The current battles between the politicians in North Carolina (both those in our state legislature and those on the Board of Governors for the state-wide university system) remind me of nothing so much as the battles between church and state as portrayed in the film, Beckett. Like the medieval church, the university, under the double banner of academic freedom and the right of professional expertise to self-governance, claims—and actually possesses—an autonomy that infuriates the statesmen. The politicians (despite their hypocritical claims to abhor state power and over-reach) are determined to bring the university to heel. It only exacerbates matters that universities generate a loyalty and affection among students and alums that politicians can only dream of attaining.
Put this way, the university is the Church. And, certainly, the university has plenty of analogues with the Church, especially in the pretension to and, sometimes achievement of, the otherworldly. Plenty of room for hypocrisy there—and undoubtedly no shortage of actual indulgence in that vice.
But I can’t help but view our power-grasping politicians through the lens of religion as well. I have tried, mostly successfully, during my life and academic career to resist those narratives that posit a sickness deep in the American soul, that see our nation as doomed by a darkness, an original sin, that means it is impossible we will ever live up to our high-falutin’ ideals. I don’t want to believe that racism explains all of the American past and the American present. I do want to believe that the US has done a decent—albeit far from perfect—job of providing a good enough life for a higher percentage of its citizens than have most societies in human history. But I cannot deny that the desire to believe these things may be making me blind to the uglier truth.
In any case, I read this in a Kipling story (“Watches of the Night”): “You may have noticed that many religious people are deeply suspicious. They seem—for purely religious purposes, of course—to know more about iniquity than the unregenerate. Perhaps they were specially bad before they became converted! At any rate, in the imputation of things evil, and in putting the worst construction on things innocent, a certain type of good person may be trusted to surpass all others.”
Now, you could say that the evangelicals meet their match in this regard with the “America is rotten to the core” crew. Fair enough. But what I want to ponder is the desire to punish. When I consider why these right-wingers hate the university—and consider the ways they express that hatred—what I see (among other factors, no doubt) is the desire to subject professors to “market discipline.” It is not enough to see evil. One must punish it. And the chosen instrument for punishment is the market. The right-wingers may be able to mouth all the virtues of the free market. But what they really like is that it punishes people, that it causes pain to the reprobate. How else to explain the need to hunt down the poorest and most vulnerable at every turn and make sure that they are suffering enough? It’s almost as if the prosperous cannot enjoy their riches without also knowing that some are excluded from that enjoyment.
Of course, the price for that enjoyment is “hard work”—and the right (reminiscent of Kipling’s comments on “suspicion”) is obsessed with the notion that there are people out there who are avoiding “hard work,” who are living off the fat of government largesse.
The university looks like a free consequence zone. Bad enough that students get to play on their parents’ and the state’s dime for four years. But that professors get to do so for a lifetime is truly insufferable! Teaching only two days a week! Summer vacations! Sabbaticals! And with fancy titles and exaggerated respect. There ought to be a law against it.