The Usurpation of the University

The Usurpation of the University

The emergence of “quit lit” over the last several years has done much to reveal the deep distress of academics in the corporate university. The articles that compose this genre often take the form of a now familiar Bildungsroman about the lost illusions of academic life: A naïve young scholar is lured into academia by the promise of cultivating the life of the mind and expanding human knowledge, only to learn, after more than a decade of hard labor, that these are not the goals of the university. Rather, the university is merely one business among others, and like these businesses, it exists to generate profit and expand its institutional power. Worse yet, our disenchanted academic discovers that the compensation he received for his substantial sacrifices is only a fraction of what he would have earned elsewhere. Instead of the lucrative salary offered to intelligent, industrious, and creative people in other fields, our scholar most likely subsists on starvation wages and welfare.

Quit lit rightly exposes the abuses at the core of the contemporary university system. The rejection of the traditional goals of education and the adoption of values fundamentally opposed to them has degraded every aspect of academic life. We have lost faculty governance and are now supervised by an administrative class completely disconnected from a life of research and teaching, we have lost the professional professorate and have seen its replacement with a precariate of adjunct laborers, and we have lost a student body and watched as it was replaced by an entitled set of customers unwilling and unable to perform even the most minimal of academic tasks (such as purchasing books or participating in a class discussion). The contemporary university is a fundamentally different institution than what it was a few generations ago, and quit lit does an excellent job of chronicling this process of debasement. Quit lit also helps to break the ideological spell that the corporate university casts upon those working within it. By appealing to empirical evidence and the lived experience of academic laborers, it can help open people’s eyes to the reality of their situation and to realize the extent to which they have been instruments of their own subjugation.

Nonetheless, quit lit tends to overlook an important set of questions: What is the status of those original values that drove us to pursue an academic life in the first place? If one undertook a life of scholarship as a higher calling, what now is the status of that call? What should we believe about beauty, truth, goodness, culture, and the life of the mind once we realize that these have no place in the current university system? Were they just illusions, ideological props used to extract cheap labor from us? Or do they still exist, just no longer in the university? This series of questions has been neglected by most accounts of those leaving the academy. Quit lit tends to follow one of two narrative forms, neither of which adequately addresses these questions.

  1. Conversion. Many essays take the form of a personal conversion narrative in which the narrator moves from a life of poverty, drunkenness, and social isolation to a happier more fulfilling life working outside of the academy. The narrator learns that the rumors that he had been told about the corporate world outside of the university were simply untrue. It is not a world of misery and cut throat competition that he had been told it was. Rather, it was life inside the university that was miserable. There is happiness to be had in the outside world. Things get better
  2. Loss. Other essays narrate a story of loss and mourning. These tend to take one of two forms. The first form is that of a personal account of trauma and grief. These recount the daily degradations one is subjected to as a graduate student or adjunct instructor, the brutalities of the academic job market, and how this unending stream of humiliations slowly and inevitably grinds down the soul and erodes confidence in the goodness of life. These essays call us to mourn, not only for the loss of our individual careers, but also for the loss of the larger cultural project to which those careers would have contributed: the books that will not be written, the discoveries that will not be made, the moral insight that will not be gained. Here the loss of one’s original ideals is recognized and mourned. But no inquiry is made about what to do with those lost ideals (other than to bury them and let them rest in peace). This is related to a second form of the loss narrative. These essays have a more objective and elegiac tone, frequently appealing to the metaphor of natural selection. According to these essays, we are witnessing the extinction a certain kind of career—the professor—and a certain kind of institution—the university. These authors seek to illustrate how times have changed and how social forces have undermined a once venerable institution.

Though each of these narrative forms expresses something important, neither of them has attempted to account for the status of the old values that have now been superseded. More specifically, neither of the narrative forms on offer account for the specifically moral dimensions of the revolution that has occurred within the university system. Once we do start examining the moral character of the shift, I think that the right model will not be one of conversion or of trauma and loss, but rather a story of usurpation. The story of the rise of the corporate university is a story of theft. The intellectual and moral inheritance that previous generations fought to preserve and pass onto us has been stolen and squandered by those with no rights to it.

Homer’s Odyssey, one of the foundational texts of the Western tradition, proves a useful parallel in this regard. We are accustomed to think of the Odyssey as a story of the homecoming of the hero Odysseus. But, to see the analogy to our contemporary situation, we will have to depart from this customary reading in two respects. First, we must remember that every homecoming presupposes a prior exile. While the other heroes of the Trojan war have either returned or died in battle, Odysseus, trapped on Kalypso’s island, is still far from his home on Ithica which has descended into barbarism in his absence. Second, though we are accustomed to think of this story from the perspective of its hero Odysseus, to see the parallel to the predicament of young scholars, I suggest we look at the story from the perspective of Odysseus’ son Telemachus.

We first see Telemachus besieged by “the haughty suitors”, drunk from his wine and feasting on his cattle. Telemachus sits:

His heart deep grieving within him, imagining in his mind his great father, how he might come back and all throughout the house might cause the suitors to scatter, and hold his rightful place to be lord of his own possessions I.113-117.[1]

This passage presents a figure both pitiable and powerless. He sits and watches as his inheritance is consumed, seeing the injustice of it but lacking the power to oppose it. All he can do is grieve and imagine what it would be like if his father were to return and restore his patrimony.  In recounting his troubles to Athena, who appears to him as the old warrior Mentes, he laments that since his father has disappeared, the suitors wear out his house. “These eating up my substance waste it away; and soon they will break me myself to pieces.” I.250-251.

This sustained state of powerlessness even causes him to doubt his lineage. If he was the son of Odysseus, wouldn’t he have been able to have found some way of dealing with this outrage? He notes that his mother says he is Odysseus son, but, claims Telemachus:

I for my part do not know. Nobody really knows his own father. But how I wish I could have been rather some to some fortunate man, whom old age overtook among his possessions. But of mortal men, that man has proved to be the most ill fated whose son they say I am. I.215-220.

In this manner, we can see Telemachus taking up the two standard themes of quit lit. He mourns the loss of his father and thinks of another possible life and identity for himself. What would it have been like to be born to someone other than Odysseus? And perhaps this willingness to be open to other possible ways of living would spur Telemachus to leave his patrimony and adopt a new identity in which he could be happier. What, after all, is stopping him from leaving his home and taking up a new life outside of Ithica? Indeed, one can here find the grounds for a conversion narrative in which Telemachus recounts his transformation from the disheartened and defeated son of Odysseus to a different kind of individual. It is no longer an age of heroes. The trojan war is over. It’s best to be done with that and wrest what little happiness one can from the world we have.

Yet, in the context of an epic poem like the Odyssey, we find such strategies unseemly. We would be disappointed if all Telemachus managed to do was mourn and move on to a happier life outside of Ithica. We know that if he allows his patrimony to be despoiled by the suitors, he would prove to be an unfit heir to Odysseus.  And I suspect that we may have that same kind of worry about ourselves if we were simply to stick to the standard narrative forms set forth in quit lit. Yes. There is much to grieve. Graduate school and adjunct life can be an unending string of abuses. And yes. It is certainly possible for us to live accomplished and personally fulfilled lives outside of the university. I do not doubt that we have what it takes to become successful lawyers, marketing executives, software engineers, managers, etc. and I do not deny that these are noble and worthwhile endeavors. Yet there is still some nagging sense that, in so doing, we would have abandoned the calling we experienced when we were first drawn to our fields of study and thereby prove ourselves unworthy of it.

If those values that called us were illusory all along—if they were mere bits of ideology generated by the education industry—then the strategies we have seen so far would be both beneficial and necessary. We would merely need some therapy to see that the goods we were chasing were not genuine goods at all and to seek instead another kind of life that is more conductive to happiness. However, if those original values are real, then the merely personal solution of finding a more fulfilling career will do nothing to solve the real problem. For the real problem is that the institutions constructed for the preservation and advancement of those values have been occupied by those who seek to undermine those very values. The goals towards which the humanities and the sciences aimed have been usurped and corrupted on such a scale that it is improbable that any of us has a chance of stemming the tide.

I believe that the Odyssey can offer some suggestions here as well, since it provides a model of how one can take back his legacy from usurpers who possess an overwhelming advantage. Neither Telemachus nor Odysseus stand a chance of defeating the suitors who vastly outnumber them or of restoring social order to Ithica (since the suitors come from all the most powerful families). Yet that is precisely how the story ends. Odysseus returns home, Telemachus regains his identity and inheritance, and social order is restored in Ithica. I suggest that we can draw four general principles from this story of homecoming.

1) Publicly call attention to the crime, even when doing so is dangerous and you know you won’t be successful. One of Athena’s first commands to Telemachus is to call an assembly—something which had not happened in Ithica since Odysseus had left—and to demand that the suitors leave his house. “Tomorrow, summon the Achain warriors into assembly and publish your word to all, let the gods be your witnesses. Tell the suitors to scatter and go back to their own holdings” (I.272-274). Telemachus obeys and calls the assembly, but, as expected, it is unsuccessful. The nobles of Ithica are too cowardly to stand up to the suitors, and Telemachus’ boldness causes the suitors to grow even more contemptuous and to threaten to kill him. Yet, the very process of calling the assembly and speaking the truth effects a transformation in Telemachus. He transforms from a mourning child in doubt of his identity to the royal son of Odysseus. Book II thus begins:

Now when the young Dawn showed again with her rosy fingers, the dear son of Odysseus stirred from where he was sleeping, and put on his clothes, and slung a sharp sword over his shoulder. Underneath his shining feet he bound the fair sandals and went on his way from the chamber, like a god in presence. He gave the word now to his clear-voiced heralds to summon by proclamation to assembly the flowering-haired Achaians, and the heralds made their cry, and the men were assembled swiftly. Now when they were all assembled in one place together, he went on his way to assembly, in his hands holding a bronze spear, not all alone, but a pair of light footed dogs went with him. Athene drifted an enchantment of grace upon him, and all the people had their eyes on him as he came forward. He sat in his father’s seat, and the elders made way before him. II.1-14

By being willing to publicly call the suitors to account, Telemachus is transformed from someone reviled and powerless to someone fit to rule Ithica. Furthermore, even though the appeal to the elders failed, it forced them to acknowledge their own cowardice and the injustice of the situation. Mentor, for example, derides the other elders saying “now I hold it against you other people, how you all sit there in silence, and never with an assault of words try to check the suitors, though they are so few, and you so many” II. 239-241.

2) Leave to find news of your lost father. Athena also instructs Telemachus to undertake a journey to determine whether his father is living or dead:

Fit out a ship with twenty oars, the best you can come by, and go out to ask about your father who is so long absent, on the chance some mortal man can tell you, who has listened to rumor sent by Zeus. She more than others spreads news of people I. 280-282.

To ultimately regain his home Telemachus must first leave it. In part, this is due to the fact that the suitors are now planning to kill him because he confronted them in the assembly, but Athena claims that the main purpose of his journey is so that he can mature and take command of his life. He needs to determine whether his father is coming back and take action accordingly:

Thus if you hear your father is alive and on his way home, then, hard pressed though you are you should still hold out for another year. But if you hear he has died and lives no longer, then make your way home to the beloved land of your fathers, and pile up a tomb in his honor, and there make sacrifices in great amount, as is fitting. And give your mother to a husband. Then, after you have made an end of these matters, and done them, next you must consider well in your heart and spirit some means by which you can kill the suitors who are in your household, by treachery or open attack. You should not go on clinging to your childhood. You are no longer of an age to do that. Or have you not heard what glory was won by great Orestes, among all mankind, when he killed the murderer of his father, the treacherous Aigisothos, who had slain his famous father? So you too, dear friend, since I can see you are big and splendid, be bold also, so that in generations to come they will praise you. I.287-302.

The journey and discovery of the status of his father will allow him to put the past to rest and form a plan to secure his future. Without this knowledge, he cannot act competently.

Applied to our contemporary academic situation, Athena’s advice seems to mirror that of standard quit lit. Get out! It is necessary to leave the corporate university. Staying as we are now will only continue to make us more helpless, to wear down our souls, and to accustom us to subjugation. But note that for Telemachus the journey has a purpose. We are not to simply leave and not look back, but instead leave to gather information and form a plan to take back what is ours. In our case, that means we have to determine what happened to those values that drew us to the university in the first place. Are those values of a past era still alive today, or has culture changed so dramatically that they no longer capable of guiding us? If we are going to find an answer to this question we will have to venture out and explore the contexts where those values are still rumored to exist. We’ll have to go on pilgrimage, in whatever ways we can, to recover the traces of the ancient flame and to somehow excavate what Eliot called “the marred foundations we forgot, of sanctuary and choir.”

3) Strategy is Necessary.  Even though Odysseus and Telemachus return home they are unable to reclaim it via direct confrontation. They are outnumbered by the suitors, and, worse yet, even if they were to defeat them, the rest of Ithica would take revenge on Odysseus’ family (since the suitors come from Ithica’s most powerful clans). So, when Odysseus does return home, he returns disguised as a beggar and Telemachus likewise must conceal the fact that his father is alive. Only when the time is right, when the suitors are disarmed the great hall, does Odysseus reveal himself and take back his home.

A similar dynamic holds for contemporary intellectuals. There has already been a massive power shift in the University. Administrators, not professors, hold all the power in the organization now and adjunct (and even tenured) professors would easily lose in a direct confrontation. So, even if we were to be successful in our journey and find the paternal values that motivated us in the first place, there is little hope of success in trying to directly restore those values to the university. If we are going to succeed in taking back control of education, we must be cunning and think strategically. Given the unpredictability of our age and the fact that one never knows who is going to be reading what one writes online, I want to stress here that the struggle I am describing is spiritual, not physical. We are metaphorically applying a poem to our contemporary situation, not advocating a literal physical slaughter of the suitors as occurred in the Odyssey. For, as St. Paul observed, “We wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, powers, against the rulers of darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (Eph 6:12 KJV).

4) Only a God can save us.

When asked whether any philosophy or human action could change the fate spun in the 20th century, Heidegger famously remarked nur noch ein Gott kann uns retten [only a God can save us]:

If I may answer briefly, and perhaps clumsily, but after long reflection: philosophy will be unable to effect any immediate change in the current state of the world. This is true not only of philosophy but of all purely human reflection and endeavor. Only a god can save us. The only possibility available to us is that by thinking and poetizing we prepare a readiness for the appearance of a god, or for the absence of a god in [our] decline, insofar as in view of the absent god we are in a state of decline.[2]

Ultimately, we can do nothing to reverse the fate that has taken hold of our culture other than ready ourselves for the coming (or non-coming) of a God.

This same principle is at work in the Odyssey. Odysseus’ homecoming and the restoration of  Ithica ultimately depend upon the intervention of the gods. Athena herself tells this to Telemachus in the guise of Mentes:

I wish that such an Odysseus would come now among the suitors. They all would find death was quick, and marriage a painful matter. Yet all these are things that are lying upon the gods’ knees: whether he will come home to his vengeance, here in his household, or whether he will not I. 267-269

The action throughout the Odyssey is dependent on the intervention of the gods. The story begins on Olympus with Athena pleading for Odysseus’ return and reminding the other gods to bring Odysseus home. It is only because the gods send Hermes to command Kalypso to release Odysseus that he is can begin his journey home. Likewise, it is Athena who appears to Telemachus and advises him to call the assembly and go out in search of his father. She protects him and Odysseus from the suitors’ attempts on their lives, and even battles beside them in the great hall.  And it is her intervention that stops Ithica from descending into civil war. When the villagers seek revenge against Odysseus’ family for the death of the suitors, Athena both aids Odysseus in battle and tells him when to relent.

And now they would have killed them all, and given none of them homecoming, had not Athene, daughter of Zeus of the aegis cried out in a great voice and held back all the company: ‘Hold back, men of Ithaka, from the wearisome fighting, so that most soon, and without blood, you can settle everything.’ So spoke Athene, and the green fear took hold of them, and in their terror they let fall from their hands their weapons, which fell all on the ground at the cry of the goddess speaking. Striving to save their lives, they turned in flight toward the city. With a terrible cry, much-enduring Odysseus, gathering himself together, made a swoop, like a high-flown eagle. But the son of Kronos then threw down a smoky thunderbolt, which fell in front of the gray-eyed daughter of the great father. Then the gray eyed goddess Athene said to Odysseus: ‘Son of Laertes and seed of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus, hold hard, stop this quarrel in closing combat, for fear Zeus of the wide brows, son of Kronos, may be angry with you.’ So spoke Athene, and with happy heart he obeyed her. And pledges for the days to come, sworn to by both sides, were settled by Pallas Athene, daughter of Zeus of the aegis, who had likened herself in appearance and voice to Mentor. XXIV.527-547.

Our plight too depends upon the gods. If we are to succeed in taking back the humanities, the heavens must smile upon us. Let us pray they will. May we watch, wait, and hope to one day, like Odysseus, be happy of heart at our homecoming.

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[1] The text from Lattimore’s translation of the Odyssey is used throughout. New York: Harper. 1965.

[2] Heidegger, Interview with Der Spiegel

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