2017 Commencement Address
Commencement Address by Jesse Prinz
Ph.D. Program of Philosophy
June 2, 2017
For those of you who are graduating, and for those of us who have been cheering for you, 2017 will go down as a major milestone. Graduation is an ontological transformation. In the chrysalis of CUNY, students transform themselves into scholars, scientists, researchers, or other exotic forms of life that require training, accreditation, and hard toil. This unfurling of wings is cause for celebration. But 2017 will also be recorded in many of our memories as a year of concern. It is, after all, the year that Donald Trump took office. Whether you are for or against, this has been perceived as a watershed moment — one that raises questions about our future, and our roles and responsibilities as scholars.
For those of you whose academic activities already have a political cast, the Trump election may bring renewed confidence about the importance of your work. Even so, there is a new sense of urgency that raises questions about impact and focus. For those of you whose work is far removed from politics, the election may have left you wondering whether you chose the right path. All of you have worked so hard to get here, but the election may have raised deep questions about whether your intellectual pursuits really matter. You may be asking yourselves: What can I do? How can I make my work relevant? Should I? In these remarks, I want to focus on these questions.
There are a number of ways in which the Trump victory might directly impact those of us in the academy. For one thing, Trump favors voucher programs, rather than investments in public education. He has also proposed massive cuts in student subsidies and research. The newly released budget proposes the elimination of student-loan forgiveness based on public service. Forgiveness plans based on repayment would make things harder for graduate students, requiring an extra five to 10 years before loan relief. Programs that cover interest payments on loans for low-income students would be eliminated. In addition, Trump has proposed major reductions in spending for science. The National Science Foundation would see an 11 percent cut, National Institutes of Health research grants would lose 21 percent, and science programs within the Department of Energy are targeted for cuts ranging from 16 to 69 percent. Things look even bleaker for the humanities; Trump’s budget would eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Trump victory is also impacting higher education in less obvious ways. His aggressive immigration reforms threaten the visa status of many foreign students and academic visitors. Thousands of university professors have signed petitions calling for a boycott of U.S. conferences. Trump’s victory is a victory of ignorance. He rejects climate science, and his vice president rejects evolution. Both belong to a long tradition of American anti-intellectualism that began during the Evangelical movement of the 18th century. Trump is no Evangelical — his knowledge of the Bible appears thin, despite his claim that it is his favorite book — but he plays up his persona as a plain-speaking, ordinary American who had come to rid Washington of egghead elitists. His anti-intellectualism is also manifest in his contempt for mainstream media and frequent liberties with consistency and truth.
For most academicians, I venture, these are not the most troubling sources of unrest. The academy is a bastion for progressive politics. According to one recent study, led by a member of the Brooklyn College business faculty, liberal professors outnumber conservatives nearly 12 to 1. The margin is substantially higher in New York schools, and, in some fields, liberals outnumber conservatives 33 to 1. For liberal professors, the anguish that set in last November stemmed not from personal concerns about research funding but from the realization that a great many Americans were willing to stand behind a candidate whose moral compass points in a direction orthogonal to our own. The Trump victory evoked a collective shudder within our left-leaning bubble — a shudder that has led many of us to wonder whether we need to reconsider our research agendas.
In the immediate wake of the Trump election, many graduate students and faculty felt a strong urge to speak out. Swept up by discontent, many of us fell into the usual pitfalls. One pitfall is choir preaching. This is especially likely when we vent on social media. Social media can be useful for commiseration and information dissemination, but we tend to have politically homogenous networks, whose members join in an arms race of politically progressive posting without reaching those whose opinions we'd like to change.
Another pitfall is demonizing. When we describe Trump supporters in pejorative terms, we foreclose constructive conversations. Martin Luther King recounts an instructive anecdote in which Abraham Lincoln spoke “kind word[s] about the South during the Civil War when feeling was most bitter. Asked by a shocked bystander how he could do this, Lincoln said, ‘Madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?’”
A third pitfall is self-righteousness. Too often we are oblivious to the contingency of our own values. Left-leaning academicians delight in studies that show an increase in liberal values with education, forgetting that education is a form of socialization. In saying this, I don’t mean to browbeat liberals. I reject liberal-bashing critics, such as Jonathan Haidt, who blame the Trump backlash on political correctness. This is like blaming misogyny on the women’s movement. But failure to see our own values could have been very different is a recipe for arrogant overconfidence.
Another pitfall is the presumption of homogeneity. When we characterize the academy as overwhelmingly liberal, we silence dissenting voices and lose sight of variation within this liberal majority. One is reminded here of the transition between second- and third-wave feminism. As the late Hunter College professor, Audre Lorde, pointed out, the category “woman” is not monolithic. Likewise for “liberal.” There is great wisdom in diversity. An intersectional understanding of political perspectives allows us to chart multiple strategies and aspirations, without succumbing to partisan dogmatism.
Myopia is the fifth pitfall I want to mention. Trump is part of a larger phenomenon. Right-wing populist parties have emerged throughout the western world: from Austria to Australia, from Britain to Belgium, from Germany to Greece, from Hungary to Holland, and from Sweden to Slovakia. In France, they recently took 22 percent in a national election. In other recent elections, the far right secured 21 percent of the vote in Denmark, 29 percent in Switzerland, and 38 percent in Poland. Things are even worse when we look globally. Freedom House, which is an NGO that rates political freedom and civil rights, classifies 58 countries as not free. That number has risen over the last decade and includes 36 percent of the world’s population. There is much variation in authoritarianism, of course. Some populist parties favor mixed economies and others lobby for nationalist forms of capitalism. Some take root in affluent countries that are anxious about losing national identity, and others appeal to those who fear being left behind as economies undergo modernization. But one cannot grapple with the Trump phenomenon without understanding its relationship to geopolitical construct such as Euroscepticism, the refugee crisis, and the war on terror.
A final pitfall is lost perspective. The outcry about Trump has been more vociferous than the outcry over mass incarceration, gun violence, and structural racism. We fear that he might exacerbate these things, but they have been in place for a long time with no solution in sight. We lavish attention on every Trump tweet that offends liberal sensibilities while ignoring Tayyip Erdogan, Rodrigo Duterte, János Áder, and Alexander Lukashenko. We express empathy for immigrants while neglecting global poverty. Our alarm calls ring out when we smell smoke in the Oval Office, but much of the world has been engulfed in flames.
These pitfalls do not entail that we should let the Trump shudder dissipate. For many in the academy, his victory felt like a wake-up call, and we are scrambling to find ways to make our work more impactful. In this regard, there are many ways we can make a difference. Consider the four Cs.
C1 is comprehension: There is much we still don’t understand about the Trump victory. We have some demographic data on his base (including the surprising finding that, like Hitler’s base, they are, on average, relatively well off). But there is no agreed-upon account of the factors that have fueled the rise of the right. Here sociology, psychology, and political science can make a difference.
The second C is contextualization: Those who study other times and places, such as historians, anthropologists, and scholars of literature, can find parallels between this political moment and others. Such parallels can help us understand how we got here and where we are going.
C3 is criticism: There are many things that people find distasteful about Trump, but scholarship can channel these charges and articulate grievances that go beyond the first-past ick and ugh. Economists can identity concerns with his trade agenda, natural scientists can scrutinize his climate and energies policies, philosophers can assess his commitments to social justice, and those who study the arts can explore creative expressions of dissent.
The final C is the hardest: communication. Scholars are in the business of communication, but we often speak among ourselves. In a nation with few public intellectuals, we need to find ways to foster dialogue that extends beyond the ivory tower. We can dedicate more time to popular books, blogs, editorials, exhibitions, and public programming. At present, tenure and promotion tend to overlook such public outreach, and that may have to change.
I have been describing some pitfalls and possibilities for political engagement. But I left one of my opening questions unanswered. For those of us who work in fields that are not overtly political, what responsibilities do we have? Many of those who are graduating today wrote theses on topics that make no direct contact with social or political events. In those final months of thesis writing, you may have found yourselves driven to distraction by the headlines. You might have wondered whether you chose the right thesis topic and the right field of study.
To this, I would humbly submit three lines of response. First, as an academician, research is not the only outlet for activism. One can fight racism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia as they arise in your workplace. These and other forms of bigotry are all too common in hiring and in classroom settings. It is in our local work environments that many of us can have the greatest impact.
Second, I think it would be a tremendous loss if all researchers turned attention to political topics and neglected the rest. Imagine how much we would lose if all art was overtly political, if all theoretical science stopped, if we abandoned our quest to understand those aspects of the world that will endure long after the Trump administration is gone. In fighting against anti-intellectualism we are, in part, fighting to preserve our pursuit of knowledge, expression, and ideas. The capacity to indulge a curiosity that moves beyond practical necessity is among our most distinctive and valuable traits as a species. In a world where intelligence is stigmatized, the most arcane intellectual endeavors can be a form of resistance.
Finally, for those who do find that political events have made you feel alienated from your academic pursuits, perhaps this is a time to rethink the entrenched areas of inquiry that structure our fields. In my own areas of research, philosophy, and psychology, there has been a political turn, and it has led to fruitful developments. Traditionally apolitical fields, such as the analytic philosophy of mind and language, have begun to explore topics such as hate speech and implicit bias. There has also been a move towards greater inclusiveness, with areas such as critical race theory and Buddhist philosophy shifting from the periphery into central focus.
Those of you who are graduating today are entering a world where intellectual life is under attack, but it is also an exciting time to be a scholar. In my academic fields, the desire for social relevance has initiated many new and exciting conversations. This change was not dictated from on high. It has been driven by graduate students; many here today are paving paths in important new directions. When some see this as a time for despair, I think intellectual labor has never been more important. I have worked in many graduate programs, but I have never seen a more talented, intellectually adventurous, and forward-thinking student body. The research projects I’ve encountered here show greater originality, depth, and social relevance than I’ve encountered anywhere else. When I think about the energy, integrity, and ingenuity that animate this generation of CUNY gradates, political malaise gives way to inspiration and hope.