On the Desire for Politics in the Classroom

Many students, including me, desire to put the classroom in the service of politics. I mean that many of us think that, with the forces of thought, knowledge-production, and scholarship on our side, we can enact political change and transformation. And while it is true that we can, it might be worth pausing over this desire to ask the question: Should “the life of the mind,” to borrow Hannah Arendt’s formulation, be employed to enact social change, issue public policy and modify our ethos toward the world? The short answer, I contend, is “no.” But rather than recapitulate the rehearsed liberal defenses of free speech and the marketplace of ideas as hallmarks of the classroom, I wonder if we can think about a distinction between the political and the intellectual which affirms the separate values of the two.

I think that, without articulating a distinction between the intellectual and the political, we risk reducing the classroom to the service of our political convictions and agendas. For example, anthropologist Saba Mahmood, writing in Politics of Piety, critiques certain strands of feminist scholarship which reduce women’s agency to acts of resistance against repressive, patriarchal norms. She suggests that we undo agonistic and dualistic frameworks of action in which “norms are conceptualized on the model of doing and undoing, consolidation and subversion — and instead think about the variety of ways in which norms are lived and inhabited, aspired to, reached for and consummated.” Whereas Mahmood wants to “detach agency from forms of progressive politics,” I want to decouple thought from forms of progressive politics, to see what we might illustrate by drawing a distinction between them. This is not to claim that power dynamics don’t operate in classrooms or that professors should stop using their scholarly authority to engender critical discussion, but to suggest that both the political and the intellectual are better served by their separation.

Consider three different sets of students who might, at least in my read, have this desire, and my critiques of them.

One group of students, allied with certain strands of Amherst Uprising, believe in a mandatory cultural competency course for students on questions of race, gender, sexuality and systemic oppression. The course’s proponents, I suspect, would view the creation of such a class as an institutional recognition of the salience of these matters and the formation of a space to teach ignorant students contemporary identity-based vocabulary, as well as empathy and sensitivity toward questions of culture and lived experiences. Although I for the most part agree with the sentiment of such an idea, I disagree with the place and time of it. The reason I recede from this proposal, as I understand it, is that to propose a class fueled by a goal which every student achieves by its end presupposes the course’s pedagogical success and the shift in the students’ viewpoint which will come about from taking the course. Contra certain critics of academic freedom, to assume that a class must, should or achieve a political desire forecloses the processes by which students, experiencing the material of the course, might call into question, affirm, radicalize, neutralize, resist or subvert the very premises, logics, arguments and trajectories on which the course is based.

Another group of students, who tend to go into certain social sciences, desire to study human beings, cultures, demographic groups, ways of life, and public policy from an “objective” point of view. Proponents of “objective” social science proclaim to stand in an impartial, autonomous, rational and omniscient position over the groups they study. But, as any of us who have taken an anthropology or sociology course here knows: there is no external, Archimedean viewpoint from which the researcher can see and know everything about the world she studies. I want to suggest that scholars of this sort — public policy analysts, for example — actually repress their political subjectivity and convictions in order to feel secure and confident in their critiques. They miss out on a certain type of play opened up by the insecurity and contingency of the lack of an omniscient viewpoint. And furthermore, they might reify public policy or liberal law as the best ways to reform and better communities.

A third group of students who express this desire are those who study political, critical, left, emancipatory and literary theory. At least in part because theory is fashionable (at Amherst), we find ourselves attracted to its radical potential — to unleash and articulate repressed political desires in ourselves, to critique the world we find ourselves in, and to modify our ways of relating to the world. But some of us, at least some of the time, think, perhaps unconsciously, that by doing theory, we are doing political action. This is surely perverse. First, political action constitutes an array of experiences at once much greater than but indebted to critical thought. Think of labor organizing, letter-writing, voting, protests, occupations, strikes, vigils, negotiations, penning op-eds, serving on committees, attending and speaking at public forums and divestment, among other forms of action. Put more bluntly: What does it mean to theorize radical or emancipatory theory within an increasingly corporatized academy which is conforming to the demands of the market economy? Second, to think that you are cool, hip or part of some sort of vanguard by doing (even radical) theory inside the corporatized academy leaves unanswered the very relation of critical thought and political action. Of course, we should not succumb to the accusations that we are eggheads. Nonetheless, it is critical to recognize the position of the scholar or student of left theory as modest but powerful. Modest, because there are whole histories and contemporary movements which think and do politics outside of the academy. Powerful, because of the abundance of thought, knowledge and ideas circulating within it. If you want to be in the academy and critique it, great. But perhaps we might want to be able to articulate reasons for theorizing within the academy that exceed our desire for politics.

The classroom, not despite but because of its privileging of critical inquiry and its commitment to the “life of the mind,” requires a certain separation from politics. Paradoxically, the distinction I draw might allow for the better fulfillment of both the intellectual and the political. Intellectual thought, distinct from the desire for the political, might open the classroom to more vigorous agonistic debate, critical interpretation, disinterested study and affective experiences, all engendered by the constellation of ideas articulated and conveyed within it. Without any political agenda, students can be freer to play with and critique concepts presented. Perhaps then, a more potent defense of academic freedom could stem from the possibility of surprise, mystery, astonishment, paradox, strangeness and humor, even at the risk of awkwardness, discomfort and offense in the classroom.

If we recognize that the classroom does not hold a monopoly on political thought or action (which Amherst’s intense commitment to academics might make us believe), we might attempt to engage politically beyond our classes, as well as use forms of critical thought beyond it. I think certain students on campus began to perform such political action through Amherst Uprising. But further, I would posit that this distinction reminds us of the material and affective battles in politics which operate beyond the space of the classroom, in, for example, “civil society.” If there is, as multiple professors have suggested to me, a decline in Amherst’s civil society — 535 students voted in the last AAS E-Board election, newspaper and blog readership is on the decline – coupled with a nihilistic loneliness among students, perhaps this distinction can help reenergize our campus because we will turn toward political action and critical thought beyond the classroom.

Let us not divorce the political and the intellectual. But neither let us merge the two to the point of their indistinction. This is not to say that there are or should be pure spaces for politics and pure spaces for thought: both come into being in impure space. I would not want to lose the self-criticality of thought in the name of politics nor the materiality of politics and political action in the name of critical thought.