This commencement season, the dominant narrative has centered on successful student campaigns to force withdrawals and disinvitations of commencement speakers. Haverford, Rutgers, Smith, Brandeis. It’s the wrong narrative—or, at least, it’s incomplete. What’s shocked me has been the extent to which these examples of student self-activity have incited university professors and administrators to publicize a barely concealed disdain for students. This disdain saturates every stupid, snarky word of Stephen Carter’s “Dear Class of 2014: Thanks for Not Disinviting Me”; it resounds in William Bowen’s commencement sermon to Haverford College. In a world where dads and the dad-like wring their hands over those sillybilly millenials, apathetic spoiled and self-absorbed, somehow students' attempt to recode the parameters of public spectacle has been troped as an exercise in narcissism. It’s the selfie generation, after all.
If the university once (understood itself to have) functioned as the place where humans left their self-incurred immaturity, as Kant might put it, if it once served as the place where students prepared themselves to participate in public life, the Dads of higher ed are now insisting with the primness of a period-piece dowager that students should be seen and not heard. Literally. Bowen recalls a commencement protest over the grant of an honorary degree to a Nixonite in the 70s. (You can hear the daddishness: “back in my day…”) Happily, the “protestors were respectful (mostly), and chose to express their displeasure, by simply standing and turning their backs when the Secretary was recognized.” If ed gurus today salivate over tech-leveraged “disruption,” what Bowen admires about these human swivels is their decision “to express their opinion in a non-disruptive fashion.” No noise, just image, and the spectacle went on, with Princeton investing a Nixonite with an honorary degree.
I’ve been insisting on the term spectacle because, as everyone knows, the operative fiction of Carter’s letter and Bowen’s sermon is bullshit. Not even your liberalist liberal, your deliberativest deliberative democrat, could in good faith claim that commencement speeches are scenes of open debate. They are, rather, capstone moments where the university takes on a body, incorporates itself, and seeks to establish the conditions of its corporate reproducibility. A lovely experience validating 240k in cash or debt, a spectacle for parents and future donors—but hardly a scene of debate or discussion! Just a droning message, some platitudes, and the implicit promise that the fundraising office will soon track you down.
Thus, Carter’s sarcastic reminder that students are “graduating into a world of enormous complexity and conflict,” his sarcastic injunction that childish student protestors not “sweep away complexity and nuance’”—all of this is the height of cynical bullshit. I can’t imagine that there’s a student protestor who would not have jumped at the chance to address the middlebrow dads of the world in the august pages of BloombergView, to be recognized as mature enough to participate in the dads’ super-smart high-intensity debates, nuanced and complex as they are. (I can’t imagine, moreover, that there’s a single student protesting the IMF’s Lagarde who is not aware of the US’s historical involvement in it, I can’t imagine that there’s a single protestor who would not be happy to disinvite the US—as Carter suggests students would not be—should the Statue of Liberty or something try to give a commencement speech. But Professor Carter insists on his students’ stupidity, their lack of sophisticated thinking. Ad te fabula…)
To demand nuance from those without secure access to official publics is to inhibit access to publicness as such. But Carter and Bowen don’t want publicness; they want an ideological plebiscite. One in which students are free to say yes or no (or nothing, which counts as a yes) to the options presented, sure, but they first need to be presented with the options—options cooked up off screen, in the President’s office, with the Board of Trustees, with the Dean of Student Life, wherever. They can turn their backs, give a thumbs down, maybe the unruly will even boo (with pearls clutched at Princeton), but first they have to listen. Bowen reserves particular ire for the students’ decision to send Birgeneau a list of demands—that is, for their attempt to intervene into public discourse in a way exceeding the axiomatics of yea or nay. In a certain way, then, universities are preparing students for the forms of depleted publicness available to Mature Nuanced Dads across ‘Merica: raging at television screens and the de facto binary act of punching holes in ballots. (Let’s keep that in mind: the pinnacle of official political being for most US subjects is so semantically winnowed that its activity is prelinguistic. Nuance not required.)
And so the bankrupt cynicism of claims that students immaturely, impulsively, undemocratically violated the norms of democratic publicness. To think that fostering a culture of public debate is a university pedagogical ideal is by turns hilarious and desperately sad when we consider the story that put Bowen on Haverford’s stage and the story he told while up there. Bowen spoke because Haverford students didn’t want Birgeneau, the former chancellor of UC Berkeley who let his cops baton student Occupiers in 2011, to speak. Bowen’s good-ole-days memory, meanwhile, recalls the chill in campus activism in the 70s—in the wake, that is, of Kent State. (The dignified, “non-disruptive” protest of turning one’s back is also one that won’t get you shot or beat.) The campus public has been structured dismantled; when it threatens to reappear, it is hyper-policed. Or University Dads write letters in the rag of a billionaire’s news corporation.
This round of student disinvitation performatively refuses the pseudo-conversion of an ideological plebiscite into an ersatz public. That they can recognize the difference is miraculous, because it would appear, from Carter and Bowen’s responses, that university educators flip to the end of Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?” when assembling their pedagogy: “Argue about whatever you like as much as you like, but obey!” This time, though, the obedience that University Dads demand would entail students forsaking the already minimal space they once possessed.
I’m not being as coherent as I‘d like. Maybe not as nuanced as Carter would demand. There’s much more to be said about the decimation of publicness in the US, the way it’s been militarized and policed to hell. About the university’s betrayal of its mission. About how nuance is meaningless in a world subsumed into the idiotic violence of pure command. And on and on.
But I’m more just angry, pissed off, that my colleagues in higher education are so committed to maintaining their dad-power that they write off those students most committed to opening a democratic horizon as democracy’s greatest traitors. The idea persists that any student with an idea is actually a kid with a tantrum; that student protesting is super chic and just a blast; that responding to administration power is a kind of oedipal thing that silly kids do, because they must, to feel (but not actually be; no, not yet) like adults.
What Carter and Bowen refuse to acknowledge are the doubtless long hours students spent in self-organized meetings, arguing, drafting and re-drafting statements, figuring out what it was they in fact wanted. What they can’t feel, and don’t care to feel, is the scorn reserved for student activists on campus. But the scorn isn’t as bad as the indifference, an indifference experienced in more long hours trying to hand fliers to people who will probably trash them immediately, in conversations with unreceptive classmates and student groups and, yes, most professors and administrators. An indifference induced by the discourse that students are just consumers, and primarily consumers of booze and sex—a discourse of the dads that pretends to lament what it secretly hopes to reproduce.
And what they really, truly cannot see is the fear, and the extraordinary and ordinary courages that match it. The fear of isolation and mockery, to be sure. But also the simple fear that necessarily runs alongside the act of becoming political in a space that abjects politics—of becoming public in a world evacuated of publicness. The voices that trembled when they first began mic-checking a speaker, only to crescendo by the end. The moment of doubt that arrives just before the email is sent to the student paper…but sent it is. Even just approaching someone with a flier is a small breech of neoliberal norms, an act requiring a corresponding charge of bravery.
That these students exist at all is miraculous. As always, it’s the educator who must be educated. Carter and Bowen should thank them for the lesson. For it might not be too long, perhaps, before they take Bowen’s advice and turn their backs on these spectacles of depleted publicity—only to make a break for the undercommons from which they emerged.