Monday, February 28, 2011

The Emperor Has No Clothes (And No Shame)

We all (should) know the tale of the King who was taken by a sweet-talking tailor, convinced that the "clothes" he was wearing were invisible and magical and valuable. When the King goes out to show off his new suit (aka his Birthday Suit) the only person in the crowd who has the courage to say what everyone else knows to be true (or because he doesn't know any better) is a child. There are lots of morals to be taken from this tale, but I think we all need to think about how we, as academics, play the role of the silent crowd in our own tale of the decline of higher education.

I am far from the only one who has pointed at the naked Kind and declared him to have no clothes. We've had videos, long series of essays, shorter missives (and another), and entire blogs all devoted to exposing the fact higher education is not what we think it is, especially as idealistic graduate students, indebted but proud parents, and even professors and administrators. I think that as we keep splitting finer and finer hairs when it comes to our roles, we no longer are able to see the forest for the trees; perhaps for most of us, we just see a naked foot or a flash of genitalia, but nothing to get too worked up over. Besides, it's the life of the mind!

I do not regret my education on most days. But some days, the really bad days, I remember that ignorance can sometimes be bliss. Wouldn't I love for my faith, and really, my only faith, in an institution that I love so much to return? For many of us, the university is our secular church, the place that we turn to for stability, security, justice, and answers. But our faiths are eroding, the cracks and inconsistencies are showing, and the corruption is seeping through. Too many of us hold our noses and keep returning day after day for service, because if we don't, what is left? Perhaps a weak or corrupt faith is better than no faith at all? Is this why we keep talking around the problem or burying our heads in the sand?

Or, maybe we're in awe of the King, able to walk around naked without a care in the world. When we discuss the economic realities of doing a PhD in the humanities, most prospective students think either a) it won't happen to them or b) it won't matter to them. When you're in your early twenties and all of your friends are broke and working for little to no money, grad school life doesn't seem that bad. Nor is it easy to see yourself ten years later, when your friends are all making more money than you are with less debt and are getting on with their lives. The life of the mind is, indeed, an excellent and noble life, but is that really all you want for yours? The King running around completely naked is a sign for us all that it is possible, no matter how shameless or corrupt (but who cares, he's in power!) and if we just leave it alone, maybe someday we can run around naked as well.

What perhaps scares me the most, however, is not that we are afraid to say that the Emperor has no clothes, it's that we truly don't believe it will make any difference. The emperor has no shame, and we don't have any interest or motivation in instilling some in him. It's as if when the child points and says the King is naked, we collectively shrug, pat him on the head, and tell him that if the King wants to believe that he is indeed wearing an expensive, magical outfit, then we're just going to humor him as long as he leaves us alone. Besides, it won't make any difference anyway. 

We are the ones who should be feeling shame. We know the truth and we refuse to do anything about it.

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