Brett Kavanaugh, Anger and the Purpose of Higher Education

by worriedteacher

As confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh‘s Supreme Court seat came through I picked up and re-read Audre Lorde’s “The Masters Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House”.  My attention was drawn to the women protesting, and their anger.  It was as if I was seeing Lorde’s words on the political potency of anger wrought large on the screen. I underlined the following passage:

But anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening action of clarification,  for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine allies.

Simultaneously, I see how the new Australian Prime Minister and the extreme right wing Presidential candidate in Brazil (and no doubt many others) respond to the imminent collapse of the human ecosystem with muscular defences of coal mining and stripping the rain forests.

I see the triumph of injustice and mysogeny, I hear the terrible toxic calls for environmental death and wonder what is the point of my concerns about university teaching and the degradation of knowledge work.  I ask if there is a place for Lorde’s anger in the small worlds we inhabit in our colleges and schools?  Of course, this sense of uselessness goes directly to the always present question: what is the purpose of higher education?  What is the purpose of higher education when faced with the triumph of mysogeny and racism?  What is the purpose of higher education when faced with the muscular rush to devastation (like the fetishisation of death by some of the Futurists)? Can anger, the translation of anger into action in the service of new visions of higher education, be the basis of concern about teaching and learning?

I ask this as I prepare for a teaching and learning conference in Norway.  The paper and workshop my colleagues and I are preparing appears relevant to our times “How Do We Support Diversity in Higher Education through Decoding the Disciplines?”.  We are concerned with how we work with students, in the normal curriculum, to develop positive dispositions towards diversity and difference.  Though not explicit in our current articulation of this, this is about an idea of education that concerns opening students to the world, of education as concerned with an orientation to the world and not so much the interior concerns of the disciplines.  It is about the idea that higher education should be focused on the existential issues that face us.

One possible implication of this is that we need to enact a different kind of university, one that is premised on the idea that higher education is concerned with developing amongst our students a desire to ‘be in the world’, as Gert Biesta names it.  This being in the world requires, argues Biesta, a sense of being responsible in relation to ourselves, to others, and the world we inhabit.  This requires an education that is disruptive – to ask the question “Is what I desire, desirable?”.  This is not about forming strong ideological identities.  We are, of course, all free to desire things that might not be desirable (to escalate coal production even as we are told of the imminent collapse of our ecosystem).  But, the form of education advocated by Biesta, and links with Lord’s creative anger, is that we have to be responsible for our desires and choices and options.

This idea of education, of enacting the university, is quite distinct from seeing it as in the business of human capital production for competitive economies (though this might be a by-product) or improving institutional status competion through increasing high impact publications (though this might be a by-product).

The anger expressed in response to the Kavanaugh hearing and the dismissal of the abuse of women arises from a being in the world, of a sense of responsbility in and to the world and to others that contrasts with the desire for power and revenge (hatred not anger) of those wishing to appoint Kavanaugh.  He will vote for weaker environmental protections at a time when our existance is perilous, who will not vote to curb the concentration of power at a time when fascist tendencies are working through elected office, who will vote to make the theocratic state responsbile for women’s bodies.  A higher education that sees employability as a greater value than a responsibility to the world and others, or a higher education that sees university rankings as of greater value than the questioning of desire, is not an education worth having and will not challenge the tendencies that endanger democracy and sustainability.

Perhaps we need a higher education that works with anger and transforms it to enact a new kind of university premised upon an orientation and responsibility to the world.