Blog Post

Friendship, Fire, and the Return of the Same

This is something I wrote as part of Cathy Davidson's History and Future of Higher Education course.  

Friendship, Fire, and the Return of the Same by Matthew H. Clark

Remember three things above the rest.  Action requires thought.  Without thought, only reaction is possible.  Reaction subsumes and extinguishes the flame of change.

After Claire's piece was posted, I began talking with a friend about the adjunct crisis in higher education.  If you're reading this blog, chances are you know about it, you've been affected by it, or you're living it.  Comments were posted that I'd heard before.  "It's a result of poor life choices!"  "They've brought it upon themselves!"  "Market realities are sorting out their preferences!"  If it wasn't for friendship, I might not care about the fact that nearly 70% of all college courses are taught by adjuncts.  And isn't that a dirty word to digest?  In the academic community, "adjunct" has become detestable and difficult.  It weighs us down.

I've made "poor life choices" before.  I had an opportunity for funded graduate study in philosophy, and I couldn't turn my back on it.  But the Leiter report had already been released.  I knew my chances.  I just couldn't care about them.  And I'm glad I couldn't.  If I had cared about my chances at a tenure-track job in academia, I wouldn't have met the friends that inspire me.  I wouldn't have realized that friendship is more important than a regular and sustainable income.  I wouldn't have become the human I am today.  I wouldn't exist.

And so I embraced that difficult and detestable word.  I taught 14 courses in a year.  I lived check to check.  I had no insurance.  I longed for a voice and a vote.  And I hoped that one day my "poor life choices" would turn out to be fruitful. 

If it wasn't for friendship, I might have lost all hope for a better future.  Market demand curves and labor supply schedules soothe souls that might otherwise compel their bodies to elevated blood pressure.  Let's face it.  Economics is the new alchemy.  As a salve, it is effective.  But the gold it promises as product of transformation smells of old, decadent concepts.  Just because the market is as it is doesn't mean that it should be as it is.  The market in no way justifies itself any more than a nationalism justifies a nation.  In spite of these acknowledged tensions, economics shook me like any Charybdis would in the process of voyage. 

And at the end of the day, I had my friends to throw me rafts. 

They wouldn't let me drown in the debauchery of economic determinism.  They kept me looking forward.  They made this possible.  And we saw it through to the end.

So what of change?  The solidarity of friendship afforded me the ability to think about it.  And the more I thought about the notion, the more often the image of a flame approached me.  Nothing remains the same once it is put to it.  Nothing avoids change when it is subject to the flicker of a fire. 

Fire used to be a problem. In his Psychoanalysis of Fire, Gaston Bachelard reminds us of how fire once sparked the imaginations of scientists who desired knowledge of its secret.  Fire wasn’t just a topic of discussion.  It was the highest impetus of scientific discourse.  And this is remarkable when one considers how the appearance of oxygen in late 18th century science removes fire from the scientific scene.  Bachelard notes how discussion of the topic in text becomes shorter and shorter as time passes into the 19th century and beyond the concept of oxygen.  Perhaps one day someone will write about our discussion of change in the same way.  “Higher education had reached its limit.  Everyone was talking about it.  Oh, how excited they were about the MOOC!  It was the last best chance at saving post-secondary education from the perilous lack of public funding.  Then they discovered change’s secret, and change’s secret changed everything.”  What will be our oxygen?  How will we overcome our problematization of change itself?

We are approaching certain limits.  These limits are political, social, economic, and deeply philosophical.  In America, a world-class public university is lucky if it gets %15 of its operating budget funded by the State.  Citizens hold signs when their representatives ignore the complexities of their humanity.  Public servants organize and strike for lack of funding.  And we all wonder about the future of higher education and the history that is producing it. 

I think I have discovered our oxygen.  It is thought itself.  As we breathe in the molecules, our expenditures become imminently meaningful.  We interact on forums.  We meet for face to face discussions.  We disagree about what’s right and what’s wrong.  We synthesize history with our own experiences.  And all the while, the fuel of discourse is thought. 

As I think back to my friendship, a madman waits in the wings.  The flickering flame of his lantern lights the path of his cries, “The tenure-track is dead!  And we have killed it!”  Yes, the tenure-track is dead, but its shadows still haunt us.  The light of thought will lead our action.  We will move forward out of hope for our future, and the truth of our progress will be known. 

Will that knowledge be enough?  Or will our progress be castigated and cornered as a madness?  Let me leave you with this.  As long as our madness remains buttressed by our friendship, it is not merely madness.  It is community.  And as the thought of our community, the breath of our brethren, becomes externalized in action, there is nothing that can stand in our way.  Professor Davidson’s course hasn’t been merely a MOOC.  It’s been, and we’re becoming… a movement.

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