After taking an extended break from this blogspace I am back for 2018. It was not so much time that prevented me from writing my weekly pieces last fall as much as a need to help reduce the clamor of words. It seemed that by the end of 2017 there was just so much noise in the atmosphere, so much rage and frustration, so much opinion about everything and anything, that I lost all desire to contribute to it. The noise and the barking haven’t stopped, of course. The only real way not to hear any of it is to withdraw from social media and the endless stream of bloviating commentary that flows on to the screen from news feeds. I’m not ready for that. I am not ready for a hermetic existence, likely never will be. There’s just too much going on to attend to, but it is a racket out there: too many words are on bust and being depleted of their meaning. An alternative is to stem, not stop, the flow, and so like a lot of other people, I am constantly working on that. I do think about not checking in on Twitter ever again, but, let’s get real, that’s not going to happen anymore than we will cease being dependent on technology.
2017, as many noted over the holidays, was a pretty crappy and confusing year—often demoralizing or soul-crushingly spiraling in the wrong direction. If I were going really new age about it, I’d say there’s something about an odd-numbered year that puts everything askew. 2018 just sounds more confident. It already feels more stable and sure of itself. Oprah Winfrey delivering a spirited, moving, eloquent speech at the Golden Globes awards show about the pursuit of equality and truth could not have happened in 2017. CNN host Jake Tapper abruptly turning away from a deranged White House staffer interview before a live audience of millions did not happen in 2017, either. Maybe the people have had enough of it. Maybe, we all had to endure the moral sink hole of 2017 to get to the 2018 state of bold resistance. Maybe, at the very least, the pendulum will start to swing back from hysteria to a calmer approach to world problems. Maybe is at least better than never.
There sure was a lot of noise about the health of post-secondary education in 2017. There’s no hard consensus about what needs fixing or how, but we can say that more and more people are seeking higher degrees, even if universities are struggling with what the ideal set of curricula offerings should be in a rapidly changing world. Universities have a difficult challenge keeping pace with that change, and many would argue we shouldn’t even be trying to keep up—that adjusting to the times is a kind of unprincipled accommodation. But what if we stopped thinking about accommodation in this respect as a bad thing and started thinking instead about how to strengthen the mission of education to encourage more critical thinking. By this, I mean encouraging more informed critique of all the social formations and pressures that beset us and threaten our very survival, not only as institutions of higher learning but of the planet itself. We should be insisting on our value as sites of debate and new knowledge, embracing the citizen’s hunger for respectful conversations and for real-world solutions.
Sadly, in 2017, universities, largely because of the exaggerated rhetoric of both social and conventional media, have become objects of derision by those too eager to do away with them altogether. Debates about freedom of expression have often been hijacked for right-wing and populist political agendas. Yes, therein lie several contradictions. Much of the environmental noise I mention above flowed from these angry confrontations about who has the right to speak and who, in turn, is silenced when only some voices are privileged. Meanwhile, there are very real instances of oppression and silencing—with violent consequences– in other corners of the world, far from the media’s attention or my own news feeds. I’d eagerly attend to someone criticizing our universities for not paying enough attention to such oppression, instead of mocking us for insisting on gender neutral pronouns.
Fighting our tendency to identify ourselves only with people who think like us should be one of the projects of a university education, hard to do in the reproductive bubbles created by technologically enabled devices. Everyone is talking to or texting everyone else who thinks just like they do. As with many of my colleagues, I came to understand that my own experience of undergraduate and graduate education was advanced considerably by the introduction of new ways of thinking—and ultimately of being shaken from received wisdom or inherited dogma. That kind of disruptive experience should continue throughout one’s life, if one were open to it.
I’m not the kind of person who makes new year’s resolutions, but I do feel considerably better about 2018 than I did about 2017, hopeful that there will be more listening, compassion, understanding and empathy in this harsh, messy often angry world. Perhaps that’s just irrational, but going back to the sullen mood of 2017 is simply not an option.