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George Yancy: I Am a Dangerous Academic

It is deeply concerning that faculty in American universities are being ‘put on notice’ even before the President-Elect takes office. The solution is to stand with them and speak, and argue, and fight against efforts to silence such academics regardless of whether we individually agree with the targeted academics’ respective philosophical or political leanings. The goal of the academy is to further thinking and thoughtful analyses rather than collectively advocate for any particular political leaning.

In Yancy’s defense of himself, the academy, and philosophy itself he succinctly explains the value and importance of a philosophically-influenced education:

To be “philosophically adjusted” is to belie what I see as one major aim of philosophy — to speak to the multiple ways in which we suffer, to be a voice through which suffering might speak and be heard, and to offer a gift to my students that will leave them maladjusted and profoundly unhappy with the world as it is. Bringing them to that state is what I call doing “high stakes philosophy.” It is a form of practicing philosophy that refuses to ignore the horrible realities of people who suffer and that rejects ideal theory, which functions to obfuscate such realities. It is a form of philosophizing that refuses to be seduced by what Friedrich Nietzsche called “conceptual mummies.” Nietzsche notes that for many philosophers, “nothing actual has escaped from their hands alive.”

In my courses, which the watchlist would like to flag as “un-American” and as “leftist propaganda,” I refuse to entertain my students with mummified ideas and abstract forms of philosophical self-stimulation. What leaves their hands is always philosophically alive, vibrant and filled with urgency. I want them to engage in the process of freeing ideas, freeing their philosophical imaginations. I want them to lose sleep over the pain and suffering of so many lives that many of us deem disposable. I want them to become conceptually unhinged, to leave my classes discontented and maladjusted.

Philosophy, like the Arts and Social Sciences more generally, ought to leave students upset. Confused. And disturbed. Not for the purpose of causing harm but to generate an unrootedness; as students re-plant their roots following a period of unrootedness they may return to the same political and philosophical positions as before but with stronger rationales that are girded in a deeper ethical and normative appreciation of reality. But maybe they subtly, or significantly, shift in their understandings of the world and their ethical commitments within it. In either situation the student has changed by broadening and deepening their ability to consider the different aspects involved in holding their respective positions. And that’s absolutely fine to my mind.

The goal of philosophically-influenced education isn’t to force a reversal in view, belief, or understanding but to compel students to better consider why they hold the positions they do and better appreciate those positions’ implications. The very act of reflecting upon oneself invokes the opportunity for change, but to prompt such change the academy (and its students) need to support and protect those who prompt such uneasiness in students. Silencing such academics-of-change thus constitutes a directed threat to an essential aspect of what the University is meant to provide to society.

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The lack of teaching skills means we are supporting institutions that not only don’t do what we idealize them to do, they don’t value and professionalize the things that we expect them to do well. In fact, we have gone to extremes to prevent the job of university teaching from becoming a profession. The most obvious example is hiring adjunct professors. These are people who are hired for about the same wage as a fast food server, and are expected to teach physics or philosophy to 18 year olds. They don’t get benefits or even long-term contracts. So, in effect, they never get the chance to develop into highly skilled teaching professionals. Instead, they spend most of their time worrying about heating bills and whether they can afford to go to the doctor.

Now, of course, universities will argue that they are research organizations. And that is true. Universities do value research over teaching. Meaning that tenured and tenure-track professors, even if they love teaching, cannot prioritize it, because their administration requires them to be good researchers. Indeed, if you admit that you are a middling to average researcher and want to focus on teaching, you become viewed a burden by your department.

Yet, for the great majority of people, their only interaction with a university is through the people doing the teaching. It’s as if a major corporation, say General Motors, decided that their public face would not be their most visible product—hello Chevy Volt—and instead decides to place the janitorial service front and center. Then, just to top it off, decided not to train the janitors.