Sunday, December 13, 2009

Public Spectres

by Shannon Jackson, UC Berkeley

“The power of these theaters springing up throughout the country lies in the fact that they know what they want…They intend to remake a social order without the help of money—and this ambition alone invests their undertaking with a certain Marlowesque madness.”

So that was Hallie Flanagan, director of the Federal Theatre Project inside the Work Projects Administration that was so central to implementing Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. She was recalling her work as the leader of a federally-supported theatrical movement charged with responding to the reality of the Great Depression. The Federal Theatre Project addressed timely themes— with new plays that dramatized issues of housing, the privatization of utilities, agricultural labor, unemployment, racial and religious intolerance, and more. And the FTP devised innovative theatrical forms—staging newspapers, developing montage stagecraft, and opening the same play simultaneously in several cities at once. The goal was to extend the theatrical event to foreground the systemic connectedness of the issues endured. Social and economic hardships were not singular problems but collective ones; as such, they needed a collective aesthetic. The Federal Theatre Project thus used an interdependent group art form as a vehicle for re-imagining the interdependency of social beings.

We have been hearing quite a bit about the Great Depression and the New Deal over the last 18 months. Hallie Flanagan’s statements are a reminder that their contemporary significance lies not only in that era’s great “bailout,” to use one language, but also in that era’s great “recovery,” to use another one. Importantly, the plan for recovery was a comprehensive re-imagining of the social order, one that left no dimension of the social unturned. It was not a time when existing economic and social structures remained intact, contracting and expanding with the decrease or increase in financial flows. Instead, it was a time when different social sectors underwent re-definition and engaged in a significant amount of cross-training. Sectors in the arts, health care, housing, commerce, urban planning, sanitation, education, science, child development, and more received joint provisions that required joint collaboration. It meant health policy advanced educational policy in the same moment. It meant that citizens were not asked to choose between supporting employment programs OR supporting arts programs as both sectors were re-imagined together. In theatre, the sector from which I tend to view the world, journalists became playwrights, WPA laborers became actors, and public utility companies hung the lights.

Over here in California, discussions of “bailout” and “recovery,” of “taxes” and “freedom,” of public goods and privatized forms are more virulent and more zany than they have ever been. Our legislative process wears its dysfunction on its sleeve; our governor presents his cuts to social services with the tone and comportment of a stand-up comic; citizens throw Anti-Tax Tea Parties on the same day that they collect their Medicare payments. In such a state and State, a public higher education system such as the University of California seems imperiled on nearly every front. Our faculty, staff, and students vacillate between internal criticism of university leadership and external appeals to citizens who do not seem to believe in the mission of education as a public service. But even as circumstances shift and morph, it seems to me that past forms of interdependent social imagining—across sectors and across generations—continue to offer resources for our debates about the UC system as a public institution in California as well as the role of a liberal arts education within that vision. In what follows, I want to offer some thoughts around three central themes that will have some complicating corollaries: 1) the possibilities for and constraints upon inter-dependent social imagining in our public debates 2) the particular role of the arts and humanities in that interdependent vision and 3) the material question of how such social imagining is supported and, yes, funded. I offer these reflections as someone situated within the arts and humanities at the University of California at Berkeley, but my hope is to use this site to contribute to a much wider, national conversation about the arts, humanities, and higher education.

To start off, let me just recall the particular form of inter-dependent social imagining that defined public education in California. As most historians of higher education know, California made a compact with itself when it decided to use public monies to build the infrastructure of a California dream. The greatest public education system in the country was built with the belief that California needed to invest in itself. At the university level, it created a system that educated students and cultivated researchers, allowing them to pose the critical questions, to develop the necessary skills, and to take the intellectual risks on which innovation depends. Along the way, it flouted aristocratic logic by saying that research excellence was advanced rather than inhibited by a commitment to public access. At UC-Berkeley, this means that we celebrate, not only our record of Nobel Laureates, but also our record of Pell Grant recipients; we serve more low-income students on Pell Grants than all Ivy-Leagues combined. Over time, we have kept this combined mission front and center, becoming an engine of innovation and a vehicle of social mobility. We provide access to economic and cultural capital to California’s children. We promise the kind of cross-class and cross-cultural exchange that forms the basis of democratic citizenship. We teach students to think critically, to engage in complex problem-solving, to develop skills in written and oral expression, and to work collaboratively in groups. In our research and in our classrooms, we develop global citizenship and the capacity for ethical reflection. We provide project-based laboratories for scientific breakthroughs and project-based laboratories for aesthetic risk-taking. California’s public compact came from a belief that some forms of social life—including education—needed to be tended by values other than those of the market. Creativity, risk, and pedagogy develop in a space whose primary function is not the creation of revenue.

Of course, the fruits of that compact with the university can be found everywhere in quantifiable and less then quantifiable forms of economic and cultural capital. It is there in California’s engineering feats, its medical breakthroughs, its high tech and bio-tech industries, its agricultural and viticultural landscapes, its artistic and entertainment worlds, and in the invitation to reflection offered by its novelists, its poets, its philosophers, and its historians. This relation between California and its university was reciprocal; the citizens of California supported higher education and it supported us, deeply, variously, consistently. Student-citizens might use their education later to turn a profit in their own lives, but their educational institution did not seek to turn a profit on them. When my parents went to UC-Berkeley in the fifties, they benefited from the education provided by this public logic, so did my uncles, so did my cousins after them.

The compacts we make with ourselves can change, however, when our sense of who constitutes the “we” changes. This shift lies at the heart of my colleague George Lakoff’s argument that “privatization is the issue” for our current moment. As the venerable Richard Sennett once wrote, publicness requires a willingness to imagine oneself spatially and temporally in relation to people we do not know and will very likely never know. It is no coincidence that Sennett’s The Fall of Public Man appeared a year before Proposition 13 passed. As numerous California historians and policy scholars have argued, that proposition mobilized the anxiety of senior citizens and of an already-squeezed middle-class to trade education for real estate. For those who don’t know, Proposition 13 fixed California property taxes to the price of a home at the time of purchase, rather than to the appreciated price of a home over time. In the same moment, it also installed a 2/3’s majority requirement to pass any new tax legislation. After Proposition 13, investment in private property rose while investment in public education fell. Even as we acknowledge the complexity of trying to undo any component of Proposition 13 (and its accompanying 2/3 majority rule that prohibits consensus-building in our legislature), we have to call for an acknowledgement of its ironic effects. As new generations of public educators, families, and students feel the deteriorating effects of Proposition 13 with each passing year, this era’s senior citizens now watch as their children and their children’s children enter school systems that have plummeted from the very top to the very bottom in our national rankings across the 50 states. The paradox grows when we consider that “the middle-class” is still squeezed and, frankly, increasingly a misnomer in a state with California’s cost of living.

In a state whose problems are conceived as budgetary ones, the role of the arts and humanities becomes increasingly opaque. Where do the arts and humanities fit on a Master State Spreadsheet that will show the way out? New Deal history lurks once again around the edges of this question; it serves as a counter to those who argue that the way out of a current predicament is simply more of the same. While there were certainly large blindspots in the New Deal whose gendered and racial assymetries have been given the historical attention they deserve, it is important to notice that it tried to avoid pitting economic, biological, and cultural sectors against each other. It did not imagine the support of education, the arts, or research as expendable domains in comparison to housing, health, or food. Indeed, it imagined the future of a healthful interdependent society as one to which all sectors made a necessary contribution. That future is the present we live in now. We have benefited from the social systems, hard work, and creative thinking of past generations who decided to care beyond their immediate moment. We have benefited from those who decided that such social imagining was not a value owned by either the politically left or the politically right. And we have particularly benefited from those who decided to install those systems and opportunities “without the help of money,” that is, at a moment in American history when cash was in short supply. Since we now occupy a similar moment, it seems important to remember the foresight of a recovery plan that did more than search for quick cash.

It is when we think beyond the short-term goal of quick cash that the “arts and humanities” come into view. In his much-circulated Harper’s article, “Dehumanized,” Mark Slouka makes this point quite forcefully. He argues that we need to look beyond market models in order to preserve the domains of aesthetic imagining, critical interpretation, and ethical inquiry that are essential to democracy. “By downsizing what is most dangerous (and essential) about our education, namely the deep civic function of the arts and humanities, we’re well on the way to producing a nation of employees, not citizens. Thus is the world safe for commerce, but not safe.” Similarly, the president of Harvard University, Drew Gilpin Faust, tends to a 30 percent drop in Harvard’s endowment without losing her capacity to keep her eyes on the prize of a liberal arts education. “Even as we as a nation have embraced education as critical to growth and economic opportunity, we should remember that colleges and universities are about a great deal more than economic utility. Unlike perhaps any other institutions in the world, they embrace the long view and nurture the kind of critical perspectives that look far beyond the present.” The thinkers assembled for a recent Daedalus special issue on the role of the humanities make similar points about the role of the humanities in longer-term social imagining about what kind of society we want to be. I am reminded of the prose used at UC-Berkeley’s Townsend Center for the Humanities; one of our lecture series there was founded to sustain “fresh interpretations of the motives of ancient heroes and villains, keener analysis of accepted tenets and dogmas, reawakened appreciation of ignored and forgotten forms of beauty, and regrouping of old facts to reach new conclusions…an educated man is one ‘who knows some things that don’t help him in making his living.’” A complex vision of the humanities has been threatened off and on throughout our history. Indeed, it showed up for Hallie Flanagan the decade after the dismantling of the Federal Theatre Project when she found herself before the Dies Committee. Committee member Joe Starnes of Alabama cited her earlier statements: “You are quoting from this Marlowe,” he said, suspicious of un-American activity. “Is he a communist?” The point here is not simply that a literary understanding of Marlowe would have short-circuited the act of Red-baiting. The story points rather to the democratic importance of the kind of reflection cultivated in humanities classrooms. These are the paradigms that question binary thinking, that analyze the discursive relations between speakers and addressees, and that, most importantly, refuse to decide that the unknown is, de facto, the enemy.

When we think about the role of the arts and humanities in the 21st century, there are of course lessons to remember about its historical exclusions and blindspots. Cultural canons often operated with a fixed idea of which cultures were heroic and which villainous, and have not always pushed themselves far enough to “regroup” old facts and new conclusions. So too a purified definition of humanistic inquiry gives a false sense of what qualifies as pragmatic impurity. Mark Slouka lost me when he defined math and science research as de facto engines of commodification (tell that to the numbers theorists, or to our experts on the spotted frog). He lost me again when he argued that a “fashion for economic utility” and “a paroxysm of class guilt” lay behind our impulses to expand the humanities curriculum with courses in “Introduction to Sit-Com Writing, in Clown 500, in Seinfeld.” As someone who specializes in a field with an equivocal relationship to the pure humanities, this sounds all-too familiar. Those of us in theatre know that our creative pedagogy has often been cast as an overly utilitarian form of cultural pandering. So much for working in groups. This lingering prejudice re-surfaced in Stanley Fish’s anti-utilitarian pronouncements in the New York Times, including his disgust at having to convince blinkered parents that a production of a play was not the kind of humanistic pursuit he wanted to defend. Not only does this resistance to humanistic expansion dismiss the post-graduate lives of a number of my former students, it also keeps us from teaching the kinds of courses in popular culture that might give our students a more complicated sense of what it means to be a cultural worker. It also makes no place for the work of someone like Hallie Flanagan, who knew that “Clowning” had a role to play in national recovery. Finally, the pursuit of humanistic purity occupies its own blindspot in the history of a modernizing university. To teach skills in clowning or any venerable performance tradition requires small-group interaction. These are the courses that don’t make short-term economic sense on the master spreadsheet. By contrast, the large literary lecture classes enabled by a stable cultural canon made and makes increasing economic sense as an efficient pedagogical delivery system. The 500-person Trilling-esque lecture course propounding a “life in letters” is the one that generates the most revenue.

Our sense of the role of the arts and humanities in an inter-dependent social vision will continue to require a complicated sense of the mixed economies in which these worlds are funded. This economic moment is not the first time that a market rationale was invoked to correct the effects of market excess. Preceding FDR, Herbert Hoover’s Treasury Secretary argued that the effects of 1929’s market sell-off could be corrected by more of the same: “Liquidate labor, liquidate the stocks, liquidate the farmers, liquidate real estate.” And now some of us find California deciding to save itself by undoing the infrastructure that supported the California dream. Perhaps the most insidious effect of Proposition 13 is its status as propeller and symptom of a neoliberal logic of self-reliance and market-based individualism. This is the logic that eschews our relation to persons whom we do not know, promoting an individuated world where what is mine is mine and what is yours is yours. It is a world where a male senator can stand up to say, “I don’t need maternity care,” without any sense of his interdependence with those who might. Moreover, as Wendy Brown has argued so forcefully, this neoliberal logic measures all dimensions of social life under a market rationale in which health, education, the arts, housing, the environment, etc. are subjected to processes of commodification that determine the value of a domain by the revenue it generates. With such a logic, the notion that there should be domains of social life sustained by something other than a for-profit model becomes increasingly unthinkable. The logic that allowed my parents to have a brilliant, inexpensive education retreats both at the level of government and in the language and sentiments that California citizens use to understand themselves. “I don’t need public education,” a citizen might say, without any sense of his or her interdependence with those who do.

The animation of our public options requires a careful questioning of the language of individualism that permeates our national character and arguably has its apotheosis in the great state of California. The ubiquity and opportunistic redefinition of Emersonian self-reliance has a long history in the United States. (Chris Newfield made the “Emersonian effect” compellingly clear for us in a first book on American history that preceded his trenchant writing on public higher education.) To question this language, however, is also to reflect more deeply on how a mistrust of system, of institutions, of organizations has inflected the language of the left as well as the right. The idea that personal empowerment relies upon interdependent systems of support can be an inconvenient thought, not only for conservative conceptions of self-reliance, but also for one-note radicalisms that seek to be “free” of the “Machine.” That’s a simplification of Mario Savio’s legacy if ever there was one.

Even as we make arguments about California’s dependence upon the UC, a truly inter-dependent vision has to consider UC’s dependence upon a variety of other sectors as well. When Jane Wellman of the Delta Project recently made a presentation at the Gould Commission on the future of the UC-system, she made the tantalizing if incomplete argument that UC’s budget problems would be solved with a genuine national health care program. Such confluences require us to think again about how we connect the dots across social sectors. A health care policy turns out to be an education policy. Those of us who study the arts (and artists who cannot afford to go the dentist) know that a health care policy is an implicit cultural policy, too. The University of California also exists in an interdependent relationship with other educational sectors—state and community colleges, a large K-12 system—that feel the effects of California’s record-low investment in education. The majority of California’s K-12 teachers have little to no resources for teaching skills in argumentation and expression, a prime indicator of inequitable schooling patterns. This means that skills in democratic citizenship have already been short-circuited at the elementary and high school levels, before they even step foot in a university classroom. It is here, when I realize that I have to stop my lecture in order to make sure that students know the basis of argumentation—to make sure that they know what a thesis statement is and know how to use a library—that I am reminded that the re-imagining of the university system co-exists with the re-imagining of K-12 in California.

We find other tangles when we reflect upon the funding mechanisms that support both humanistic and scientific research. Within the UC system, the economic recipe has always relied upon a mixture of state, grant, revenue, and donor money along with student fees. With changes to that mixture—specifically a lowered state contribution and higher student fees—many of us fear that the UC’s public mission will be eroded. This concern seems even more virulent when revenue or so-called “earned income” is cast as a solution to our operation. Many at the UC bristled when our President, Mark Yudoff, announced the exemption of non-state-funded auxiliary units from a comprehensive furlough program by celebrating their “entrepreneurialism.” UC research has had a number of connections to for-profit sectors, and this is not the first time that we have questioned the integrity of those relationships. But let’s remember what research is. It is a network of questions and investigations that yield new insights precisely because they unfold unexpectedly, that is, because research is not conducted with profit or anything else as a predetermined goal. Furthermore, the creation and dissemination of a world-class education from all domains of the liberal arts to all classes of citizens is not, never has been, and never will be, a profit-making enterprise. While non-state resources might well be an appropriate mode of funding for some research, to cast researchers and students generally as entrepreneurs in pursuit of revenue is to invite mediocre research and to legitimate a mediocre education.

At a public institution such as ours, the concern over “privatization” is now repeatedly invoked and often has many referents. In my view, the above revenue-based notion of ‘privatization’ differs somewhat from a philanthropic notion of private donation. Long before 2009, UC’s operations of fundraising and development crafted a mixed language to address this mixed economy, asking donors to give in the name of UC’s public mission. This notion of “investing in public education” or “private funding for a public purpose” walks a fine line. It is a fine line that UC-Berkeley walked with many individuals whose names adorn our buildings and with scores of other private donors whose named endowed chairs support the research activity of professors whom I admire. The argument against the privatization of the university is one that will be under-nuanced and misleading to students and citizens if “public institutions” are not clear about this embedded position. As we distinguish between revenue-based notions of privatization and philanthropic notions of privatization, it is perhaps more fundamentally important to notice that both liberal and neo-liberal discourses are already with us, structuring our lives, saturating our language, reeking havoc with our sense of internal consistency. They complicate the image that we as citizens, faculty, staff, lecturers, and students have of ourselves. At one of the many teach-ins held this semester at UC-Berkeley, Wendy Brown noted that privatization —even in its neoliberal form— is already “in the house.” Before the 2009 crisis, I had already been using a modest private endowment in the name of Garrett McEnerney to pay for core undergraduate courses and staff salaries that used to be paid for by state money. After 2009, my ability to cover the state’s shortfall has gone. This is to say that privatization is “in my house.” And, whether you are a student who says you want to get your money’s worth, a Marxist scholar with a privately endowed chair, a scientist who is the CEO of a start-up, or a faculty member who has used the language of the market when “weighing competing offers,” it is in your house, too.

Whether you teach at a private university, at UC, or at many of the public universities who are walking similarly fine lines, the point of this recognition is not to lambast the hypocracy of individuals or to find new bad guys within the ranks of the good. It is rather to begin any discussion with a fundamental recognition of our contingency. In fact, it would be pretty hard to find an established humanities faculty member who does not have some kind of interdependent relationship with Hoover’s treasury secretary (that would be Andrew Mellon). The critical humanities teaches us that there is no pure position, that psychic allegiance is as mixed as the economies that we inhabit. It teaches us that it is precisely because of this impurity that we need to attend to the complexities of our predicaments with that much more care. Such ethical questions continually ask us to reflect about our place in the world. It means asking ourselves about the source of our funding and asking us to stay vigilant about what we do with it. At the University of California, my sense is that such an awareness should foreground the public mission that private donations thought they were supporting. In fact, if we lose our distinctively public character, we might well lose stalwart supporters and alumni who believed in our university’s mission and knew that they had benefited from it.

Let my conclude by summarizing my points and their corollaries. 1) An interdependent social imagining is necessary both for California and for the university system; that imagining is not one that has been consistently heralded by the left much less the right, and it is one that necessarily defines the university in relation to systems other than itself. 2) The arts and humanities are vital democratic domains that need cultivation outside of a market rationale, but that cultivation needs to be open to the many forms humanistic inquiry might take and refuse to draw easy equivalences between the useful and the commodifiable. 3) The university, like other social institutions nationally and internationally, operates in a mixed economy; our ability to advance the core values of our mission—to access, to equality, to critique, to risk, to innovation, to democratic citizenship—will only come with an open investigation of how we are constrained and enabled by the private and public funding on which we already depend. With care and rigor, we can put ourselves in the forefront of a much larger international discussion on the future of the social. With care and rigor, we can maintain our contribution to that imagining by maintaining a research university system in perpetual pursuit of the unanswered question.

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