An Address to the Class of '05, August 2001


I was almost a Swarthmore student myself. It was the last school I looked at on my own college tour, and I really liked the sound of it. I got here on a dreary, rainy day. After talking to a bunch of students and hanging out in McCabe Library for a while, it seemed to me that it was a really intense, masochistic, humorless, grumpy kind of place.

I have no idea how I got that impression.

Of course, I went to Wesleyan, where there is a clothing-optional dorm now, and in my day, once a year students came and threw marijuana to everyone in the dining hall and we occupied the administration building every other month—IN THE 1980s, NOT THE 1960s.

Honestly, most of the complaining about the intensity of Swarthmore is a bluff. You’ve probably already heard about “misery poker”, where people sit around and moan about all the work they have. Don’t believe it. Most people here are actually having a lot of fun, though sometimes it takes students ten years after graduation, a job in the insurance industry and their first big check to the alumni association to realize just how much fun they were having back then.

Part of the fun is something that you either never admitted in high school, or you did admit and were consigned to the pits of outer geekdom for it—part of the fun is learning, reading, talking with high seriousness about deep issues and ideas, using ten-dollar words that were made up by a French philosopher after a bad batch of cassoulet.

Some of your professors are having that kind of fun too, and some of them are having that kind of fun except that they don’t really know that they’re having that kind of fun. And a few maybe aren’t having so much fun, and that’s part of what I want to talk about tonight.

Tonight I want to give you a job. Over the next four years, I want you to teach us how to be the kind of faculty that Swarthmore needs.

First, let me tell you a bit about college professors.

1. We’re professors because we were really good at being in school and were too afraid we wouldn’t be any good at anything else, or we tried something else and we really hated it even if we were good at it.

2. Being a professor at a place like Swarthmore is insanely great. Yes, there’s a lot of work to be done and we do it. But we have a lot of freedom to decide what kind of work it is, how we want to do it, and when it has to be done. We don’t really have bosses in the conventional sense. We get time off regularly to develop our intellectual and pedagogical interests. We get to argue passionately about arcane issues with colleagues and students. We get to assign interesting new books and have publishers send us free copies of them. We have great students. We get to go to meetings where we can debate for hours about whether Swarthmore students should have to pass a swimming test or what exact words should be on the diploma.

3. Becoming a professor mostly sucks. Yes, people occasionally have a marvelous time in graduate school, but in general it really stinks, especially in recent years.

Most professors don’t actually teach their graduate students: they alternatively ignore and terrorize them. Most big universities don’t care about the quality of education a graduate student gets, but only how many cheap teaching hours they can wring out of them before they move on. Expressing an interest in teaching when you’re a grad student is like being a hillbilly calling for a polka in a downtown New York nightclub.

If you endure grad school, then you have to deal with the academic job market, which even at its best is like the proverbial camel going through the eye of a needle. For every desirable job, there may be a hundred or more qualified candidates.

4. I tell you about all this because this is part of a general process that has changed the nature of academia in recent decades, mostly for the worse.

The tightening of the academic marketplace is only part of the puzzle. At the same time, over the past thirty years, most academics have become increasingly specialized in the subjects they study and the methods they use, while also becoming increasingly professionalized, that is to say, more constrained in their behavior and outlook as intellectuals.

At the same time, many academics are losing confidence in their profession. They are becoming a bit like priests who have lost their faith in God. Some have come to believe that academia is about nothing more than the production of tomorrow’s ruling elite, (you guys, believe it or not), or that universities and colleges are nothing more than an institution that creates artificial forms of “truth” which have as their only purpose the perpetuation of the social power of academics. Or they have simply fallen prey to an all-pervasive cynicism about everyone and everything, including themselves. The odd thing is that many of the professors who have stopped believing in academia are sometimes the people who are most self-important. Paradoxically, they take themselves too seriously while not taking their profession seriously enough.

It all fits together. To get a good job, you have to finish graduate school with a dissertation that other specialists in your field deem a useful contribution to that field—and that they do not deem too controversial or critical of their own cherished arguments. You must have publications—and to get published you must clear the same hurdles. To keep a good job, e.g., earn tenure, you have to negotiate the same minefield all over again. And you have to not act too much like you really believe in the idea of higher education, or you’ll disrupt the antiseptic distance that the postmodern burnouts in your discipline maintain from the entire enterprise of teaching and learning.

Of course, once you earn tenure, you can happily proceed with acting like a weirdo and being Mr. Smarty Pants and slanging your whole profession whenever you get the chance. Usually by that time you have been so thoroughly domesticated that you have forgotten how to say anything even mildly dangerous—which may of course be the point. You may also have forgotten how to talk to anyone who isn’t a specialist in the same field as yourself—which may also be the point.

This must sound fairly esoteric and remote to you, so I want to tell you a bit about my own training. As a grad student, I had a strong interest in the African diaspora, especially in the Caribbean, and in Africa itself, especially South Africa. But I was also interested in comparative studies of different systems of colonialism, in world history, and very broadly speaking, I was also interested in cultural history, literary criticism, the politics of intellectual work and a bunch of other subjects.

I was actually able to explore all those things as a graduate student, but often in secret, despite the system rather than because of it—though I did have one remarkable advisor who not only encouraged me in my interests but gave me even more things to think about and be excited by. I had another advisor who was interested in a lot of those same issues, but not at all in the same fashion I was, and so that didn’t help much.

My first publications had to be vetted by some of the leading specialists in my main field, 20th Century Southern African history. I was fortunate that my book manuscript was very well-received by them even though the subject matter—consumerism and material culture in 20th Century Zimbabwe—was pretty unusual in terms of my field, though not in the discipline of history in general. But in other contexts, it wasn’t always such a good situation. In a number of job interviews, people bluntly suggested to me that my work had too much anthropology, too much cultural studies, too much of ‘other disciplines’ in it to be called “history”. One influential person in my field told me that I needed to stay focused on Zimbabwean history alone, not just for this project but for my whole career. Another told me that my subject matter was too sophisticated and “European”, unsuited for studies of Africa. This kind of thing happens a lot in academia now. Pop out of the box and you’ll be stuffed back inside.

It DOESN’T happen at Swarthmore, though, for the most part, and that’s where we come back to the job I want to give you. Swarthmore is like a number of other small colleges that put teaching undergraduates at the center of their mission: we believe in the liberal arts.

To me, a liberal arts philosophy means we believe that all knowledge is connected, that all academics have a responsibility to broaden their studies outward and to follow their intellectual passions wherever they lead. It means we believe that disciplines like history, chemistry, or literary studies are only a means to an end, a tool, and not an end in themselves.

Liberal arts means that you take seriously an ethical responsibility to communicate intelligibly with a wider public outside of the academy.

A liberal arts approach puts one question at the heart of things: so what? If you study, research, or analyze, you have to provide an answer to that question to justify your labor. It is not enough to just say, “because”, or “because that’s what people in my discipline do” or “because that’s what I need to do in order to get published”.
The answer to the question “so what” doesn’t have to be “to save the world” or anything dramatic. In fact, I wish that social scientists in particular would lay off the overblown promises about how their research is going to fix society, make us all sing kumbaya together and so on. The answer can be simple: because what I’m studying is beautiful, because what I’m trying to know is tragic, because there is a mystery that needs solving. “So what?” doesn’t have to have a practical answer: it just has to refer to something outside of academia’s own internal values and structures for its validation.

A liberal arts approach has faith in itself. Not the kind of fake George W. Bush “I believe in education” faith, not a plastic public relations faith, but some belief that academia has a purpose besides its own reproduction. Liberal arts is always skeptical about itself but never boundlessly cynical about its own mission.

If you want a sense of the difference that a liberal arts philosophy at Swarthmore has made to me, I found immediately on arriving that my early research was not only accepted but readily understood by my colleagues. There was no one who demanded that I get back into my Africanist box and stay there. Anything that I deemed legitimately interesting, if I could make the case for it, was open to me as something to study, to write about or to teach.

Now admittedly I may have taken this to extremes, since the second project I undertook was a cultural history of Saturday morning cartoons. I was frankly terrified when I started this project, thinking I might be sinking my career. My colleagues were at worst bemused, and far more often, enthusiastic. Now I grant you I am not presently planning to teach a class on the hermeneutics of the Flintstones—but who knows?

Now I’m working on a range of projects--one on chiefs in Zimbabwe, one on computer games, and one on white audiences for black popular culture. I’m teaching about Africa, about colonialism, about historiography, about digital culture, about reading, about medicine, and this semester, about the history of the future--a mix of interests that some more formal academic institutions would tolerate very poorly.

The power of careerism, of specialization, of narrow professionalization, of insular attitudes, is an overwhelming force in contemporary academic life. To break free from that orbit takes a lot of effort and a lot of institutional courage, because the closer we get to fulfilling our promise the less we look like the faculty at many big universities, and the harder it becomes to relate other academics as peers.

Nothing in our training as professors prepares us to be the kind of teachers that Swarthmore needs. If we are, it is because we already were before we started graduate school, or because we have cultivated that quality in ourselves despite our training, or because we’ve learned quickly how to do it right once we got here. If we are, it is because you continue to teach us how to be true residents of a different and better kind of intellectual community.

You are here because you wanted something different than the indifferent parochialism that reigns at some, though not all, big universities. At least I hope so. If you find yourself complaining after a month here that there is no department of neuroscience, no department of Polynesian Studies, no department of evolutionary psychology, you weren’t paying much attention when you applied. These are not absences or limitations: Swarthmore is that way on purpose.

Our mission should be to draw together, to counteract the unnecessary forces that pull us apart as teachers, scholars and students. This is not to say that the faculty and students all should study everything at once and from the exact same perspective: diversity of subject matter and diversity of approach are both necessary and desirable. Depth and breadth are both important. A highly focused specialist can be as much a disciple of the liberal arts as a generalist, as long as the specialist always explains the value of his knowledge and teaching in general terms.


The Swarthmore faculty needs to regard connection and mutual intelligibility as its first obligation. It might take me a while to tell a colleague or a student about the causes and meaning of apartheid in South Africa, or the reason why Scooby-Doo and Shaggy are so hungry all the time, but I should never be allowed to claim that I cannot explain these things adequately to anyone who lacks the same specialized training I have.

That’s your job, then, over the next four years—make your professors take the liberal arts seriously. We make you take classes in the humanities, in the natural sciences, in the social sciences. You should not accept it if we require you to do something that we ourselves are unwilling to do. We make you balance work in your major with work outside of it. Demand that we exhibit the same sense of balance. We ask you to apply your learning to the development of “ethical intelligence”, to develop critical thinking skills, to become a better participant in the public culture of your day. Ask us to do the same with our knowledge and scholarship.

Believe in us while you’re here, even if we sometimes fall prey to the shortcomings of our own profession. We believe in you, and we are really glad you’re here. Welcome to Swarthmore!


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