Dec 21, 2022 • 1HR 14M

NeoAcademia Episode 9: The University's Existential Crisis w/Adam Sitze

The past, present, and future purpose of the university

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Appears in this episode

Natasha Mott Ph.D, LOL, HBiC
Adam Sitze
Exploring the shifting walls of the ivory tower...
Episode details

NeoAcademia is a biweekly exploration of the shifting walls of the ivory tower. 

There’s so much info in this episode, I’m just gonna jump right in:

A lot of conservatives think Marx is the crux of the existential problem in universities. I think that’s a reductionist view. It’s a complex issue, but my brain decided to hone in on one question that seemed far more loaded than I realized:

48:45 Is the university full of Marxists?

It’s a simple question, but I think it’s ill-framed. First of all, Adam is right. No one in the biomedical science department is reading Das Kapital… but in my experience, many do reference anti-capitalist or anti-capitalist adjacent sentiments in casual conversation. I mean, a lot of people do. But why?

Well, two reasons, I think:

1. In the social studies departments, a lot of modern thinkers are influenced by Marx, so the better question is: Are derivations of Marxism contributing to the existential crisis of the university? Adam said his colleagues cite John Dewey far more than Marx, and in line with our questioning, I wondered: Was Dewey a Marxist? I don’t know as much about John Dewey as Adam does, but my search brought me to this very interesting essay.

Former British Minister for Higher Education, George Walden, recently suggested that, even in Marx's adopted homeland, it would be wrong to see what he considered the moral instability of British educational values, as the result of some Marxist conspiracy. "I sometimes think that a full-blown Marxist conspiracy in English education would have been more bracing," he said. "What we have had instead is a vulgarized, bastardized version of the creed: not Marxist but Marxoidal."

The chemistry department doesn’t know this or much about John Dewey or Marx, and a large part of the university is made up of hyper-specialists just like this, so statistically speaking, Adam is right again, most people aren’t talking about Marx… Or they don’t know they are.

2. The university outside of social studies promotes casual Marxists. They believe in derivative ideas like intersectionality, equity, and the like, and the ‘experts’ eschewing these theories are Marxist or Marx-derivatives. So they repeat talking points about capitalism, patriarchy, etc., Adam’s right, most people are neoliberals. They want small tweaks to free market capitalism, but young people starting out in the futureless society Adam and discuss see that everything is wrong and nothing is working. Everything mainstream is racist, capitalist, and systemically oppressive, so we have to swim against the current in the left direction. They don’t have to worry about the repercussions of doing this because they’ve been sold the idea that Capitalism is unstoppable and so the fantasy of Marxism is one that they don’t have to really think about. They can just move in the direction of an imagined utopia without examining exactly what that looks like or what has happened in the past because it’s impossible anyway. We can’t burn the system down, so let’s just keep saying “Seize the means of production” - even though we don’t have a clue what it means, the implications of such, or the history of the idea.

On the other side of the aisle, the people worried about the University being a Marxist domain, Karl Marx, like Foucault, is a scapegoat. The pattern of thought that Marx employed is attached to his name, but at what point does a derivative work no longer resemble its origin? My child is 25% Armenian, but her grandchildren will be 1/16th Armenian, and what if they have some Turkish blood mixed in? The analysis reaches a point where there is no utility in discussing the origin. Marx’s story has become fable, and to many, he’s a big bad wolf. One side tells a parable of Marxism, but the ‘wolves’ tell their side, too: a derivation of the popular anti-communist narrative.

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So, claiming universities aren’t Marxist by searching for mentions of Marx is like claiming that we don’t see any traces of the Big Bad Wolf anymore when Johnny Depp’s swallowed up Little Red Riding hood in the Woods. Now, I can’t stop thinking about Sarah Palin using Marx’s head on a wolf’s body for target practice. Talk about derivatives… What is my brain sometimes? LMAO.

Is the University Marxist? Yes and No.

57:40 The truth is: The Marxists are on the meme pages.

Better question: What should it be?

ANYWAY. This conversation was great and Adam was a phenomenal discussion partner. He was very sweet to meet me and my minimal knowledge of his area with such intellectual charity and humility.

This part is important:

This episode made me rethink the way I’m doing this podcast. I might cut the crap with the Bonus Content and just give you everything. I only did this because I worried that a 90-minute episode might deter folks, but it’s really hard to chop these episodes down. I hate putting any of this behind a paywall. So, here’s what I’ll say:

If my paid subscribers support it, and I can get buy-in from a couple of new paid subscribers I’ll start releasing the whole episode for free.

Why would anyone pay me to not put this behind a paywall? My rationale is this:

If you follow my work, you know that I believe this personal subscription model to individual thinkers and creators is a shitty lifeboat. It’s not sustainable for people to support 10 of their favorite creators. So, I want off the lifeboat. I’ll use the remnants of the life raft to build something better - that’s what you’re supporting by helping me take things out from behind the paywall. Building a better model for getting knowledge and creativity out there.

If I take things from behind the paywall, I can spend less time yapping/editing and more time doing. I’m planning next season, and I’ve got some ideas for how to take action, but I need resources to help facilitate these ideas. I’ll write an update over the next couple of weeks about what next year might look like, but for now, here’s a 50% off Christmas special, and let’s call it a 2-year anniversary coupon as well.

Get 50% off for 1 year

Show Notes

2:20 The melancholic “unalienated labor” of humanists

4:24 Foucault and objective truth

The Order of Things -Michel Foucault

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Thomas Kuhn

Science as a Vocation - Max Weber

Liberalism and Its Discontents - Francis Fukuyama

Institution - Roberto Esposito

Truth and Politics - Hannah Arendt

9:55 Difficulty in discussing "The University" as a concept

12:29 “The body corporate of teachers and students”

The King’s Two Bodies - Ernst Kantorowicz

14:55 Plato's Academy vs. modern vocational universities

16:54 The existential problem of the modern university -  A communication divide

18:36 The desire to know has been sated

20:03 Futurelessness, an epistemic killer

23:05 The beef between students and faculty/administrators

On Violence - Hannah Arendt

28:05 A minority class of youth must have the courage to break through untruth

29:44 What is the beating heart of the university?

34:27 How the paywall is part of the epistemological crisis

35:51 The Ironic Dark Age

38:24 The protected religious and judiciary role of professors

41:58 The moral purpose of the university - epistemic leftovers

Making of the Modern University - Julie Reuben

45:09 A guiding light for democracy?

48:45 The conservative critique of the university

50:58 Academic freedom as a religion in God and Man at Yale by William F Buckley

54:01 Conservative fear of the shapeshifting religiosity of the university

57:55 Adam’s hope for the future of The University

58:51 “Conservatives aren’t conservative enough”

Justice Ketanji Jackson as an originalist

1:00:35 Montesquieu's original influence over the US founders opposes modern libertarian/conservative ideas about education

1:03:35 Adam’s interest in the preservation of the long-term intergenerational body corporate of the university

1:07:40 “The university is eating its seed corn” thinking out loud about the next generation of professors

Adam provided a TON of resources for the collection. We referenced a lot of resources so if I missed one let me know. Use the password “neoacademia” for access.

Readocracy is NeoAcademia’s first sponsor, and I highly encourage you to sign up for an account. I have been using it daily for years now, and I even include some of my personal metrics in my monthly Rabbithole newsletter for my paid subscribers. It’s a fun way of reflecting on what you consume, and potentially building your expertise as a NeoAcademic.

Big Nerve Thought experiment:

Be sure to check out Big Nerve to win cash for creative ideas on this question:

How could the existential crisis of the university lead to a better outcome for everyone?