Recent Republican money-grabs, which take such brutal aim at public K-12 schools and universities, are surely rooted in anti-intellectualism as well as greed. That this faux-populist fury, propagated by an extremist conservative minority against smarty-pants professor-types, also reeks of racism, sexism and xenophobia, is impossible to overlook. But at the same time, the college experience continues to be enshrined in the popular imagination — from movies to the dorm supply aisles at Walmart — as a proud rite of passage and rollicking good time.
Such mixed messages must, I think, shape how my students and I feel about college. What does higher education mean to a first-year student who has been steeped to believe both that college is a corrupt waste of money and a precious milestone of life? What should professors make of the contradictory messages of respect and ridicule we receive, assured that we’re noble preservers of truth and beauty, but also dismissed as smug parasites munching away on the ass of productive society?
The professor’s standard lament is that students and their families now relate to college as consumers, but this is only partly true. Rather, many students seem simultaneously to see themselves as entitled customers and as blessedly chosen to drink the sacred nectar of college. So-called elites are denigrated, sure, but envied and emulated too. Crass educational consumerism and ivy wall fantasies collide, creating a mash-up in which the professor emerges as both villain and hero. And aren’t many of us ambivalent too? Don’t we feel like proud stewards of timeless pomp and circumstance, but also tainted by our association with these increasingly corporatized behemoths?
A few months ago, I got a painstakingly detailed, self-flagellating email from a student about her absences. In that moment at least, she seemed to buy the notion that college included a special commitment to learning, and a respectful relationship to one’s professor. The very next week, though, she sent me a list of demands for special considerations that, as a paying customer, she made clear, she damn well expected. While her original mea culpa may have been a mere ploy, I think it’s just as likely that she felt the tug of both the consumerist, and the traditional, romantic narratives about college.
To be sure, I’m not endorsing the traditional patriarchal mythology in which professors are seen as gods or daddies. Such hierarchy gives rise to creepy authoritarianism and cults of personality that can reinforce arbitrary inequality and invite abuse. Would the horrific longterm sexual attacks on girls and young women at Michigan State have been possible without such sexist, elitist, patriarchal myths? Nor, of course, am I in favor of some crassly consumerist reversal in which professors are expected to placate petty students as if we were managers at Starbucks.
We are aware of the double-binds that both elevate and scapegoat K-12 teachers. They are, so often, like mothers, simultaneously revered and reviled. And while professors generally enjoy higher status and remuneration, we are similarly adored and despised, especially in the heartland where so many of us make our livelihoods. Many of us come to love the small college towns where we create our lives; we work and play with the vast majority of the locals in harmonies of shared purpose. But in a cowboy society in thrall to anti-intellectualist fantasies of waspy hyper-masculinity — real men aren’t gay, foreign, or Jewish, and they don’t read poetry or philosophy — the professoriate itself is othered. Certainly, the recent attacks by radical conservatives on departments of women’s and LGBT studies fit unremarkably into this broader narrative of hate and intolerance.
In the pragmatic plains and rolling hills of middle America, we may be noticed and admired, but too often it will be as if we were expensive zoo animals: odd, interesting, and expendable. This is especially true if our accents, skin tones, or gender presentations ensure that we will be noticed at the grocery store, movie theater or gas station. When times feel tough, won’t some folks begin to seethe in fury at the resources this exotic animal requires? And if the mob’s rage is stoked and directed by just the right petty tyrant, can we be surprised when, one day someone attacks this strange, transplanted creature? It is frighteningly easy for me to imagine: They will shoot and skin and roast it, and then complain loudly about what a pathetic, skin-and-bones meal it made.