U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Modern University’s Place in Modern Intellectual History

Boston Review’s current issue features a roundtable discussion about African American protests on college campuses. Kicked off by Robin Kelley and featuring responses from Randall Kennedy, Michael Eric Dyson, Barbara Ransby, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, and others, the forum is a welcome discussion of what sparked the campus protests. Further, the substantial critique Kelley offers of the protests and their goals brings a nuance reflecting both Kelley’s desire for the radical transformation of society, and the very place of the university in that society.

Kelley’s essay is, in itself, an intellectual history of African American campus radicalism since the 1960s. He reminds us of the book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, released in 2013 and written by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. This book is based on ideas of the “guerilla intellectual,” coined by intellectual and activist Walter Rodney decades ago. The idea of the “undercommons” discussed by Kelley reflects the concerns of many of the college student activists across the country—how does one use their education at a university for the benefit of society? While Kelley does believe the university to be an important part of society—and that a college education is crucial for anyone, especially radicals, to obtain—he is also wary of thinking that the university can be radically transformed. Kelley’s critique of the limits of terms such as “micro-aggressions” and “triggers” is also important in consideration of the modern academy: “But how can we embrace our students and acknowledge their pain while remaining wary of a culture that reduces structural oppression to misunderstanding and psychology?”[1]

It is no surprise, by the way, that this collection of essays also includes an online reading list about radicalism and the academy. Above all, Kelley wants to encourage people, especially budding scholars, to read and write critically. Reading groups and healthy discussion of key theories is as important to Kelley as is mobilizing for marches. For they are both part of the same struggle of black liberation. This collection of essays also points to a broader moment—for both the future of the university, and radical African American protest.

As Ben Alpers brilliantly discussed several days ago, it is often difficult (if not impossible) to know how history will change. I would venture to say that most Americans had no clue that the “Age of Obama” would include national conversations about police brutality towards African Americans, or a white supremacist attack on an African American church, or a boisterous debate about Confederate flags and iconography. Safe to say, too, no one would have imagined the rise of Donald Trump as a polarizing political symbol. No one, at least, would have imagined that on Election Night 2008, or even perhaps this time a year ago.

I think it’s also worth noting the recent essay published in Harper’s  written by Marilynne Robinson about the modern university. Where Kelley is skeptical, at best, of the use of the university as a transformative tool of society, Robinson argues for the need to continue to see America’s universities—and especially their liberal arts core—as a national asset. For both Kelley and Robinson, the university is an integral part of society. I wonder what future intellectual historians will say about the place of the university in early twenty-first century American society. Whatever they say, it will be impossible to ignore the university as both a political battleground and a necessity for a democratic society.

[1] Robin Kelley, “Black Study, Black Struggle,” Boston Review, March/April 2016, p. 15.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Nice take. I would note that whilst Kelley’s analysis is striking, it is limited to the national level. As a reuslt, he fails to link events on college campuses across the United States to a broader more towards decolonising the University – see for example, ‘Why is my curriculum white?’ in the UK, Australia, Holland, and ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ in SA, UK, and elsewhere. Given the rhetorical and ideological connections between student protest on both sides of the Atlantic, it would seem remiss of Kelley not to acknowledge this.

  2. Great post, Robert. As you might guess, I think the phenemonon of both student protests in particular and the influence/import of the university more generally as a problem of/for intellectual history is a crucial problem, not just or even primarily for intellectual historians but for public life more generally.

  3. Thanks for sharing this, Robert! I think Kelley’s piece reads like a manifesto in its call for political education. And his reply was radically humble, in how he engaged in an open-ended, generous dialogue with his interlocutors, conceding the dichotomy between being in and of the university. Moving stuff, that intersects with the interests of all who are invested in social justice and equality.

  4. Thanks for the great comments. James, you’re right–one place this work should go is to examine the international links of current student protest. I suppose I am a little surprised Kelley doesn’t do this because of the international dimensions of so much of the rest of this work. The good news is that it gives the rest of us much more to work with.

    LD–indeed! I thought about your work as I read Kelley’s essay and the responses. I don’t know if you’ve taken a look at the responses to what he said, but they’re also worth reading.

    Kahlil–agreed one hundred percent. His response was a place where you could tell he deeply engaged with what everyone said in response to his work. All written responses should be more like that.

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