We’re sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
If you continue to experience issues, contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
The recent controversy over Hamline University’s firing of an adjunct instructor for showing an image of Muhammad left many professors, regardless of political affiliation, disgusted by the professional precarity and illiberal identitarianism promoted by the bloated administrative class. But Republican politicians would rather look on with envy — wondering how they might make claims about moral harm to vulnerable young people benefit their own cadre of hyperpoliticized pseudo-intellectuals.
Although a wide majority of both college educators and American citizens would probably prefer otherwise, we seem to be faced with a choice of political zealotries, each aiming to find comfortable jobs for partisan hacks charged with protecting students from perverse teachers. For the sake of children who might be exposed to images and ideas that will offend their (parents’) beliefs, we must empower forces outside the classroom to surveil and punish educators.
For Lee Edelman, professor of English at Tufts, this is hardly news. Nearly two decades ago, he argued in No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive, that our politics is organized around the figure of the child. Imagined as innocent and therefore susceptible to indoctrination, children are the prize for which political struggles are fought. To control their education, which means to prevent one’s enemies from doing so, is to assure that one’s own values will be perpetuated. No Future presented education as the essence of politics, the site where we ask with greatest urgency whose values and identities will survive, and whose will disappear.
Fortunately, politics and its irresistible orientation toward the future do not subsume our whole lives, Edelman insisted. Building on an American Lacanian tradition that includes Leo Bersani and Judith Butler, Edelman points to a distinction between “desire” and “the drive” in our psyches. While the former is entangled with our self-image, our conception of “the good,” and the projects by which we try to extend these into the future (for the sake, of course, of the children), the drive names the unconscious forces that resist, thwart, and occasionally suspend or shatter our ego. Its terrors and terrible enjoyments wrench us out of our ordinary self-sameness — threatening to destroy us while also offering the possibility of making ourselves different.
In his latest book, Bad Education: Why Queer Theory Teaches Us Nothing, Edelman considers how the drive appears as what education in its typical, political sense, works to banish or conceal — and what another, perhaps impossible, form of teaching, drawing inspiration from Socrates, Roland Barthes, and an assemblage of queer figures, might point toward. The “bad education” Edelman considers is apparently transgressive, since it aligns educators with the psychic excess that unsettles any form of political or moral order promoted by politicians and administrators, and any self-satisfied “identity” held by students and educators. But bad education is also, as Edelman struggles to resist admitting, quite conservative. A long tradition of Western thought has posited that the highest and most vital forms of teaching do not transmit information or values, do not assure that teachers or parents reproduce themselves exactly in their students, but rather awaken a capacity within students to change in unpredictable ways.
Edelman bemoans that nearly every proponent and theorist of bad education — anyone who, tarrying with the drive and its “queerness,” suggests to students that “the good” of their society can be challenged by an unknown “better” — ends with a reassertion of some determined “good,” and thus of a politics aiming to achieve it. Socrates called into doubt both the reigning ideology of his community and identities of his interlocutors, who discover that while they claim to be pious and courageous, they cannot give a coherent account of what it is to possess such virtues. He undercut, with relentless irony, public and private certainties. Yet, invoking Socrates, thinkers from Plato to Alain Badiou have turned his “irony into philosophy” into a set of leading questions that guide students to their instructors’ teaching about the good. For such thinkers, bad education serves only as a lever to pry others out of their previous attachments and make them available for re-indoctrination.
Even those who praise what they take as the most sublime form of education for its apparent uselessness — its distance from every political, moral, or personal project — seem unable to avoid such turns. Edelman takes as representative Friedrich Schiller, the German idealist philosopher who celebrated the aesthetic sphere, and the education of the senses that leads to it, as an “absolute of freedom” in which our minds delight in “aimlessness.” Yet Schiller could not avoid asserting that by teaching those who experience it to appreciate not only specific aesthetic objects (a particular painting or landscape), but the essentially aesthetic quality of purposeless enjoyment, “aesthetic education” ennobles individual character and improves society. It is as though whoever engages in “bad education” must find a prosocial pretext — and perhaps must even believe in it.
It seems hypocritical, or at least confused, to defend academic freedom, the free play of ideas in the classroom and in print, as a means both of opening ourselves to unforeseeable transformations and of arriving at some foreknown social good — much less of preserving specific traditions and identities. This is the muddle in which many liberals, and conservatives still invested in the ideal of the neutral university, find themselves.
Some on the right, like Allan Bloom in The Closing of the American Mind (1987), have taken this self-contradictory position deliberately, insisting on the public good provided by a liberal education based on free discussion of “great books” while hinting, to perspicacious readers, that such an education teaches those really paying attention nothing compatible with mainstream political — or sexual — values. In his late work, Love and Friendship (1993), Bloom offered a reading of Plato’s Symposium that suggested Socrates feigned to direct his students’ desire toward “the good,” while the structure of the dialogue itself insinuated that “the good,” taken as a socially avowable ideal, can never be reconciled to the erotic, antisocial essence of thinking. Today’s conservatives who decry “woke” agendas in education and call for a return to the teaching of the “classics” take up Bloom’s rhetoric with little awareness that he practiced the bad education they fear.
Our very language and thought are systems that exclude certain realities. They set limits to whose voice counts and to what can be said.
Many on the academic left are mirror images of Bloom. As Edelman shows in what he ostensibly intends to be a sympathetic engagement with feminist, queer, and Afro-pessimist theory but which is in fact an exposé, the superficial radicalism of these fields betrays a fundamental conservatism. In theory, thinkers from Luce Irigaray to Judith Butler to Jared Sexton and Frank B. Wilderson III expose how identities like “woman,” “lesbian,” and “Black” are produced in ways that not only subordinate and marginalize those who are thus labeled but exclude certain perspectives from the very limits of what is thinkable. In practice, the academic fields in which their ideas circulate have their own missions of “good education,” understood as securing the control of social normativity — not least at the level of university administrative bureaucracies — and the reproduction of identities.
Here Edelman pulls his punches. He notes that such thinking, drawn from poststructuralist accounts of subjectivity akin to his own engagement with Lacan, sees both psychic and social life as structured by constitutive exclusions. In order for me to become and remain a particular, coherent person, I must conceal certain aspects of myself from my own awareness (this point — that there is an unconscious — is the basic insight of psychoanalysis). Likewise, our political order, and our very language and thought, are systems that exclude certain realities. They set limits to whose voice counts and to what can be said. What is thus excluded — which Edelman identifies with the drive and queerness — although not quite thinkable, is metaphorically represented through figures who, in a given culture, are made to embody the abjection, fear, or fascination of the out-of-bounds. Historically, in our society, such figures have included sexual minorities, women, and Black people whose oppression has been inseparable from their being metaphors of the unconscious and the excluded.
Edelman insists that there is no essential relationship between these groups, or any particular identities, and the socially designated role of representing the drive. Indeed, greater inclusion and equality for racial and sexual minorities means, by definition, that they less and less bear the stigma of representing the drive, which, necessarily, passes from them onto other figures, social groups that may not even yet have been imagined. Thus, in a progressive society, “queerness may express itself through racism, sexism, homophobia” and all sorts of other negative, dangerous, abhorrent phenomena — queerness being, precisely, the figure of what we find horrifyingly impossible to integrate into our own selves and our sociopolitical order.
Academics across fields like LGBT+ studies and Black studies seek to both critique the way historically oppressed groups have been linked with queerness (and thus are engaged in a political project that would make those groups no longer queer) and to celebrate queerness as a disruptive, dangerous, transgressive force that breaks open norms and identities. They wish to have their cake and eat it too, to control the production of social norms (fighting sexism, racism, homophobia) and to remain charged with the disruptive energies of the drive (which, precisely because their political struggle is succeeding, will now be figured increasingly by their opponents, branded as hateful, irrational anachronisms). In such riskless thrills of merely verbal antinomianism, the race- and gender-studies crowd are at one with the conservative defenders of the “great books.”
From Socrates’ day to our own, antisocial perversity is, Edelman argues, both an imagined quality assigned to those excluded from power, and an inward disturbance that bad education can awaken into possibilities for self-transformation. “Bad education” will never be popular. It cannot replace “good education,” our vast collective effort to colonize the future and populate it with people who we can imagine will be like us. Perhaps bad education can only persist by being misrecognized, from the right and the left, as the “good education” it undermines.
Edelman laments the contradictions into which defenders of academic freedom and progressive educators fall as they present the volatile, unproductive nature of “bad teaching” as a means of forming good citizens or securing a more inclusive future. Bad teaching cannot do this. Neither can we, without falling into those same contradictions, elevate its negativity to an end in itself. What we can do, at best, is to remember, as we fight to protect academic freedom against all whose vision of the good would annihilate it, that this freedom is not comfortable, kind, or safe. The possibility of thinking with others in such a way that they and we might become otherwise is linked, if Edelman is right, to the most disturbing, unknown aspects of our inwardness, and the most objectionable figures of our social field.