Should I leave grad school to be an activist?

I love teaching radical philosophy. But when is it time to practice what I teach?

Published December 12, 2005 10:55AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I'm a philosophy student in grad school. This is my first year in graduate school, and I left a large metropolitan city in the South in order to come to a small, isolated city in the mountainous Northeast. I really love grad school, and feel I am doing well. I have two papers that will be coming out for publication soon (I can't wait to see my name in print, I will admit it), my professors like me and respect me, and my evaluations for my teaching are excellent. More than all of that, I deeply and profoundly enjoy what I do. Teaching is a passionate activity and reading philosophy is something I consider fun. I could do this for the rest of my life and consider it a life worth having lived. This is not an alienated job to me, but rather it is the work of life; what Marx meant when he called labour a "living, form-giving fire."

But I feel guilty. Whenever I teach about people like Michel Foucault or Antonio Negri, I make sure my students know some biographical details about their lives. I make my students aware that for these two men, and many others I teach and read, there was no way to separate their resistance from their scholarship. There can be no separation between a Foucault who got into fights with the cops and a Foucault who wrote "Discipline and Punish." Nor can there be a separation between a Negri who helped organize workers in Italy and a Negri who wrote extensively on Spinoza (mostly while in prison). But I feel this is exactly what is happening to me. I haven't done any activism work since coming to grad school, despite the fact that I was a committed activist before grad school. And I am not sure how that will change, for there is just no time. Sleeping, cooking and making love are luxuries that one somehow steals in between teaching and researching here in grad school. And I will be here for at least six years, if not longer. And after that?

I don't think the world needs another academic. Not really. What the world needs are more women and men willing to dedicate what Jefferson & Co. summed up quite nicely -- their lives, fortunes and sacred honor -- to making this world a better place. And I am not sure if there is a way in American academia to seriously help make the world a better place. The only academics in America who seriously shape the country are scientists, neocons and economists. So I feel stuck, both deliriously happy with what I am doing and at the same time wracked with guilt over what I am not doing.

Academic Who Would Be a Revolutionary

Dear Academic Who Would Be a Revolutionary,

You are to be commended for trying to show your students what courage and personal commitment are required of those who would fashion themselves radical philosophers. Though I do not know what school you are teaching at, I imagine that few of your students have much experience fighting police. It is not one of the extracurricular activities one's parents urge one to engage in while in high school, in order to highlight it on college applications.

And yet fighting police can be crucial to understanding what power really is -- as hearing the clang of a metal door can be crucial to understanding what confinement is. And thus it can be educational. One must know and accept the consequences of one's ideas.

At a certain point in the near future, if the current oligarchy cannot be removed via the ballot, direct political action may become an urgent and compelling mission. It may then be necessary for many people in many walks of life to put their bodies on the line. For the moment, however, although pressing and profound questions have arisen about whether the current government is even legitimate, i.e., properly elected, there still remains a chance to remove this government peacefully in the 2008 election. (Or am I living in a dream world?)

I do think this regime's removal is the most urgent matter before the country today. And I do think that at a certain point the achievement of that goal might take precedence over our personal predilections for writing, teaching and the like. We might be called upon to go on general strike, for instance. We might be called upon to set up camp in the streets for weeks or months, to gather and remain in large public squares as the students in Tiananmen Square did, and dare government forces to remove us or to slaughter us in the streets.

This is all terrible and rather fantastic to contemplate. But what assurances have we that it is not all quite plausible? Having discarded the principles that Jefferson & Co. espoused, the current regime seems capable of anything. I know that my imagination is a feverish instrument. But are we not living in feverish times, in times of the unthinkable?

So what do I advise you to do? I advise you to stay in your position for now. For now, you are where you are supposed to be; you are doing what you are supposed to be doing; you are telling your students what they need to know. In a fight for the heart and soul of the country, should things come to that, it is a more persuasive gesture for a distinguished university professor to give up his professorship in protest than for an unemployed political activist to sit in the street. Your elite status is a trump card you can hold for many years until you are sure it is time to play it. Besides, there is this practical question: Who would occupy your position if you relinquished it? Would it be someone of equivalent passion?

As to whether academics can change the world, what better -- although perverse -- example is there than the Bush administration's recent reliance upon Berkeley professor John Yoo to lend its radical program of torture a patina of constitutional legitimacy? (See David Cole's review of Yoo's recent book in the Nov. 17, 2005, New York Review of Books.)

The method the administration used to distort and circumvent the Constitution's limitations on executive power in order to pursue its program of torture seems to have been brilliantly audacious if patently sinister: If portions of the Constitution stand in the way of desired policies, rather than trying to change the Constitution, instead find someone with academic credentials to say that the Constitution doesn't say what it says, to make a halfway plausible, somewhat believable but basically pretend argument that it actually says something entirely different from what it appears to say and what we always thought it said. If the argument is weak, just sing it loud and stick to it! It is, in form at least, an argument! It was written by a law professor!

Behold the awesome power of the words "Harvard" and "Berkeley"!

The power of such incantatory words can be used for good or ill, my son. Better that power should rest with people like you, rather than people like John Yoo.

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