Ruminations

guardians-on-the-wall

One type of academic in the humanities, the guardian on the wall, maintains the
university’s role in American society as a bastion of recognizable rationalism. These academics
stand guard against the vagaries of barbarism. They perceive academic labor as a matter of
time on task, time spent in the library reading and ingesting ideas. Their exams and assignments
consist of regurgitation, and their grading policies contain a participation component. When
they return an essay to a student, the essay will contain check marks or lines along the edges
signifying the recognition of points for which the professor scanned the document. The
guardians provide a valuable service by laying the groundwork of education. Without a basic
understanding of accepted ideas, students lack the ability to question those ideas. Without
parameters, an intellectual cannot push boundaries.

The guardians write about contemporary issues or discuss contemporary perspectives
through the context of their subject. At dinner parties, department meetings, in restaurants,
and in coffee shops, they repeat the same clichés over and over. They lament the decline of the
humanities and decry that no one reads anymore. They argue that culture has intrinsic value,
that American culture is inherently ignorant and juvenile, that European culture is superior, and
that students can’t write. Most important, they treat college as thirteenth, fourteenth,
fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth grades, and graduate school as a continuation toward
grades numbering into the twenties. The guardians struggle to respond to new ideas and react
slowly to shifts in thinking or styles of comprehension, but once they react, as they’ve done in
relation to postmodernism, critical theory, new historicism, protest politics, and philosophy’s
role in popular culture, they react with vigor.

There’s no reason to question the guardians’ faith in reason, unless you find sense in
nonsense. These academics love their subjects and their place in society, and they work
diligently to defend that place. Generations of students, dating back, at least, to the nineteen
twenties, have benefited and continue to benefit from the guardians’ presence and
commitment. They teach students to recognize common arguments as specific issues that are
part of the cultural conversation. They teach students to properly consume culture.
The question, at some point, however, becomes: when does the cultural conversation
consume itself?

In the context of mass education, where no child may be left behind and schools,
colleges, and universities are woefully underfunded, how could anyone teach critical,
independent thinking to any of the three hundred students they have in a given semester? The
continued repetition and regurgitation of accepted ideas might be the least of bad options for
training the masses as a mass. Is there a viable alternative for assembly line classrooms?

Humanities majors are not, generally speaking, future magistrates and nobility. The
majority of these students will work in cubicles inside offices within departments, generally in
front of a computer, and more often than not completing tasks without producing anything,
moving the system forward as their labor checks a box created by a system which pays them
well enough to support the system through their consumption. They will hold, on average,
three jobs in two different fields throughout the span of their careers, and their diploma will
signify their ability to complete tasks when required more than it will signify competency in a
subject or skill. This is not the future of the humanities; this is the humanities’ present.

The guardians on the wall don’t only keep the barbarians from the gates. They keep the
plebeians within the walls, following the same lines, and completing tasks that keep the walls
erect, the towers ivory, and the turbines of commerce revolving, providing the appearance of
life. Let’s not tear down the walls simply because we realize their double standard. Perhaps,
however, when we wonder why no one cares about the things that make life worth living, the
examined life, the parameters of beauty and the sublime, the ability to generate meaning
through concentrated, focused thought, and the ability to believe in something larger than
oneself without substantiating that belief for the benefit of others, we might also wonder
where the institutionalized support for a worthwhile life exists.