professor of Brazilian literature and adjunct professor of comparative literature at the University of Massachusett in Amherst
My answer to this question depends on how I construe my ‘field’. Taking the broadest possible view of the areas in which I’ve worked over the past few decades, the field is higher education, and the specific areas of my teaching and research have been: Brazil, literary and cultural theory, utopianism, feminism, women’s studies, academic problems, contemporary politics. The core connection now is the politicization of education, which I consider an extremely dangerous development, one that has entailed attacks on science, objectivity, and notions of truth.
A few decades ago, arguing for a political dimension to study of the humanities may have been innovative; today it is an orthodoxy - that is, it is not just a political ‘dimension’ that is stressed but politics (that is, leftist politics, which I used to share) have become the underpinning of many areas of study. No field is immune: a reductive and distorted view of knowledge and education has spread throughout the U.S. (to confine myself just to that, for now), and these practices have seeped down from the university and can now be found even in kindergarten!
Since everyone goes through this schooling, and since some of the most famous schools are the worst offenders, there is a distinct danger for the sort of future being created as the students who are the recipients of this sort of education take their place in shaping the world – a world in which criticism is virtually obligatory if directed at their own society, while its avowed enemies are provided with excuses and explanations. Two things will result from this, if the trend continues. One is the destruction of education as meaningful training in independent thinking, and the other is capitulation to the strongest voice now coming from the rest of the world, and that is, at the present time, the voice of Islamic fundamentalism. If no principles remain from which to combat it, what is the likely outcome? Solutions? Hard to say at the moment, but see the next paragraph.
Which society? And which part of it? Confining myself, once again, to the sphere I know best, I believe that the USA and the West generally needs to recapture a commitment to Enlightenment values which would keep in check ideologues of both the left and the right. But this is not happening. Instead, for example, universal principles such as a defence of free speech have been under attack for some time. Hope exists, true, since organizations have arisen in the U.S. that attempt to defend First Amendment rights in the university world against its many assailants (disclosure statement: I am on the Board of Directors of the most successful of these groups, the non-partisan Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, started by Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate; see the website, http://www.thefire.org, for the kinds of battles FIRE is taking on and winning).
Still, for twenty years students have been absorbing the message that free speech is hurtful and should be curbed, and, having no direct experience with official censorship and coercion as everyday conditions of life, they are not inclined to defend a right that, on the one hand, they take for granted and, on the other, they see only the disadvantages of. And everyone has his or her own version of what sort of statements should be prohibited. In opposition to this failure to defend their own culture’s unique strengths, I see an unwillingness to criticize other cultures, especially those currently producing young people with utter certainty about their culture’s tenets and values, which include fear and hatred of Western liberal values. The resulting conflict - if it comes to that - should worry everyone. Without the freedom to speak out and argue for one’s convictions, and to attempt to convince others through reasoned argument, no political or social reform will be possible and we will all be subjected to the tyranny of the most violent.