Gratitude absolved of responsibility

Lately I’ve gotten interested in reading Clyde Barrow‘s Universities and the Capitalist State: Corporate liberalism and the reconstruction of higher education, 1894-1928. It’s out of print, but I found it used and had it delivered. When I cracked the cover open after a couple of weeks, I was interested to find this note on the inside cover, written in a nice cursive script in what looks like blue ballpoint:

barrow inscription

To Kent,

Thanks for all of your help. I won’t hold you responsible for its content, but it couldn’t have been written without your assistance many years ago.

Clyde W Barrow

It’s always curious to encounter the traces of strangers’ personal relationships to each other. One gets the sense that these two people didn’t know each other all that well, that they had encountered each other “years ago” when Barrow was working on his dissertation, and that when the book finally appeared in print, the author, still then near the start of his career, was delighted to finally be able to show people what he had produced. There’s a nice sense of self injected into the professionally cordial tone of this note; while the author signs his full name instead of just his first name, he signals that the project was dependent on this other person, that it “couldn’t have been written without your help.”

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Commodification of the sacred in campus landscapes

Kind of amazed to read this article, “The Power of Place on Campus,” by one Earl Broussard, in the Chronicle of Higher Ed (temp link). Striking because it is so obviously a further step in the marketization of every aspect of campus life. The sacred is invoked as a new fund-raising activity. Is this what happens when anthropologists decide to become consultants to college administrators? Broussard writes:

Colleges and universities should never underestimate the power of special, transformational, and even sacred spaces on their campuses… Universities are products of history and tradition. Not only are they institutions of scholarly learning, but they also are sites of memory and meaning, with cultural spaces that have played host to decades or even centuries of ritual.

…Such transformational places with unique emotional resonance have an almost sacred nature. The word “religious” comes from the Latin verb religare, meaning to bind or reconnect. Thus, anything that reconnects us is, inherently, a deeply personal or spiritual experience that has great meaning — and the university campus is ripe with opportunities for people to reconnect.

…Elite universities understand the importance of branding in creating long-lasting loyalty among students, and they use very specific and often-repeated images in such efforts… such imagery typically has very little to do with dormitories, classrooms, libraries, or students working late into the night. Most images focus on the campus as a landscape, with views of special buildings, students walking or lounging on an open green, and, of course, football players or bands performing on the stadium’s holy ground.

So the sacred spaces on campus are something to be branded. Something to be created as a spectacular image that will produce “unique emotional resonance,” that will give us a “deeply personal or spiritual experience that has great meaning.” This Orwellian language deserves, I think, to be stood on its head: “unique” here really means “totally generic,” and “deeply personal” amounts to “totally determined by cunning advertisers.” For there is after all nothing personal in a pre-scripted contact with the sacred, except through the medium of delusion.

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