This year’s MLA was supposed to be discussing the crisis of affairs in the Humanities. Only a lucky few of the graduate students on the market with their freshly minted PhDs will find jobs in academia — ever.
The increasing corporatization of higher education is driving the scholarly agenda, as funders begin to dictate the scope of the university’s educational mission. Students are being pushed into ever higher debt in order to get undergraduate degrees, which further drives the expectation that only high paying jobs in business, accounting, and computing, to name but a few fields are worth their time and money.
Only those who anticipate that they will be able to carry mortgage sized debt, some for the next 25 years, can embark on advanced degrees in Law, Psychology, Medicine, Dentistry and Veterinary sciences, without strong financial support from family. All that is to say, we are making education for the rich, and for those who think they’ll probably be rich. We are making it for those who don’t already carry financial burdens for their families, for the families they hope to have, and the communities they’d like to one day contribute to.
Yet these very real concerns, such as resolution 2014-2 brought to the Delegates’ Assembly calling for support for institutions whose accreditation has been removed, despite “excellent record in student success and access”, and condemnation for those driven by corporate agendas of privatization who can influence accreditation, demonstrating the best principles and activities of the profession, go by unnoticed.
These topics close to the heart of scholars in the literatures and languages that make up its members, have seen their MLA instead hijacked by a vocal, organized, activist but minor section using the MLA to further its political agenda. The risks to academia are being marginalized while this conference gets slammed in the press for its resolution, and emergency resolution, purporting to represent Palestinian political issues. This group believes that it can pressure the Israeli government to bend to its will. An agenda that as one person pointed out at the open discussion yesterday “appears innocent enough on the surface but is clearly partisan”.
If this group really believes in the importance of the academic freedom they claim to be representing, they should be open to universalizing their message: that the MLA should condemn all governments who restrict the free association and free movement of academics. They should not feel their message is threatened by the possibility that it can be used by other groups, who also seek justice for those unable to engage in free expression and are limited by foreign governments by virtue of their gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, or political views.
Taking their activist message out of a single, specific and clearly complex situation, and universalizing it would mean the MLA is an organization whose members stand up for ALL academics represented by their discipline. It would show that the Humanities has an important role, a role that must be preserved even in the face of the mounting pressures that the academy is currently facing. The Humanities can stands as the voice of liberty, reason, and intellectual freedom. The Humanities can be a civilising force on the world, and the MLA can get back on track, protecting its scholars from those who would seek to silence them.
Rachel S. Harris is Associate Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. Her most recent book is Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema (Wayne State Press, 2017)