Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The Chair

I am sure that, if i were still working full-time and if there were no pandemic, I might not be watching Netflix as much as I do and so might never even have watched The Chair, the new 2021 Netflix series set at a fictional, liberal-arts-college-like, New-England-like "Pembroke University," where Professor Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) has been newly appointed chair of the English department. The first woman (and first Korean) chosen for this position, she wants to facilitate the tenure of a young black colleague (Nana Mensah). Meanwhile, she is struggling personally in terms of her relationship with her recently widowed close friend and prominent academic colleague Bill Dobson (Jay Duplass), while also struggling with parenting her adopted non-Korean daughter.

The 6-episode series seeks to cover several academic-world situations. There is the pressure on the Chair to ease out senior professors who are highly paid but have low course enrollments, the classical conflict between the ostensibly detached priorities of academic learning and the reality of colleges and universities as catering to contemporary consumers (students) who in many cases couldn't care less about traditional notions of academic learning, but who may well be attracted to more entertaining teachers. Then there is the more contemporary preoccupation with faculty diversity. And, finally, there is the damage done to academic freedom and faculty reputations and careers by contemporary "wokeness" on campus.

The series is well done and has been well received. But I am fairly certain that I might not even have watched it and probably would hardly have cared had I myself not briefly been an academic at an earlier time in my life. While I have no regrets about having left the academic world to pursue my present vocation, I still feel some attachment to the traditional academic values of intellectual inquiry, scholarship, and teaching that attracted me to that world and that vocation in the first place. So I identify and sympathize with the older (as they are stereotyped in the series) faculty who care about Melville or Chaucer and don't want to see themselves as entertainers or salesmen responding to the uneducated and transient interests of their students. As for Bill Dobson, he exemplifies a certain sort of self-indulgent academic, who succeeds according to the traditional academic norms while engaging in transgressive narcissistic behavior. Historically, colleges and universities have provided space for both conserving and passing on the wisdom embodied in the traditional literary canon and for transgressive figures who successfully challenge students' complacency and inspire real engagement with actual ideas.

Regardless of how typical or exaggerated the presentation of academic life in The Chair might be, there is abundant anecdotal evidence that something has gone terribly wrong on contemporary campuses - from a consumerist preoccupation with satisfying students to the neglect of more traditional academic priorities to contemporary "wokeness" and "political correctness," which significantly devalue "academic freedom" (the privileged possession of tenured faculty) and the underlying value system that views education as about learning the traditional wisdom embodied in the classical canon and empowering knowledge-based free inquiry.

How much of a crisis this actually is can certainly be debated, although, of course, one obvious consequence of "wokeness" and "political correctness" has been precisely to stifle debate, both academic and political. That said, it is evident that something precious is being  lost in our society. And, to be clear, it was already being lost before "wokeness" and "political correctness" contaminated campuses. The first challenge facing the new chair in the series The Chair is financial pressure reflecting a consumerist model of education. That problem has been around for a long time and is reflected, for example, in the hollowing out of classics departments. 

It was a great privilege for me to have had the opportunity to teach Plato and Aristotle and encouraging students to engage with ideas completely contrary to contemporary cultural trends. To the extent that colleges and universities are increasingly unable or afraid to do that any more, that is a catastrophic loss - not just for the once comfortable clubby little world of the tenured faculty and the junior faculty and grad students who aspire to join them, but also for a society that desperately needs to rediscover sources of wisdom and the ability to deliberate and debate about things that really matter.

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