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Margaret Mia

Teacher

The Danger of Nostalgia | Inside Higher Ed


It is Thanksgiving week, a week that for many of us consists of rituals repeated after year, particularly around the meals. 

In addition to the turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes, one of those rituals in my house growing up was the canned cranberry, you know the stuff that would slide from the can with a deep slurping sound, the can’s grooves imprinted on the side as it trembled on the plate, seemingly afraid of its own appearance into the world.

It would not have been Thanksgiving without the canned cranberry. One would think we must have loved the stuff, except we only ever ate it on Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is odd, considering it was maybe 59 cents a can, but never mind. If it’s Thanksgiving, we gotta have that cranberry sauce. 

As a grownup, now in charge of my own Thanksgiving meal, several years ago, my wife had planned to make a cranberry sauce using a combination of fresh cranberries and cherries, and I said fine, do what you want, but I’m eating the canned stuff because that’s what you do on Thanksgiving.

I will cut to the chase readers, the fresh cranberry sauce was far superior, because let’s face it, the canned sauce is kind of creepy. 

Anyway, I realized that my attachment to the canned sauce had nothing to do with its taste or quality, but was rather rooted in my nostalgia for my childhood Thanksgivings, particularly when my grandmother was still alive and the branches of the family, including all the cousins would gather for a couple of days. I remember that canned sauce, sliced into portions, next to the rolls and stuffing and potatoes and yams and…you get the idea.

We almost never have those gatherings anymore because we’re all grown up with our own adult lives, and also, a good number of the people who were once at those gatherings are no longer with us. I miss them.

There is nothing wrong with nostalgia as an emotional response to the passage of time. It can be fun and heartening to remember the “good old days” and reflect on how the world has changed, and perhaps even lament some of the changes time has wrought. 

But nostalgia as an operating ethos for an organization or institution is another matter. Nostalgia, by definition, is a personal response to the past, and confusing the personal for the universal has the potential to do great damage.

I’m extra sensitive to this issue because I recently received a thorough and thoughtful critique of my book Sustainable. Resilient. Free.: The Future of Public Higher Education via email. I appreciated the depth of engagement and exchange, and there were a number of criticisms that were well-taken, but there was one critique I rejected, specifically that my correspondent thought the book was championing a kind of nostalgia for what universities used to be, and that this was a weakness in my argument.

I rejected the argument because in the book I try to take pains to say that there is no time in the past that is worthy of exact emulation. When college was an affordable public good – what I advocate for achieving today – it was primarily (almost exclusively) the province of the white (and predominantly male) majority. 

Rather than expressing a nostalgia for the past, I’m expressing a hope for the future, where the theoretical promise of higher education as a route to enhanced, intellectual, social, and economic lives, is accessible to all

Nostalgia is specifically the enemy of this goal because it substitutes an unthinking emotional connection for the substantive tangible practices, the same way I clung to my canned cranberry sauce, and was on the verge of missing out on the superior fresh stuff.

I think guarding against nostalgia is actually important in all aspects of higher ed. Earlier this year I detected a certain potentially harmful nostalgia for in-person classes coming out of the pandemic. I’m a strong believer in the power of those human interactions as a component of the learning experience, but at the same time, I was concerned that we would miss the opportunity to learn about what else students may need to help recover from the disruption of the pandemic.

The nostalgia seemed tied to a desire to forget the recent past in order to return to an earlier time that was more comfortable, more known, rather than necessarily superior in terms of student learning. It’s important to take advantage of what’s been learned along the way about what might have been non-ideal in the past.

So it’s possible that I’m overly sensitive to signs of nostalgic thinking, but I think I detected one in a recent tweet from Jonathan Haidt championing a new initiative from the organization he cofounded, Heterodox Academy. 

Haidt tweeted, “Make the Academy fun again! Professors & administrators: submit an easy application to start an HxA Campus Community on your campus. (And join @HdxAcademy if you’re not already a member). Deadline Dec. 9. Apply here:”

Campus Community looks to be a program to create campus chapters for the organization in order to, “help you advocate for open inquiry, viewpoint diversity, and constructive disagreement on YOUR campus,” according to the HxA tweet that Haidt was quote tweeting. 

The initiative itself seems unobjectionable, but I was interested in Haidt’s call to “make the Academy fun again!”

I previously commented on Haidt saying something similar upon the announcement of HxA’s new president, John Tomasi, where Haidt said “And we both agree that the academy got a lot less fun around 2015. Before then there was a wide space between ‘I agree with you’ and ‘I demand that the administration punish you for what you just said.’ That was the space within which all productive discussions occurred. But that began to change in 2014.”

It has been well documented that many who intersect with academia have not found it to be particularly fun, but instead have found it arbitrary, hostile, and punishing. The disputes that have roiled campuses that Haidt finds so objectionable have been largely about addressing these realities. There’s no doubt that mistakes have been made in dealing with these disputes, but Haidt appears to be trying to wish them out of existence, as opposed to confronting them head-on.

It seems like all of this is harshing Jonathan Haidt’s buzz, and he wishes he could go back to the days when professors of status could act with impunity in pursuing their personal academic (and other) interests. 

To the extent that on campus chapters of HxA could help foster discussions of the tensions that currently exist, that’s a good thing, but it’s curious to see this as framed as a way to make academia “fun again.”

Fun for whom, exactly? 

It’s not clear to me that Haidt actually has a particularly good grasp on these tensions, following remarks at a recent conference on academic freedom at Stanford University, which seemed heavily weighted toward a particular political ideology, at which Haidt remarked, as reported by IHE’s Colleen Flaherty, “more diversity, more ideological and political diversity, in the room today than in probably any other room anywhere in any of America’s top 100 universities this year.” 

This is, well…not true. According to one attendee who spoke to Flaherty “anonymously as not to run afoul of the events supporters and critics,” the conference also “required no scholarly rigor or counterargument, rather it proved mostly a feel-good session for an unfortunate mix of many powerful public voices who deserve criticism, and a few brave people who take unpopular positions and actually deserve to be heard. Clearly, the conference organizers were trying to be provocative in letting the most outrageous be heard, but that undermined the seriousness of harm done to the less outrageous but equally censored speakers.”

Is this the fun we’re looking for?

I too would be nostalgic for the era when I was insulated from criticism or change that would threaten my status, but this is not a principle on which is organize an institution meant to serve varied constituencies.

The canned cranberry sauce was fine for me for years, but now I know we can do better, so I’m not going back. 

Higher ed shouldn’t either.





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