Police states, pandemic, and the end of the university

“One of my roles is to be in the classroom with my students come September, because coming together to think in real time and real space is fundamental to any other cause we care about.”

Joyce Dalsheim
29 June 2020, 12.07pm
Workshop with grad students and professors.
Flickr/ jayahimsa. Some rights reserved

“Education is the point at which we decide whether we love the world enough to assume responsibility for it …. And education, too, is where we decide whether we love our children enough not to expel them from our world and leave them to their own devices…but to prepare them in advance for the task of renewing a common world.”
Hannah Arendt, The Crisis in Education, 1954

Today thousands of people are out protesting, demanding their human rights and an end to excessive policing. Today we are also in the midst of a pandemic that has generated enormous fear. Yet people are willing to gather in the streets and risk their health and their lives for the cause. Policing and the pandemic are not separate issues. Both are about the distribution of power and resources, and the social allocation of risk and suffering. Underlying both, as Arendt might argue, is the question of how we can repair our world in the face of crisis, and how we can guide our children to do the same. These issues, policing, pandemic, and the future of education, are deeply interconnected.

Many of my colleagues are concerned about returning to teaching at the university in the Fall. They say the only feasible option is to continue teaching online only. I understand their apprehension about getting back in the classroom in the midst of the on-going pandemic. Their own health and that of their families and their students might be placed at risk.

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Facing the enormous crises of our times, we need students and faculty thinking together now more than ever. I’ve participated in many protests and demonstrations in my life. Sometimes I’ve been in front, photographed by police, spat on by pedestrians, threatened by passing cars, or sprayed with animal repellent. I admit that at other times I’ve acted to protect my personal safety and that of my children. Stay in the back, avoid direct confrontation with police or soldiers. Stay away from the water cannons and tear gas canisters. Avoid interaction with counter-demonstrators. Keep your head down at military checkpoints. Make sure you have an exit route. I’ve let others be in the front lines, chosen not to be among those arrested on any given day.

This time, it is my fight. While I may not be one of those beaten by police, and I am no martyr, I am convinced that the fate of the university and the fights going on in the street are not disconnected. We all have different roles to play in the resistance. One of my roles is to be in the classroom with my students come September, because coming together to think in real time and real space is fundamental to any other cause we care about.

Coming together to think in real time and real space is fundamental to any other cause we care about.

It should go without saying that when we go back to the classroom it should be with masks and gloves and cleaning and testing and any other modifications we can make to help mitigate the risk. Those who feel their health or circumstances compromise them too much, should continue teaching and studying online.

Thinking never takes place in isolation

I’m planning to be in the classroom in the fall because I’m afraid that if we all stay at home this will be the end of the university as we have known it; a university already long under threat. I am willing to put myself in potential harm because I’ve seen the power of in-person education. As the protesters in the streets of America’s cities have demonstrated, coming together in person is fundamental to social change, including human and civil rights, racial justice, and dealing with the environmental crisis.

The hyper-individualism of contemporary capitalism already prevents people from interacting, organizing, and working together. If we understand the value of community as a good in and of itself, why would we want to further jeopardize that good? Face to face conversations, and not merely their electronic simulation, are central to our work as human beings. Coming together to share ideas, debate, and ponder is fundamental to what it means to be human. Thinking never takes place in isolation.

If we understand the value of community as a good in and of itself, why would we want to further jeopardize that good?

Technological advances may help keep us connected, but they cannot replace face to face communication. Community organizers and activists know this. Paulo Freire, the great Brazilian educator, knew this. And anthropologists know this. We get to the field and find out that back in our offices and in our seminars we were asking the wrong questions. We discover that what we read in books, news reports, or opinion pieces does not represent the experiences or opinions of the people on the ground. We realize that the important conversations take place after the formal interview ends, walking through the streets, sitting on park benches, watching the children play, or behind the stalls at the market.

The myth of law and order

Like the people whose murders sent today’s protestors to the streets, the protestors have been met by brutal policing tactics, militarized responses, and threats of more oppressive violence. They have come out in massive numbers risking their lives in the midst of an on-going pandemic. Do not imagine for a single minute that the police state and the end of the university are not connected.

What is policing for, after all? What is the purpose of the university?

We might have come to believe the myth of law and order: the idea that laws are there to protect all of us, to maintain calm and clarity so that we know what to do and can all go about our daily lives. For the myth to take hold, it has to have elements of truth. We – at least some of us – must feel protected by the laws upheld by policing and the criminal justice system. But the purpose of designating particular acts as ‘criminal’ is more closely related to protecting the social hierarchy and economic system than upholding the rights of each citizen. ‘Crime’ is always a socially constructed category whose primary purpose is to protect the social order. Recall that the word “order” also means to sort and arrange. What counts as ‘criminal’ in our society are those acts that are seen as threatening to private property, to profit, and to the accumulation of wealth by the few at the top.

The rich get richer and the poor get prison. The human subject that social systems depend on is one which is suited to the systems’ purposes, to the state’s projects and its economic system. In the case of the contemporary United States this means an endlessly entrepreneurial, desiring self, oriented to infinite consumption, generating surplus in concert with the prospect of endless growth of the economy. Poor people are not suited to such projects. It is no mistake that their actions become categorized as “criminal” and dangerous. It is no mistake that they fill up the jails and prisons, which themselves have now become for-profit businesses. Of course, poverty and race are not always isomorphic. Racism – like xenophobia, antisemitism, homophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny and more – takes on a devastating life of its own. All these “dangers” promote fear and hatred in an economy where precarity has become the norm for so many people.

The university, danger and terror

But the university can potentially be dangerous to this order of society. Or, at least certain elements of the university can be risky for social order and stability. Those of us who teach about racism and structural violence provide the tools of analysis to understand the “banality of legal,” and the trouble with categories like “criminal” and “terrorist”. We potentially pose a threat to the order of things.

In my college of liberal arts and sciences, the largest proportion of external funding comes from the Department of Defense. Some of this funding is for the development of better military hardware. Some of it is for the study of “terrorism.” But we who question the designation “terrorist” and point for example to domestic state terror, lack of health care terror, food desert terror, economic terror, gendered and racialized terror, are not eligible for such funding. The university is increasingly dependent on external funding.

Large private corporations will fund projects that advance their interests. They will, for example, help develop programs that support marketing and surveillance, profit and discipline. But our work – both teaching and research – does not support state or corporate projects. We are a threat unless we remain very small and serve merely as a figleaf that protects the myths of equal opportunity and justice for all.

This pandemic will only increase the speed and intensity of the growing police state. Before you know it, we in the humanities and we who teach critical thinking, and we who analyze the brutality of the systems in which we live, will be pushed past our presently marginalized positions and discarded altogether as the universities become nothing but digitalized training organizations whose only role is to staff the machine.

The university at risk

Our knowledge and expertise will be commodified and homogenized. The University as we know it, or have known it, is at risk. If we participate in trying to prove that online education is just as good as teaching in person, we participate in our own demise. There have already been moves to promote online instruction by for-profit organizations as we’ve seen with the MOOCs from places like Harvard and MIT. If we move to all on-line, we – the classroom instructors – will become superfluous. Big corporations will make fancy, technologically advanced courses that will be administered by an underpaid workforce. Our course content will be taken as the property of the university or sold, again, to private educational corporations. And the beauty and benefits of people meeting and exchanging ideas will be lost.

If we move to all on-line, we – the classroom instructors – will become superfluous.

Fear is a powerful emotion. This time, it promotes isolation, distance, and growing divisions of all sorts. The idea of preparing as best we can and getting on with life is an unpopular position among most of my university friends and colleagues. Many argue that we cannot responsibly gather in the absence of a medical cure to our current viral plague. We make the argument that when more people stay home, the health and safety of the general population is protected. But this is not inherently an altruistic stance.

Staying at home depends on a whole cadre of underpaid workers who will serve us: deliver packages and food to our homes, pick the vegetables in the fields, produce the supplies we need, stock our grocery shelves and ring up our purchases, to say nothing of the first responders and healthcare workers and all the people who keep hospitals clean and running. Those categorized as “essential” workers already need childcare and many people are anxious to get their children back in school. It is clear to parents that online learning is insufficient and it requires parents to take on an additional full-time job.

“Are we not essential?”

When we, as professors, take the privileged position of refusing en masse to teach while expecting other essential workers to continue to labor, are we suggesting that our work is not essential? Or are we suggesting that our lives are more valuable than staff who cannot chose to stay at home and keep their jobs?

We already know that access to higher education is not available to everyone and we know about the “digital divide”. Certainly, some people will be even further disadvantaged by on-line only instruction. This is not only because they may not have access to internet or computers, but because they may not have a quiet place at home, and depend on university facilities as the only quiet and well-equipped spaces they can find to work. They may depend on the unique atmosphere of the university as a place where they can be free to learn about the world, free to think, pose new questions, change their minds, and think again.

For some of our students, coming to the university is their first time being away from home. The value of meeting with other students, finding out about people from other places, learning from peers, and beginning to create long-lasting friendships and networks can be just as valuable as learning specific content in class. All those conversations that take place in the in-between times cannot be scheduled on Zoom.

All those conversations that take place in the in-between times cannot be scheduled on Zoom.

Obviously there is an enormous difference between the suffering endured by those who have already lost their jobs or who still will, and those of us who are allowed to work from home and who can choose to continue doing so. It is a privilege to have a home and to be able to work from there.

Appreciate this privilege while it lasts, because the longer we stay away from campus altogether, the more we prove that human interaction is not essential to education. No matter the technological “advances,” in-person communication is too important to abandon, lest we all become the automatons of a march leading to our own destruction. This is the time to ask ourselves if we love our children enough to accompany them as they prepare to renew the world.

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