The danger of nostalgia | just visit


It’s Thanksgiving week, a week that for many of us is made up of rituals repeated year after year, especially around meals.

Besides turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes, one of those rituals in my household growing up was canned cranberries – you know, the stuff that slipped out of the can with a deep sound, the box’s grooves printed on the side as he shook on the plate, seeming to be afraid of his own appearance in the world.

It wouldn’t have been Thanksgiving without canned cranberries. You’d think we must have liked things except we only ate them on Thanksgiving and Christmas, which is odd considering it was maybe 59 cents a can, but whatever. If it’s Thanksgiving, we gotta have this cranberry sauce.

As an adult, now responsible for my own Thanksgiving meal, several years ago my wife planned to make cranberry sauce using a combination of fresh cranberries and cherries, and I said okay , do what you want, but I’m eating the canned stuff, because that’s what you do on Thanksgiving.

I’ll cut to the chase, readers: the fresh cranberry sauce was far superior because, let’s face it, the canned sauce is a little scary.

Either way, I realized that my attachment to canned sauce had nothing to do with its taste or quality, but rather was rooted in my nostalgia for my childhood Thanksgivings, especially when my grandmother was still alive and the branches of the family, including all the cousins, were meeting for a few days. I remember this canned sauce, cut into portions, next to rolls and stuffing, potatoes and yams and… you get the idea.

We almost don’t have those gatherings anymore, because we’ve all grown up with our own adult lives, and also, a lot of people who were once at those gatherings are no longer with us. I miss them.

There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia as an emotional response to the passage of time. It can be fun and heartwarming to remember the “good old days” and reflect on how the world has changed, and maybe even lament some of the changes that time has wrought.

But nostalgia as an operating ethos for an organization or institution is another matter. Nostalgia, by definition, is a personal response to the past, and confusing the personal with the universal has the potential to do great damage.

I am very sensitive to this question because I recently received a thorough and thoughtful review of my book Sustainable. Resilient. Free. : The future of public higher education by email. I appreciated the depth of engagement and exchange, and there were a number of reviews that were well received, but there was one that I rejected – particularly that my correspondent thought that the book defended a kind of nostalgia for what universities used to beand that was a weakness in my argument.

I rejected the argument, because in the book I try to force myself to say that there is no time in the past that deserves exact emulation. When college was an affordable public good—which I advocate to achieve today—it was primarily (almost exclusively) the domain of the white (and predominantly male) majority.

Rather than expressing a nostalgia for the past, I express a hope for the future, where the theoretical promise of higher education as a path to a better intellectual, social and economic life is accessible to everything.

Nostalgia is specifically the enemy of this goal because it substitutes a thoughtless emotional connection for substantial tangible practices, the same way I clung to my canned cranberry sauce and was about to miss the products. higher fees.

I think it’s actually important to guard against nostalgia in all aspects of higher education. Earlier this year, I detected some potentially harmful nostalgia for in-person classes emerging from the pandemic. I strongly believe in the power of these human interactions as part of the learning experience, but at the same time, I was concerned that we would miss the opportunity to learn what else students may need to help recover from the disruption of the pandemic.

The nostalgia seemed to be linked to a desire to forget the recent past and return to a more comfortable, better known earlier time, rather than necessarily superior in terms of student learning. It is important to build on what has been learned along the way about what might have been less than ideal in the past.

So it’s possible I’m overly sensitive to signs of nostalgic thinking, but I think I detected one in a recent tweet from Jonathan Haidt defending a new initiative from the organization he co-founded, Heterodox Academy.

Haidt tweeted“Make the Academy fun! Faculty and administrators: submit a simple application to start an HxA campus community on your campus. (And join @HdxAcademy if you’re not already a member). Deadline December 9. Apply here : “

Campus Community appears to be a program to create campus chapters for the organization to “help you advocate for open inquiry, diversity of perspective, and constructive dissent on YOUR campus.” according to tweet HxA Haidt quoted tweeting.

The initiative itself seems flawless, but I was interested in Haidt’s call to “make the Academy fun again!”

I have already commented on Haidt saying something similar when announcing new HxA president John Tomasi, where Haidt said, “And we both agree the academy had a lot less fun around 2015 Before that, there was a wide space between ‘I agree with you’ and ‘I demand that the administration punish you for what you just said.’ This was the space in which all Productive discussions were taking place, but that started to change in 2014.”

It has been well documented that many who cross paths with academia did not find it particularly amusing, but rather found it arbitrary, hostile, and punitive. The disputes that rocked the campuses that Haidt finds so reprehensible were largely about resolving these realities. There’s no doubt that mistakes were made in dealing with these disputes, but Haidt seems to be trying to wish them away instead of confronting them head-on.

It seems all of this is annoying Jonathan Haidt’s buzz, and he wishes he could return to the days when status professors could act with impunity in pursuit of their personal (and other) academic interests.

To the extent that HxA chapters on campus could help foster discussions about the tensions that currently exist, that’s a good thing, but it’s curious to see this as a way to make academia “fun again.” “.

Fun for who, exactly?

It’s not clear to me that Haidt has a particularly good understanding of these tensions, following remarks at a recent academic freedom conference at Stanford University that seemed heavily focused on a particular political ideology. , to which Haidt remarked, as reported by Inside Higher Educationby Colleen Flaherty“more diversity, more ideological and political diversity, in the hall today than in probably any other hall anywhere at any of the top 100 universities in America this year.”

It’s, well… not true. According to one attendee who spoke to Flaherty “anonymously, so as not to clash with supporters and critics of the event,” the conference “also did not require scientific rigor or counter-argument, but instead turned out to be a feel-good session for an unfortunate mix of many powerful public voices who deserve criticism, and a few brave people who take unpopular positions and actually deserve to be heard. Conference organizers tried to be provocative in implying the most outrageous, but this undermined the seriousness of the harm done to the less outrageous but equally censored speakers.

Is it the pleasure we seek?

I, too, would yearn for the days when I was immune to criticism or changes that threatened my status, but that is not a principle on which to organize an institution meant to serve diverse constituencies.

Canned cranberry sauce has been fine with me for years, but now I know we can do better, so I’m not going back.

Neither should higher education.


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