JULY 15, 2019
A COUPLE OF YEARS ago, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, an English professor at Michigan State, did what engaged faculty are supposed to do: she attended a workshop, where the keynote was given by the provost of a large university. The provost did what provosts do — extolled the American university’s public mission, its commitment to accessibility, the quality of its researchers, the impact of the knowledge it produces — and afterward took questions. What Fitzpatrick asked caused a record-skip moment at the party: was it perhaps the case that tenure and promotion decisions focus too much on rigid forms of traditionally pedigreed scholarship, and not enough on other types of service to the profession and the world? The provost’s eminently sensible answer was that any university that undertook systemic changes “would immediately lose competitiveness within its institutional cohort.” In other words, rocking the boat, even if in the service of your own stated mission, is not good for one’s US News & World Report rankings. Prestige — and serious money — is at stake. As Fitzpatrick puts it, “[L]ots of talk about openness, impact, public service, and generosity falls apart at the point at which it crosses paths with the more entrenched if unspoken principles around which our institutions are actually arranged today.”
This is the great irony, or tragedy, of American higher education. Our universities purport to be seedbeds of democracy that serve a broad public, yet their actions and behaviors often do the opposite. Waddling from crisis to crisis, they waste the talents of thousands upon thousands of well-educated people skilled in critique and research. They leave their graduates indebted. Their police forces menace local communities. They become islands in a sea of socioeconomic privation. Fitzpatrick is hardly the first person to have examined this, and she doesn’t pretend to be: her work is indebted to writers like Christopher Newfield, Tressie McMillan Cottom, Alan Jacobs, bell hooks, Michael Fabricant, and Stephen Brier. But her theory of a new institutional consciousness is novel.
Generous Thinking is an important book, not just for professors (although Fitzpatrick clearly defines them as her primary audience of stakeholders) but for anyone concerned about the nation’s trajectory. There are limitations to some of its claims, and certain key questions go unanswered, but Fitzpatrick’s work is bracing, lucid, theoretically rich, and, crucially, accessible to a general reader. This is important, because we all have skin in the game. If you spend any time at all thinking about colleges and universities, it is hard to escape the feeling that the travails of higher education, particularly in the public sector, are symptoms of a greater plutocratic system in freefall, whereby the fruits of transnational capitalism accrue to a few, and the very idea of a public sector dissolves into air.
So what’s generous about the model of thinking Fitzpatrick theorizes? She defines it as “a mode of engagement that emphasizes listening over speaking, community over individualism, collaboration over competition, and lingering with the ideas that are in front of us rather than continually pressing forward to where we want to go.” As such, it’s a model for thought but also one for material action. Fitzpatrick is not rejecting critical thinking, but rather “competitive thinking,” whereby one always has to be singular, dominant, and right.
At first glance, the ground doesn’t look so fertile for generous thinking. Amply documented by books like Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake (2016), Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty (2011), and Frank Donoghue’s The Last Professors (2008), 21st-century Americans live in “an era of rampant privatization” and corporatization of colleges and universities. This has been going on since the 1970s, but it has been especially bad since the Great Recession. At public institutions — Fitzpatrick’s main focus — state support has been withdrawn under brutal austerity budgets, while legislators and parents demand that education be professionally “practical”; at both state and private schools, power has been siphoned away from faculty and into ever-thickening layers of administration.
And what Fitzpatrick calls the “ideological project” of neoliberalism does not just entail slashed budgets, or outsourcing, or research steered in directions that please corporate donors; when everything must gratify The Market, the whole philosophical and political notion of public space crumbles. That means seeing education itself, even when undertaken at state schools, as a private, personal investment, not something having to do with the public good, or democracy, or a pluralist society. “The purpose, we are told, of a college degree is some form of personal enrichment,” she laments, “whether financial (a credential that provides access to more lucrative careers) or otherwise (an experience that provides access to useful or satisfying forms of cultural capital).” The humanities might be “the canary in the university’s coal mine” — remember Barack Obama’s snide shot at art history majors? — but this fetish for privatizing education and starving fields that aren’t immediately profitable has now invaded everything.
This market ethos also dominates the relationships between schools as they vie for prestige. “[O]ur institutions are locked into constant competition with one another,” observes Fitzpatrick. This means fighting over star professors with grant funding; it means grappling for the academically “best” students, ideally those who can pay full tuition; it means NCAA sports; when resources are scarce, it means you either win or die. In this “mode of invidious comparison,” you’re only as good as the latest U.S. News rankings, where everyone is chasing Harvard. As such, institutions distinguish themselves by how difficult it is to join them. “Prestige, that which drives an institution to compete, that which renders it competitive, in fact undermines its mission, especially where that mission is or ought to be focused on public service,” she continues. “Prestige requires an institution to serve fewer rather than more; prestige is based not on how well those admitted are served but instead on how many are turned away.” It is hard to pursue a public mission when most of the public isn’t allowed through the door.
Resistance to these baleful trends would seem to be a primary responsibility of professors. But in Fitzpatrick’s telling, the way we understand our own labor can be self-defeating. Trained to be wary of totalizing narratives that obscure imperialist, sexist, racist, and classist relations of power — Matthew Arnold’s canon of the best that has been thought and said is mostly made up of white men — intellectuals prize measured skepticism rooted in deep, nuanced research. These good intentions, Fitzpatrick argues, can make it difficult for faculty to defend their profession in big-picture, passionate rhetoric. You do it queasily because you don’t want to sound like Allan Bloom.
Even more deeply, the “agonistic approach” that structures scholarly critique can be toxic. Even if you set aside the humdrum interpersonal squabbles that distinguish a lot of nonacademic workplaces, our labor entails having arguments. It involves finding flaws or gaps in existing bodies of knowledge; it turns upon what Paul Ricoeur calls “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” whereby we interrogate texts and discourses; it means disputing one another’s critical methodologies and theoretical frameworks. This “competitive individualism” and “our investment in being right” partake of the logic of capitalism, and it gets even worse when you throw in the surrounding austerity. “Always, always, in the hidden unconscious of the profession,” she argues persuasively, “there is this competition: for positions, for people, for resources, for acclaim.” Fitzpatrick grants that this is most intense in the humanities, where so much of our work is done alone, but even in fields where collaborative work is the norm, an endless war of all against all increasingly prevails.
This agonistic disposition is, by the way, the posture of book reviews: to show that you are a discerning critic who isn’t just doing PR, you dig out what is mistaken, misinterpreted, misrendered, or missing altogether. That isn’t all you do — in many reviews praise is the dominant note — but it’s a big part. To a significant extent there’s nothing wrong with this, because the whole point of criticism is to exercise one’s intelligence, to evaluate for the sake of readers with limited amounts of time. But it can become catty and toxic, too, and squabbling over small amounts of territory often plagues academia, as anyone who has ever attended a conference panel can tell you. Whether this is a new development in the history of intellectual culture, which has always featured caustic battles over ideas, I’m not so sure, but in the era of austerity, which asks us to justify our work as More Cutting Edge or whatever in order to secure vanishing resources, it gets much more intense.
Fitzpatrick, who agrees with Kenneth Burke that books are “equipment for living,” contends that reading can exemplify a more generous kind of thinking. But reading here stands in for more than archival research or interpreting Moby-Dick. It is “a broad range of interpretive practices that take place in the encounter with an equally broad range of kinds of texts,” and crucially this includes the reading done by people who aren’t literary professionals. (Generous Thinking also has a wonderful mini-history of how English professors came to view the habits of amateur book-club readers as beneath their own practice, too impressionistic, hedonistic, and feminine.) The knowledge generated by broader publics is just as important as, and contributes to, the knowledge seeded in universities.
Teaching, too, can be a form of generous thinking, provided it entails a “generous listening” to students by teachers, and by universities to the communities that enfold them. For Fitzpatrick, genuine education models critical inquiry for undergraduates, rather than a superficial “mastery” of informational content. This “process of inquiry with all its questions and doubts” is part of a collective economy of knowledge, not a space of vicious zero-sum competition. She argues in turn that we should focus less on teaching for “leadership” and more for community-building.
Of course, universities do more than teach undergraduates. They also generate research, and Fitzpatrick emphasizes that this scholarship must become more publicly accessible and relevant. “New modes of co-production” of knowledge will entail multiple institutional redirections, all with the aim of reducing market logic’s stranglehold. “A generous scholarship” is called for, as is a recognition of “the public’s multiplicity” in a time when many institutions and disciplines are “intellectual gated communit[ies].” She singles out two ideal venues for this kind of generous scholarship. First, she praises open-access journals, which break the grip that private behemoths like Elsevier have on scholarly publication. Second, she highlights periodicals that are aimed at general readers as much as specialists, wherein scholars practice a “professional form of code switching,” by addressing broader publics. By seeking “not just tools for production, but tools for living,” professors would create “a genuinely public scholarship.” That would be disseminated, at least in part, by public-facing outlets like Bookforum, Public Books, The New York Review of Books, and this present publication.
If a university actually develops “nonmarket relations of care” and a social generosity that isn’t a superficial missionary project, American democracy stands to benefit. It would be a new paradigm — Fitzpatrick borrows Thomas Kuhn’s theory of paradigm shifts from The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962) — but she emphasizes that this is not the same as Silicon Valley–esque neoliberal “disruption,” which has mostly been a spectacular failure that only disrupts the lives of students and teachers. Fitzpatrick’s paradigm shift — a term popular with businesspeople that I admit makes me a little uneasy — would involve ampler public-facing generosity, unlike disruptive ed-reform projects, which almost always entail corporatization, privatization, and more austerity.
In the end, how radical is Generous Thinking, whose subtitle promises “A Radical Approach to Saving the University”? Fitzpatrick’s philosophical conclusions certainly are. They would entail a complete renovation of how academe thinks about itself. But when it comes to politics — to how exactly we get any of this done — she ducks some questions.
Securing a better future almost certainly means working outside established institutional and administrative power channels. That means labor unions and persistent collective action by the people who actually allow the university to function day to day, and by the publics that surround it. Fitzpatrick has little to say about such action, aside from some late, quick references to the recent wave of K–12 teachers strikes. Taken to its logical conclusion, this would entail a fundamental restructuring of schools, running them like truly democratic, far less hierarchical collectives, and that runs counter to their institutional history. Undoing our present system would be a massive undertaking in both material and conceptual terms, and I fail to see how anything less than union action would make it possible. There is reason for hope, though, as unionization is beginning to win victories for adjunct faculty across the United States.
To her credit, Fitzpatrick does acknowledge that faculty are laborers first; and near the book’s end she briefly mentions faculty strikes (albeit in the United Kingdom); and she calls on tenured professors to support the adjuncts, who are the majority of the professoriate now. But for all the talk of collectivity and “solidarity with staff and students,” there’s little about how to actually help generous thinking win control of our institutions. When it comes to the upper managers who run our schools, all the reader gets is an observation that this “will at some point require administrative buy-in, of course.”
That leaves big questions. How are faculty, staff, students, and communities supposed to work with the same legislators and high-ranking administrators who caused many of the problems in the first place? How do you get the privatizers and corporatizers to do the opposite? What happens with “the ever-growing phalanx of associate vice provosts creating and overseeing the processes that structure our institutions and our work within them”? What’s their role in a learning collective built around the needs of teachers, students, and broader publics? What if theirs are mostly what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”? Fitzpatrick doesn’t touch this rail.
But she is right that the only competition that should matter to us, if we want the university to survive as anything other than a playpen for the affluent, is between a narrow view of education as a private investment and a broader, sustainable vision of it as a unifying public good. The question now — a question to be taken up by new iterations of generous thinking — is how to survive this competition. I wish Fitzpatrick had more to say about the pragmatics of winning the fight, but nonetheless she has laid a powerful theoretical groundwork.