Blog: Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth


Spotlight on...
Michael Bérubé and Jennifer Ruth, author of The Humanities, Higher Education, and Academic Freedom

In this post, Bérubé and Ruth show why the deprofessionalization of college teaching matters...

No one critiques the theory of the divine right of kings or the great chain of being for being exclusionary or hierarchical. They’re meant to be; they are impervious to egalitarian challenges. However, if you advance a principle as universalist, a principle that makes such an open-ended promise, you are obliged to admit all comers and take on all challenges, from anyone and everyone who believes that your claim to universalism isn’t sufficiently universalist.

In “Disability and the Justification of Inequality in U.S. History,” Douglas Baynton notes that because the United States was founded on universalist and egalitarian principles, inequality is not assumed to be “natural”; rather, it needs to be justified somehow. And time and again, the principle of justification has been disability. Why can’t the slaves be freed? The argument was that they lacked the cognitive abilities necessary for freedom. Similar arguments were offered for withholding the vote from women. And so women and people of African descent were placed in a most difficult position: they had to demonstrate that they were not intellectually disabled, or that equal rights would not disable them– and they often had to do so by distinguishing themselves from people with intellectual disabilities, who were rendered all the more abject and more emphatically excluded from the social contract as a result. Likewise, the story of American immigration is centrally about disability, both physical and intellectual, though it is not often told that way: the inspections at Ellis Island, which led to one-quarter of prospective immigrants being sent back to their native countries, were meant to determine– often by remarkably shoddy and capricious means– whether new arrivals were physically and cognitively capable of supporting themselves. To put this dramatically– but accurately: you cannot understand the history of debates about citizenship in the United States without understanding the history of disability.

For me, the history of disability is also a family matter. In Rethinking Life and Death (1994), Peter Singer famously claimed that “to have a child with Down syndrome is to have a very different experience from having a normal child. It can still be a warm and loving experience, but we must have lowered expectations of our child's ability. We cannot expect a child with Down syndrome to play the guitar, to develop an appreciation of science fiction, to learn a foreign language, to chat with us about the latest Woody Allen movie, or to be a respectable athlete, basketballer or tennis player.”[i] For those of us who work with people with Down syndrome, in whatever capacity, this is a deservedly infamous passage; and I have spent the past two decades and more watching my son Jamie rebut it all by himself. But I need to admit that back in 1994, when Jamie was only three, I might have fallen for this; I did not know what to expect when we had Jamie, but I did expect that I would have “lowered expectations” for him. What I’ve found, though, is that I have to keep moving the goalposts– or, more accurately, that Jamie keeps moving the goalposts for me.

I had an exchange with Peter Singer about this passage once, and part of the exchange turned on the interpretation of Singer’s phrase, “we cannot expect.” There’s a more important point at stake in speculating on what people with Down syndrome can and cannot understand. In the 1920s we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning to speak; in the 1970s, we knew that people with Down syndrome could speak, but we were told that people with Down syndrome were incapable of learning how to read. OK, so now that we know they can speak and read and do any number of other things, the new performance criterion for being considered fully human is suddenly the ability to chat about Woody Allen films. Twenty years from now we’ll be hearing “sure, they get Woody Allen, but only his early comedies— they completely fail to appreciate the homages of Interiors and Stardust Memories.”

We no longer believe that there is a certain kind of knowledge or wisdom that is timeless and universally valuable. This is a good thing, because it follows that the goalposts have not been, and cannot be, planted in cement. The humanities is the study of what it means and has meant and might yet mean to be human, in a world where “the human” itself is a variable term, its definition challenged and revised time and time again. The liberal arts we now practice—the disciplines of the humanities that emphasize historical change and the contingency of value—are not only more adequate to the world we actually live in but more exciting intellectually: that world is a world in which the meaning and the value of Shakespeare or Sophocles or Steven King is not fixed once and for all but open for continued discussion and contestation ... as they manifestly are. It is a world in which race and gender, sexuality and disability are not defined once and for all but susceptible to slippage and performativity ... as they manifestly are.

We can make the case that the humanities are of great value to society not by arguing that they deliver timeless truths but by arguing that their truths remain open to all challengers. The harder case to make, though, might be the one arguing that value itself cannot be everywhere and always reduced to interest—special interests. This is a harder case to make now than it once was precisely because we have become more supple in our thinking about value, more sensitive to the ways power shapes experience. We have to insist that while the space of the university is a space of competing values, it cannot be a space of vested interests. In the words of the German philosopher Karl Jaspers, who watched his closest colleagues swear allegiance to a totalitarian political movement while he refused, the university is rather “a body which administers its own affairs regardless of whether it derives its means from endowments, ancient property rights or the state; or whether its original public sanction comes from papal bulls, imperial charters or the acts of provinces or states.” The university, Jaspers continues, “derives its autonomy—respected even by the state – from an imperishable idea of supranational, world-wide character: academic freedom.” So far, the tenure system of the American university has kept this “imperishable” idea alive by giving a number of faculty the ability to debate, teach, and research as they see fit, not as someone outside their fields does – whether a Koch brother, a legislator, an administrator, or a parent. But that number has been shrinking precipitously, and today only 25 percent of college faculty have tenure. The only way the tenure system can continue to preserve the intellectual autonomy of higher education for future generations is if we expand it. Teachers and scholars in the humanities must be able to debate fundamental questions facing humanity without coercion or interference from church, state, or moneyed interests.

[i] Peter Singer, Rethinking Life and Death: The Collapse of our Traditional Ethics (New York: St. Martin’s, 1994) , p. 213.

* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan

* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan

About the author

Michael Bérubé is the Director of the Institute for the Arts and Humanities at Pennsylvania State University and the former president of the Modern Language Association.

Jennifer Ruth is Associate Professor of English and former chair of the Department of English at Portland State University.