I teach American literature in the public university system of Missouri, the state whose admission to the union as a slave state caused a national crisis, the state where Dred Scott was judged to have “no rights the white man is bound to respect,” the state where Michael Brown’s murder turned Black Lives Matter from a hashtag into a movement.
As Laura Heffernan has recently limned in her piece on the “New Disciplinary History,” literary studies has determinedly taken to retrack its epistemologies and reconfigure the discipline in terms of reading itself.
“If it’s secret and elite, it can’t be good,” intones Luke McNamara, played by Joshua Jackson, the guy from The Mighty Ducks and Dawson’s Creek, in the final moments of the now forgotten movie, The Skulls (2000). The line is presented as a hard-earned revelation. Though McNamara, a scholarship student at Yale, is at first seduced by the secret society Skull and Bones, taking a vertiginous journey into its hidden world of power and luxury, he eventually comes to the sobering realization, after surviving a series of near-fatal altercations with its leaders, that the society’s anti-democratic tendencies “can’t be good.” The fact that such a banal revelation is presented as a revelation at all suggests the exhaustion of this bit of common sense. We’ve become tired—as worn out as McNamara is in the scene—of the lesson that secret society stories teach, the lesson that exclusive student organizations are nefarious while the universities that house them are meritocratic and transparent.
As we completed our book on the US research university amidst the political tumult of the last several months, we resisted the urge to add laments, policy recommendations, or vision statements to the growing pile. Instead, we sought to reframe familiar arguments about the university by calling attention to its media, which are so often looked past (or through) by critics of higher education.