Escaping The Decline

A Troubling Tribute to the Punks & Poets of Academia

I imagine most will see a man in a red dress with blue hair and immediately bypass the above video, but for those willing to invest 20 minutes of their time, this performance is an important backdrop for what follows. See lyrics here.

Photo by George Kourounis on Unsplash

It was just a few years ago that I assumed nothing more than a Masked Panic, but it’s clear now that the decline of higher education is inseparable from the crippling political discourse within and around it. As many have pointed out (from Weinstein to Weiss; Galloway to Haidt), this phenomenon is far from recent or unforeseen. The social tinderbox we call post-secondary education has been sliding recklessly towards delusion for decades, highlighted ironically (and iconically) by one rather flammable incident at Evergreen State College in 2017.

So having nearly finished what will be my final semester as a faculty member at CU Denver, a glaringly liberal institution, I‘m now convinced of the gravity of a problem I had previously only intuited. And what’s cause for greater concern is that it’s not a CU problem, or even a higher education problem, but instead, a complex, multivariable meta-crisis with momentum to rival that of the Romans. Throw a woefully mismanaged pandemic into the mix and you have the ingredients for something truly troubling. We either wake up and rebuild or fortify and brace for impact. While I loathe sounding alarmist and wish it were otherwise, I haven’t landed on any options in between.

I thought I had crafted a creatively rigorous online space for open and honest debate, self-discovery, and human development, but what I was met with this semester was a group of graduate students as polarized as the discourse that surrounded us/them. The signals, expressed both publicly and privately, were uncomfortable and stark. Some did work incredibly hard, though happily mocked their peers along the way, while others spent countless hours lamenting the unbearable stress of uncertainty. I get it, these are strange and challenging times, but if the shared project we call “education” doesn’t make room for discomfort, resilience, and intellectual grit (at the graduate level no less), then what’s the trillion dollar debt-sentence really worth? What sort of foundation will we have been building to endure the challenges that inevitably lie ahead?

Having to fight this palpable undercurrent not only took away from the experience of every student, it made me further resent a system and profession I was already losing faith in. With less than a month to go, and not without a sense of shame, I’ve all but given up. Teaching has become far less about inspiring (perhaps even liberating) the future punks and poets, and more about avoiding the land-mines of cancel-culture and appeasing woke peers and administrators. Is this really what we want from one of the most important social systems democracy has ever known?

So while I’m hesitant to write disparagingly (or perhaps not) about an institution that has played such an important role in my life, at this point I have far greater concern for what accompanies complicity or silence. This isn’t to say I’ve lost faith in the system of education (quite the opposite), it’s that I place far greater hope in its unrealized potential to truly embody intellectual honesty and be the catalyst needed to change the world around it; something we can/must work towards in 2021 if we’re to avoid what Jared Diamond, Fat Mike, and many others warned us of years ago.

So is there a path that doesn’t lead to catastrophe? Honestly, I don’t know. Our greatest institutions, as amplification machines for all that has gone wrong with leftist identity politics, have become detached, at least in part, from objective reality. Let’s not forget that we elected Donald Trump to be our president, and four years later nearly agreed that what he offered was deserving of another term. Let’s also remember that higher education has historically been about creating safe spaces — not the fake co-opted kind, but a genuine version where intellectual vandals and critical discourse sit central to a truly progressive and enlightened citizenry.

Colleges and universities exist, first and foremost, to educate their students, not to consolidate shared interests, facilitate advocacy, or mask intellectual and emotional disagreements. ~James Huffman

As we look ahead to 2021, I hope new visions and waning wisdom might offer the frameworks and inspiration by which lasting progress might be possible. That said, it will surely take deviations and discomfort. Let us not go gently into that good night. We are the queer. We are the whore. The slide, while unquestionably in motion, is yet to meet the decline.

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