When I was in my graduate education for English Literature, I took a class titled “Rhetoric of the Future.”
Most of the tone of discussing the future was uniformly negative.
It had become commonplace in academia to, like journalism, highlight the problems and weaknesses in conventional thinking and that the future was indeed growing ever more stratified, ever more dystopian, and all walks of intellectual life were being deprofessionalized.
No one seemed to doubt this, which I found disconcerting. I tried as best as I could to offer counter-evidence to suggest that the world had gotten quite a bit safer, more egalitarian (in a nuanced way), and healthier.
Throughout my years in graduate school I was profoundly surprised at just how far left the university I attended had become. This is in Texas, mind you, a state repeatedly on the right politically for quite some time. Though the past mid-term elections have put that into growing question, the fact of the matter is we have similar polarization as everywhere else: red rural counties and blue urban ones. And yet in the space between Dallas and Fort Worth I was taken aback by how everything was so Marxist (despite the fact that many, including me, had not actually read Marx), and how everything was so awful.
Now there are certain lines of localized thinking that generally point to the truth that things around campus life could be much better. Professors and adjunct staff have gradually been stripped of autonomy due to a decreasing lack of tenure, and pay has been stagnant or dropping in terms of real wages. The robustness of the system of the university for the liberal arts has given way to a “coddling of the American mind” as Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff have written in their articles and book of the same title. Colleges are flattened in their power and ideas.
My thesis’s introduction in 2018 was criticized for its positivity, as I remarked that reading has never been easier than ever. Never mind that literacy as a whole is higher than ever in recorded history. Never mind that I have access to a cell phone which can, through a digitized library card, check out books and audiobooks, send them directly to my e-reader, and have me reading some hard-to-purchase books from stores right at this moment. We can argue about whether people are reading enough, but I was simply remarking on the democratization of reading since books could be printed, and I faced an awkward backlash.
A college campus should absolutely exist to criticize the choices both political and personal of the culture in which it exists. That is not what is at stake here, but the manner in which it critiques must be evidence-based and methodical.
Enlightenment Now by Steven Pinker sought to realign our ideas to the powers of humanist thinking over the past 200 years by reminding us of the huge gains to be had because of the scientific method. He continued this train of thought from his previous book The Better Angels of Our Nature, which revealed that our world was actually becoming less violent, rather than more. These two books have been a drink of cool water from the oasis of level-headed thinking, after years of living in the hot desert of university life.
I have recently been reading Jonathan Franzen, who has written in various publications with an alarming degree of learned helplessness about the degradation of bird habitats due to climate change, and that the end of the world is at our doorstep, and that there is nothing we can do. While David Wallace-Wells, in his recent book The Uninhabitable Earth may be salaciously taking advantage of the panic in climate thought at this moment, I think Franzen may actually believe it. I vehemently disagree with the motives behind this defeatist thinking. Just last month, renewable energy consumption surpassed coal. When you consider just how much more terrible coal is as a pollutant than, say, oil or natural gas, that is a huge accomplishment. Yet for many in the academy this positive trend is falling on deaf ears.
The issue for college campuses in the fall is not just how to arrive at school either in person or online. The other issue is in what manner they choose to come back. Nuanced conversations are clearly in order, ones that address hindrances in the systemic training of law enforcement officers. Conversations that address the trials and tribulations of climate change, but offer real and actionable methods and public policy that enable differences in carbon emissions and allow for carbon capture. We need ideas that get to work, not simply ones that make us feel better about our Marxist beliefs.
Make no mistake, demographic data does show a decline in life expectancy in the United States. The reasons for this are out there, methodically tabulated by interest parties both private and public. It is the university’s prerogative to stress test this data and inspire young citizens to think critically and put that into place. I believe in our institutions, and I especially believe in our children. I would not have gone into teaching if I didn’t.