What Does it Mean to Have a Radical Education?

Over the past few weeks, and over many conversations with professors I admire and whose politics have deeply influenced my own, as well as over conversations with close friends, I’ve tried to work through a very important question: what does it mean to have a radical education? And what does this imply for how we live and what we live for?

Humanities students, and especially radical, leftist humanities students, are put in the hardest position in terms of fidelity to their own education. Economics students go out in the world and act on the principles of capitalism that they’ve been educated to accept; science students are employed to research or utilize the skills in science they’ve been taught; medics, engineers, psychologists and liberal lawyers too face the straightforward, though not at all simple task, of applying theory to practice in a world that has the urgent need for them to do just that. But what if your entire education has been invested in fighting for social justice, against capitalism, against neoliberalism, against the very pillars that the world itself rests itself on? What if your education has been “radical” — where you read philosophers and political theorists who’ve invested their life in trying to formulate for us newer, freer and more emancipatory ways of living? What do you do with such an education — if you really believe in it — after the four years here at Amherst? Do you drop it, laugh over it, ha ha, good times, remember when I was a silly college radical hippie? Do you suppress it guiltily while going about your daily life letting structures of unfreedom and oppression perpetuate around you? Do you sit back in a cushy lifestyle afforded by the privileged position of being an Amherst College graduate and present radicality only in arguing over a cocktail dinner with that dickish friend from Harvard with a degree in smugness and analytic philosophy? If that is the case and you don’t believe in what you study at all — what differentiates you as a radical, if the life you live is a fundamentally liberal one (all opinions can and should coexist and I’m going to sit by and let the world happen)? Why bother studying something you don’t live out? Why imitate that you concur with something if you don’t demonstrate that concurrence in any way?

I ask this question because last year, as a radical and a malcontent on this campus, I felt alone, isolated and judged, by almost everyone save a small group of people who were friends and fellow radicals at this time, all of whom expressed similar emotions at the hostile environment of this campus towards any sort of illiberal radicality, protest, critique of the system or the administration or any politics that was disruptive to the status quo. Yet, this year, with the surge of popularity of certain radical classes and with a considerably less heated political climate, I see so many self-professed radical students on this campus — they read the continental philosophers and sound convinced by them, they nod in class when the professors critique bourgeoisie liberal capitalism, they make incisive commentary about liberal or neoliberal political texts. Yet, I’m forced to wonder how many of them are invested in truly understanding the implications of these texts for their lives; the implications of these texts for moving them towards any sort of praxis at all. What does it mean to be a WAGS or Black Studies major and stay determinedly out of campus politics and never show any concern for rape and sexual assault and racism and hate crimes on this campus, not attend any debates or discussions on it, not participate or comment in any publications about it, not show any solidarity or support for the people working on these issues, especially at their time of isolation and need — either in public or private? I’m not talking about going out on the streets with signs or making big public declarations: I’m talking about any simple demonstration of concern at all, in whatever fashion, private or public conversations, some sort of imperative to think or talk or write or act, some demonstration of solidarity or kindness. Some incentive, at the very least, to learn about the source of the discontentment of the dissidents. What does it mean to read Badiou or Zizek or Rancière or Marx or Foucault if you can’t pose the questions they pose to their realities to your own? What does it mean to bracket off or contain something that was always meant to be in excess of classrooms and textbooks and papers? What does it mean to attach a temporality of four years to critical thinking, to ideas that are meant to be universal, all-encompassing and enduring?

I have a tendency to sound very persecutionary, and that is the last thing I want. I’m constantly dissatisfied at my own coalescence of theory and practice, always finding myself insufficient, and I also recognize in myself an angry martyrdom and a death drive that is not wholly productive. I do not want to play a politics of guilt and shame here, where one has to perform x number of tasks in order to qualify as a Good Radical™. I don’t even know or care if you, specific individual, are a Good Radical™ or not, nor do I want to put myself in the panopticonic position of judgement over that fact. In fact, I do honestly believe a politics of guilt and shame is wholly unproductive and much more in the hierarchical mode of charity than in the egalitarian mode of leftist revolution. All I’m asking is that those of you who consider yourselves radical in the way you are educated, the way you read, the way you understand the world, the kind of classes you take, the political views you hold — ask yourself what it means to academically believe in that kind of philosophy and politics. What does that mean for your life in the world outside the classroom? What does that mean for the kind of questions you pose to your own realities and how you deal with posing that question? What does that mean for your future after these four years at Amherst?

All I ask is that we remain deeply anxious about, and invested in, these questions — not to remain in some sort of melancholic despair about our own inadequacy because we all ultimately have limited choices outside participating in the neoliberal economy — but to value our radical academics beyond just dry texts and papers and grades, to truly understand what it means beyond distant scholarly waffle, to live it with all the love and joy and zest for change that leftist politics should entail and to remain honest to our education and ourselves, both inside and outside the classroom.