Losing the Excellence Sweepstakes

In France, one way that the Sarkozy government has been financing major projects on universities is with a large loan it took out in 2010, termed the “Grand Emprunt.” (I would translate this as “major loan” — “grand loan” would sound a bit silly in English.) Part of the funds have been directed towards so-called “Excellence Initiatives” (Idex, initiatives d’excellence) in the universities—the sums offered were large, and many campuses felt obliged to compete for the money. Apparently the president of one regional council was disappointed that his region’s universities failed to get their Idex, and wrote a letter to that effect which has become public. The following letter was one striking rejoinder:

Monsieur le Président,

I must say that it is with consternation that I read the letter you sent to university administrators in your region. This letter has made the rounds of the country, since I myself received it nine times. I can understand your disappointment in learning that the Idex wasn’t chosen in the Grand Idex Sweepstakes. I understand as well that, faced with drying up ministerial funds for higher education and research, the regions have done what they could to help their academic institutions—yours perhaps more than others.

But how is it possible that this desire to do right, this will to defend your region has managed to blind you to the point of not seeing how the “Major Loan” in general, and the “Idex” even more so, are fraudulent? Maybe you forgot that the President of the Republic himself announced that the interest paid out from the loan will be compensated by deductions of regular funding—making it quite officially a zero-sum game, where the losers pay for the winners? Moreover, you obviously haven’t taken into account that the loan procedures are aimed at systematically removing any role from elected academic bodies and at further demolishing our system. How can you not see that it takes a grandiose stupidity to put Montpellier and Marseille, Lyon and Grenoble, Bordeaux and Toulouse, Paris 2-4-6 and Paris 3-5-7 in competition? That in such tournaments, whole territories in the West, the North and the Center will not have the slightest chance, in spite of their efforts?
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Ashamed to be apolitical

What happened to activist anthropology? To solidarity and support for those fighting injustice and inequality? At the AAA meeting in Montréal support for the Occupy Wall Street movement was conspicuously absent. As the masses converged upon Le Palais, I was anticipating a strong show of support. Yet, when the activists began shouting “Occupy….Montréal….Occupy…Wall Street,” they were met with disdain and not open arms. Are we just armchair anthropologists, all about observation and indignant toward participation? I was told activist anthropology was gaining steam, but that did not seem to be the case in Montréal. Where were the impromptu meetings or discussions dedicated to the most important movement of our day?

It is said that those who do not think something can be done should get out of the way of those people doing it. I guess that is what the majority of anthropologists chose in Montréal— simply get out of the way. When the activists stormed the meetings, I heard several anthropologists uttering “This is not the time or place,” “Someone should alert security,” or “They’ll let anybody in here.” Others ignored their chance to join the movement…

…It is because of corporate greed and profits over people that there are not enough jobs in anthropology and in education in general. Margaret Mead once said: “It only takes a few like-minded individuals to change the world, indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” Unfortunately, it seems many anthropologists have no interest in changing the world. They seem content doing anthropology from their armchair, waiting on the younger generation to fix the problems that they helped create. For the first time in my life, I was ashamed to say that I was an anthropologist.

I have some quick comments on this. I was there too, and I agree with Montgomery that most anthropologists reacted with indifference to an effort to have an Occupy-style assembly in the lobby of the convention center. I didn’t hear the outright contempt or snark that Montgomery reports, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there had been some of that too. And, generally speaking, I strongly relate to his frustration with academics who think their role in the world is to study other people’s politics, but not to act themselves.

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Renaissance critiques of scholarship and ironic reflexivity

The Renaissance seems to have been a particularly rich moment for internal critique of the academy. I happened to be reading a bit of Erasmus‘s The Praise of Folly (1511) today and was struck by its hilarious, bitter parody of medieval scholastics. For instance, on scholarly publishing:

Of the same stripe [i.e., belonging to the party of Folly] are those who strive to win eternal fame by publishing books. All of them owe a great deal to me, but especially those who scribble pages of sheer nonsense. As for those who write learnedly for the judgment of a few scholars and would not hesitate to have their books reviewed by such true judges as Persius or Laelius, they seem to me more pitiable than happy because their work is a perpetual torment to them. They add, they alter; they blot something out, they put it back in. They do the work over, they recast it, they show it to friends, they keep it for nine years, and still they are never satisfied. At such a price they buy an empty reward, namely praise, and that only from a handful. They buy it with such an expense of long hours, so much loss of that sweetest of all things, sleep, so much sweat, so much agony. Reckon up also the loss of health, the spoiling of their good looks, weak eyesight (or even blindness), poverty, envy, the denial of pleasures, early death, and other things just as bad, if there are any. Such great suffering your wiseman thinks is fully repaid by the approval of one or two blear-eyed readers.

This book was first published in 1511, which means that the 500th anniversary of its publication was last year. It’s safe to say that European universities in 1511 looked quite different from today’s incarnations thereof. The printing press had only recently been invented; everything was taught in Latin; education was not for the masses, and had not been yoked to post-Enlightenment nation and workforce-building projects. One could go on in this vein, if one were a historian. (I’m not.) But what’s so fascinating about this little bit of Erasmus is that, in spite of the enormous institutional, political, cultural, and intellectual gulfs that separate us from these early universities, something about the experience of academic work seems to have remained constant, along with certain of the work’s basic instruments.

For even today, scholarly work in the humanities is deeply text-centered, just as it was for Erasmus. And the psychological follies that Erasmus describes are quite familiar, for me and I suspect for many grad students in the humanities. Do we not all have friends whose scholarly work is a perpetual torment? Whose work—to use language Erasmus would not have used—is an immense locus of neurosis and barely sublimated anxiety? And is it not obvious to everyone that the coin of scholarly approval remains, precisely, praise, and that praise is still and always, existentially speaking, an empty, ephemeral reward? Do we not all know people—though not ourselves, of course!—or so we say in our better moments—who have slaved for weeks—if not months—or indeed years—striving for infinitesimal dribblings of warm feelings for our work—such warmth being of course craved but always inevitably despised for its inability to entirely satisfy our desire…

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