On Edward Said and “the utopia known as the American university”

By graduate student Sumayya Kassamali, from a conference marking a decade since Said’s passing:

“But the academy is not what it was. It is hard to find a humanities professor with so much style; whose writings have so deeply altered ways of thinking that, even if in disagreement, they are impossible to ignore; and whose principled political stances make him the person you would want as your guest speaker when you organize an antiwar rally. But it is almost just as hard to imagine that the university could sustain and nourish such a figure, rather than attempt to censure and silence them. The current ‘crisis of higher education’ in North America is reflected in many of our own experiences. In this country, education itself is increasingly being privatized, and the university continues to sink to new depths in its profit-seeking exploitation of students, teachers, workers, and entire neighbourhoods. As Thomas Frank has written, the utopia known as the American university, supposedly the finest educational institution in the world, is more like a disaster characterized by predatory capitalism, elitism, branding, and business management theory. It’s worth reminding ourselves that on average three-quarters of teaching at our universities is done by adjuncts, often making less than minimum wage. It is in this sense too, then, that Said is gone. The world that produced him and the conditions that nurtured him, fraught as they were, are not those of our times. But in the words of a former student of his, “remembering Edward Said forces us to think like him, in his place. The question after Said is, ‘how do we begin, again?'”

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