, and I’ve been a fan since. Russell was a classically trained cellist, and during his largely unremunerative career as a musician and producer in New York, he worked with Philip Glass, Allen Ginsberg, and David Byrne, among others. An enormous influence on fellow artists, he died broke, of AIDS, in 1992, leaving behind a lot of fragmentary or uncollected work. One of my favorite pieces, “A Little Lost,” is a spacey, droned-out, heartbreaking composition where Russell’s voice and lyrics blend with the shuffling strings, forming a sonic component of the track as much as a rhetorical accompaniment. It’s about love. Also death, I think. Songs usually are. Enjoy.
- When you stare into the douche abyss, the abyss stares back. When it comes to cultural matters this pressing, yes, I will link to Buzzfeed. Just don’t look directly into Billy Ray Cyrus.
- Allen Iverson was so cool. If I had a time machine, I’d zip back to 2001, kidnap dude, bring him back to 2014, and turn him loose on the NBA. Reminding us that sports are not just about the games, Jay Caspian Kang examines the continuing role of AI’s famous arm sleeve in his overall cultural cachet.
In one of his letters, Wallace Stevens claims, “I have never studied systematic philosophy and should be bored to death at the mere thought of doing so” (1). He admits dipping into a “little philosophy” sometimes—no “serious contact . . . because I have not the memory”—”in the spirit” of a friend who had renounced studied, interpretive reading in favor of “read[ing] it as a substitute for fiction,” as though Locke and Nietzsche were vagrant storytellers (2).
That is probably a useful way for poets to approach any discourse that systematizes, abstracts, or otherwise tries to theorize the mess of lived experience into some conceptual framework. Poets are into a different kind of human record-keeping. Whatever philosophizing they do is only one part of a congeries of effects: sound, syntax, image, rhythm, form, metaphor, allusion, association, narrative, intuition, characterization. Philosophy is salt in the soup, too much and it tastes wretched. “I am sorry that a poem . . . has to contain any ideas at all,” Stevens apologized elsewhere, “because its sole purpose is to fill the mind with the images & sounds it contains. A mind that examines such a poem for its prose contents gets absolutely nothing from it” (3).
Most philosophy bores the shit out of me. Or rather, while the practice of philosophy is great, I dislike most of the texts I encountered in classrooms. This is shameful and lazy, I know. I tried my best in college, taking seminars on Eighteenth-Century Empiricism, and again during graduate school, where I pretended to care about the philosophers and theorists I was then reading. I still enjoy Plato (from what I recall) on matters of the soul; Nietzsche can be funny, and J.S. Mill is tidy; cribbing from George Scialabba’s essays is a pleasure; and I can definitely get behind indeterminate weirdos like Gaston Bachelard. Oh, and Blaise Pascal. Love Pascal.
The Pensées were not published during Pascal’s life (1623-1662). He didn’t even leave a title, because there was no book yet, only a mass of lapidary fragments, some comprising a few paragraphs, many just a sentence or two. Some are probably close to the form they would have been published in. Many are rougher. But Pascal was a fine prose stylist and a mensch, so they’re all engaging. After his death, friends and family assembled the material into what is essentially the text we have today. I use the Oxford paperback translation, the introduction to which will tell you more than I can (4).
I like fragmentary texts (5). The preference probably has something to do with my disorganized poet brain (6). More importantly though, such works seem true to what life is actually like. This resonance becomes even stronger when a text is literally unfinished, fragmentary because of some event in the writer’s life (usually his death). Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, meant to be a unified theory of modern life but scuttled when the Nazis drove him to suicide, is an example. You could throw in some classical Greek or Roman poets if you want to talk lost texts.
Texts can also be fragmented—or at least rhetorically, aesthetically, and philosophically jumbled—by design or genre convention. Think of shaggy dogs like Tristram Shandy, Gothic encyclopedias in the vein of Moby-Dick, total jumbos like Bleak House, a book about paper and bureaucracy. Writers’ journals are great, too: Pepys, Kafka, Woolf, Boswell (an Enlightenment satyr with radar for strong drink), Cheever, Plath (more stuff about cookbooks and good housekeeping than you’d imagine). Jules Renard: man, that guy is awesome. Many letter collections rock, particularly the letters of poets—get Lord Byron’s when you can. Then there is table talk and other types of recorded conversation, such as Faulkner in the University. Plus epigrams like Martial’s.
Samuel Coleridge wins the fragment gold medal. Not only did he leave behind unfinished poems, unfinished lectures, unfinished letters, an unfinished critical behemoth (the Biographia Literaria), and sterling table talk (“Examine nature accurately, but write from recollection; and trust more to your imagination than to your memory” ), he also kept a notebook of midnight hashings: “What a swarm of thoughts and feelings, endlessly minute fragments, and, as it were, representations of all preceding and embryos of all future thought, lie compact in any one moment! . . . and yet the whole a means to nothing—ends everywhere, and yet an end nowhere” (8).
Anyway, where was I. The Pensées. It is/they are fantastic. You can wander for hours in this thing. You might set it aside for months, only to open it at random when the urge strikes, and it probably will. Reading a bit of Pascal leads to more Pascal. He intended this material to be a religious treatise, but its humanism is of such breadth and warmth that you can set the Christian apparatus aside, or at least make it share space with other approaches (9).
Within it all, one question: How do we spend our time before we don’t have any more time? That’s Death above, jumping out on a medieval bro.
In Pascal’s writing this often leads to the problem of boredom. We get bored easily. This anxiety bubbles inside his ruminations on classical authors, political power, Scripture, paganism, wine drinking (the gist: moderation), aesthetics, labor, sports, Montaigne, social ritual, spiritual hierarchies, and other human pastimes. Why would any of us be bored? For him, only the contemplation of God’s love would scratch the itch; for many of you general readers, I suspect, such faith is no longer something to grasp, even though we’ve still got all the itching—in forms like boredom—to which Christianity is one response.
Here are some choice bits arranged at random, in the spirit of the Pensées. Like a true #failedintellectual, I’ve cited them by page and fragment number in the Oxford English translation; slashes indicate paragraph-ish breaks within the fragments. You’ll find it all downright modern. Pascal would have understood iPhones and Twitter.
Man’s condition: Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety (10, his italics).
I have often said that man’s unhappiness springs from one thing alone, his incapacity to stay quietly in one room. [. . .] That is why we like noise and activity so much. That is why imprisonment is such a horrific punishment. That is why the pleasure of being alone is incomprehensible. That is, in fact, the main joy of the condition of kingship, because people are constantly trying to amuse kings and provide them with all sorts of distraction.—The king is surrounded by people whose only thought is to entertain him and prevent him from thinking about himself. King though he may be, he is unhappy if he thinks about it (11).
The feeling of the inauthenticity of present pleasures and our ignorance of the emptiness of absent pleasures causes inconstancy (12).
The whole of life goes on like this. We seek repose by battling against difficulties, and once they are overcome, repose becomes unbearable because of the boredom it engenders. We have to get away from it, and beg for commotion. We think about either our present afflictions or our future ones. Even when we think we are protected on every side, boredom with its own authority does not shrink from appearing from the heart’s depths, where it has its roots, to poison the mind (13).
It is not good to be too free. / It is not good to have everything necessary (14).
We are so unhappy that we can only take pleasure in something on condition that we should be allowed to become angry if it goes wrong (15).
It is unfair that anyone should be devoted to me, although it can happen with pleasure, and freely. I should mislead those in whom I quickened this feeling, because I am no one’s ultimate end, and cannot satisfy them. Am I not near death? So the object of their attachment will die (16).
When we read too quickly or too slowly we understand nothing (17).
Descartes useless and uncertain (18).
Anybody who does not see the vanity of the world is very vain himself. / And so who does not see it, apart from the young who are preoccupied with bustle, distractions, and plans for the future? / But take away their distractions and you will see them wither from boredom. / Then they feel their hollowness without understanding it, because it is indeed depressing to be in a state of unbearable sadness as soon as you are reduced to contemplating yourself, and without distraction from doing so (19).
Man’s greatness lies in his capacity to recognize his wretchedness. A tree does not recognize its own wretchedness. So it is wretched to know one is wretched, but there is greatness in the knowledge of one’s wretchedness (20).
The parrot’s beak, which it wipes even though it is clean (21).
Paul Valéry thought that most texts are never finished, only abandoned. Since you can extend this to the unwritten work of most lives, I’m with Pascal: “I blame equally those who decide to praise man, those who blame him, and those who want to be diverted. I can only approve those who search in anguish” (22). This life thing does bewilder you sometimes, provoking all sorts of bootless cries. “Who put me here? On whose orders and on whose decision have this place and this time been allotted to me?” (23).
1. Letters of Wallace Stevens, ed. Holly Stevens (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966), p. 636.
2. For what it’s worth, your critic considers much of Stevens’s corpus a lyric parody of philosophical discourse, one meant to tantalize readers of a certain bent with the notion that a poem contains a quantum of Meaning that can be deracinated and subjected to interpretation.
3. Letters of Wallace Stevens, 251.
4. Blaise Pascal, Pensées and Other Writings, ed. Anthony Levi, trans. Honor Levi (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1995, 2008).
5. That is, if it’s good fragmentary stuff. Not something like Rev. Casaubon’s “Key to All Mythologies” project in Middlemarch. Everyone hated Casaubon.
6. As Robert Frost claims in “The Figure a Poem Makes,” scholars and poets both “work from knowledge,” but whereas “scholars get theirs with conscientious thoroughness along projected lines of logic,” poets “stick to nothing deliberately, but let what will stick to them like burrs where they walk in the fields.” Excellent point. See “The Figure a Poem Makes” (1939), in Selected Prose of Robert Frost, eds. Hyde Cox and Edward Connery Lathem (New York: Collier, 1968), 20.
7. Coleridge: Selected Poetry and Prose, ed. Elisabeth Schneider (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1951), 464. It’s true, my home library’s Coleridge is a paperback from 1951. What? You gotta economize.
8. Ibid., 476-477.
9. One can do the same with George Herbert’s poetry and Graham Greene’s novels.
10. Pensées, pp. 36-37, fragment 146. Pascal’s italics.
11. pp. 44-45, frag. 168.
12. p. 107, frag. 107.
13. p. 46, frag. 168.
14. p. 22, frag. 90.
15. p. 22, frag. 89.
16. p. 7, frag. 15.
17. p. 16, frag. 75.
18. p. 105, frag. 445.
19. p. 16, frag. 70.
20. pp. 36-37, frag. 146.
21. p. 35, frag. 139.
22. p. 8, frag. 24.
23. p. 26, frag. 102.
In a rearguard action titled Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum contends that a humanist education helps one learn to “judge political leaders critically, but with an informed and realistic sense of the possibilities available to them” (26). This critical radar isn’t the province of history and philosophy alone, either. One can develop the capacity for simultaneous skepticism and empathy by reading literature, and I don’t just mean texts like Julius Caesar or All the King’s Men, whose plots entail overtly political entanglements. Witnessing the psychological, sexual, and then legal bind that Dmitri Karamazov gets himself into will also give you a vivid sense of how “making the Right Choice” is sometimes impossible.
Last week, UC Irvine announced that Barack Obama would give this June’s commencement speech. UCI estimates that the logistical complexity of a presidential visit will add around $1 million to the event’s costs; and if you live in northern Orange County, have fun with your weekend driving! That said, I admit that it is pretty cool to get the President for your graduation ceremony instead of some actor or a retired senator.
But if you have spent much time on the General Reader, you know that the editors do not support Mr. Obama’s education policies, particularly his administration’s daft conception of how higher learning (i.e. College) works in theory or in American historical practice. You can read some of our grumblings here and here and here and here.
To be fair, President Obama inherited an education system that, from the pre-K level up to graduate programs, has been terribly damaged by the same forces that are eating away at our whole democracy. His administration didn’t create the preference of state legislatures for spending more on prisons than schools and food stamps; or the metastasis of a sumptuously compensated managerial class that isn’t very good at managing; or the cynical neoliberal reliance on part-time contract labor; or the strange popular faith that a form of magic called Technology will solve all forms of human suffering and lack; or the indifference of citizens who would rather be babysat by their screens than read anything about how their nation operates, because, hey, Candy Crush; or the shifting of financial risks and burdens onto individuals (like the students who acquire debt that will accrue interest at more than twice the Fed prime rate); or the creepy, spreading belief—nourished by a scum-tide of corporate money—that since radically defunded public institutions have a hard time functioning, then we must privatize them and trust that the market will take care of us.
Further, Mr. Obama has had to confront the hysterical wreckage of the Republican Party, an “opposition” that is little more than a proudly irrational mob with an awesome media team. When your opponents’ reaction to literally everything you say or do is UMMDURRRR NAW NO WAY BADMAN, it is difficult to accomplish much. In many respects all the President can do is talk intelligently and patiently.
Luckily, commencements are all about talking. Most speakers go in for pious abstractions about The Value of an Education/Hard Work/Economic Competitiveness. Is it too much to ask that Obama, a man lauded for his eloquence, reject the standard rhetorical fare? After all, most of the the students he is addressing voted for him.
A President’s capacity to persuade the public is limited; if the bully pulpit were still bully, then the Affordable Care Act would have a 90% approval rating and we’d be taxing carbon. But were Mr. Obama to start speaking honestly and in concrete terms about why American higher ed is such a mess, surely the debate over what to do will grow at least slightly more intelligent. His rhetorical support alone would make more room for education reformers who are actually teachers and students, not standardized-testing corporations, textbook publishers, Silicon Valley tech pimps, cornball privateers, or New York Times columnists.
With that in mind, here are some notes to help the President draft his speech. Mr. Obama, if you need more advice, hit me up on Twitter.
- Since you are speaking at a branch of the greatest public-university system ever built, tell us about the people and ideologies threatening to destroy it. Instead of merely scolding colleges and universities for their tuition rates, you could call out the state legislatures that have spent forty years abdicating their commitment to citizens and thereby driving up those rates. The UC’s present woes did not result from geological forces that nobody could resist; they are the result of actual decisions made by actual people under the influence of a privatization fetish that remains ascendant in the United States. As such these decisions and people can be countered by other decisions and other people who aren’t so dim. Treating “fiscal crises” and “budget cuts” like tectonic shift does nothing but disguise existing problems and create new ones. Just be honest.
- Many of the students you are addressing have taken on tens of thousands of dollars in debt to pay for their education. The people in the audience who just finished their PhDs? Oh, they have debt, too. This is a great time to demonstrate that you have the stones to support Elizabeth Warren’s proposition that we cut student-loan interest rates in half. And if you really want to show us some Change we can Believe in, announce that you would like to see all student loans become interest-free. People who earned BAs and graduate degrees want to pay off their debts, but artificially elevated interest rates make it hard to do so, especially for those of us who did what you are always asking young people to do, and went into public service. Just be honest.
- Explain how a return to robust public funding of state universities would ensure that any student able to handle college-level brain work can get an education as good as the ones you and the First Lady received at Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard. It is fine that you attended private school, but you should commit to ensuring that the public/private distinction has nothing to do with baseline educational quality. Just be honest.
- Smaller classes, smaller classes, smaller classes. Also, smaller classes. This is what works. You know that, having been educated in small classes at excellent schools. You will send your daughters to colleges that prize small classes. Schools that do not rely primarily on courses with fewer than 25 students should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal. No exceptions. Just be honest.
- You are speaking to an audience from a university that, like almost all American universities, relies heavily on teachers who have little job security. This is bad for the teachers (duh) and their students. Even intimate seminars cannot accomplish much if they are not taught by people who have advanced degrees in their subjects and the material security to develop their pedagogical skills. For the millionth damn time: We cannot depend on adjuncts. America cannot educate its children using temps, no matter how good the temps are; and we are very good. Schools that do not primarily employ full-time, tenure-track teachers should be ranked low on whatever national ratings scale ends up emerging from your recent proposal. (As with the bullet point above, a model based on this commitment has already been formulated by Robert Samuels, who teaches in the UC and leads its biggest faculty union. You could totally call him up.) No exceptions. Just be honest.
- Point out that American schools spend too much money on amenities like sports programs (especially basketball and football programs) and elegant dorms. These financial habits are killing them. Yeah, I had fun filling out my NCAA bracket, too. But if colleges are cheating and stupefying their students by offering them new fitness centers so they won’t care too much about taking classes in overcrowded, crumbling rooms, then fuck our brackets. Just be honest.
- Remind the administrators in attendance that “retention” targets and quantitative enrollment goals can never be more important than maintaining (or re-establishing) academic rigor. If college classes are not demanding, if they do not ask their participants to read, think, and write a great deal, then GPAs swell up while intellects languish. This hobbles a democracy. Just be honest.
- You should praise UC upper-management for recently (finally) signing a humane labor deal with the union that represents the system’s poorest employees, and emphasize that income inequality, which you have declared “the defining challenge of our time,” will only lessen if we encourage new unionization and support existing labor groups. For fuck’s sake, don’t crow about trade deals, stock markets, or mortgage-based tax breaks that mainly help rich people. Just be honest.
- Don’t say anything about T/technology. Everyone knows T/technology, whatever it is, is great. Half the audience is texting right now. T/technology can go an hour without being petted. Just be honest.
- You don’t need to tell the audience about how education helps people get jobs. They know. Since kindergarten most of the graduating seniors have heard about little besides the instrumental value of a degree. In fact, by now too many of them see the past four or five years as job training that involved parties but had damn well better to lead to a healthy bank balance, end of story. Why don’t you take the time to broach other topics, like the Jeffersonian business about education preparing the entire self to be a reflective citizen? Not too much, mind you, because you must avoid windy abstractions, especially when a sizable chunk of your audience is hungover, but if you keep it short, reminding your listeners that college does more than equip a person to earn money couldn’t hurt. History classes, pianos, poetry readings, overheated front-stoop squabbles over politics, and art museums really aren’t that bad. Just be honest.
- OK, so maybe you leave the granular, street-by-street humanities-defending to people like Martha Nussbaum. (I know you dislike art history, until you don’t dislike it because disliking it makes people dislike you.) Perhaps you could talk about a larger cognitive practice, one that facilitates individual growth as well as aggregate material expansion in a post-industrial economy where organizations must be able to articulate, exchange, and evaluate complex ideas. I don’t mean science and math, which, like most politicians, you frequently commend. (As you should, because science and math are beautiful.) I mean that other support-beam of civilization: writing. Mr. President, your facility with language is the basis of your success. Were it not for that keynote address you gave at the 2004 Democratic Convention, you aren’t President in 2014; if the English language, a glory when handled with love and concentration, did not suffuse your entire being, you wouldn’t have been able to write that speech in the first place. Science, math, and writing (and its twin, reading) are meaningless without one another. But rarely does a public figure speak up for writing. Maybe you could. Tell the people how you got here. Just be honest.
Mr. Obama, you are one of the most articulate, cerebral men who has ever held the White House. Your presidency provides some evidence that mass democracy doesn’t always reward scoundrels and grifters. So come June, walk onto the stage in Anaheim and tell the people some concrete, grown-up truths.
Just be honest. A democratic nation that gives up on its public schools is no longer a democracy, or even a nation.