Macalester, in theory

By Jack Eisenberg

Given the highly contentious opinion pieces appearing in the Mac Weekly recently, it seems that there is still great disagreement about where the school is going, as both an institution of higher learning and a haven for civic activism. This is unquestionably a delicate topic, but to me, a soon-to-be-graduate, the central problem is and will continue to be the student body and its willingness and capacity to think ‘critically.’ The Institute for Global Citizenship may or may not be many things, but one aspect seems certain: it is absolutely indifferent to the student body’s willful engagement with larger questions of democracy, power, justice, and membership. Andy Pragacz is right in calling into question some of the concepts around which the institution seems premised. By capitalizing Truth, Reason, and Citizen, Pragacz critiques the faulty universalism of categories that have historically served to marginalize and subjugate the subaltern or feminine. I think Pragacz’s arguments and speculations are on track. But his target is wrong. In fact, I would argue that it is precisely these concepts the IGC has sought to question. Take the inaugural speaker of the first annual IGC civic forum two years ago, Seyla Benhabib. Several of her works, both old and new, assess the normative problems of citizenship, reason, and statehood, and offer ways of re-thinking ethics and democracy to promote an alternative conception of moral community. She does not divorce power from morality, like Pragacz’s critique of citizenship suggests, but tries to locate the historically contingent social processes that have reproduced injustice and exclusion across and within nation-states. Moreover, her theoretical suggestions are in reference to concrete phenomena such as cultural difference, asylum policies, and immigration. Instead of un-problematically taking citizenship for granted, Macalester’s IGC invited Benhabib here so that these critical ideas could be debated on campus, hopefully inducing students to pick up one or two of her books. Pragacz, among others, neglects the fact that every year there have been speakers and conferences that question and respond to the conventional thinking about ‘citizenship.’

My problem is, however, two-fold: I perceive a rise in misguided mud-slinging at Macalester’s institutions with a decline in intellectual curiosity amongst the student body. There seems to be fewer individuals who willingly think about concepts, power, and categories beyond class assignments or the mere taking-of-sides after explosive acts of discrimination (such as recent homophobic attacks or the racially insensitive images of the step forward campaign video). Sure, taking sides on these issues is important, but it’s also very easy. This year’s Mitau Lecturer for the political science department was Wendy Brown, in my opinion one of the more significant political theorists from the U.S. When all students from the department were invited to have lunch with Brown, to talk about her works or lecture on the contemporary politics of ‘walling,’ only four showed up, all seniors. Four. Out of one of the largest departments at one of the most politically engaged schools, I could only interpret this as an embarrassingly low amount of theoretical curiosity at Mac. How do we expect to talk about complex political issues if we turn down these opportunities?

Macalester’s future will not be determined by the buildings it has or the money in its endowment, although these will play their roles. Rather, students’ continued willingness to engage new ideas, to use the resources our school provides, and to then redraw the boundaries of broader public intelligence(s), will be, in my opinion, an incredibly important part of the college’s identity. I am not suggesting everyone should strive to agreement, or that we all need to spend our free hours in the library. But I do think confronting contemporary society demands thinking about complexity and theory; it involves questioning some of those assumptions that both give civic action its very meaning and serve to potentially reproduce such injustices. Criticism of any institution is always a good thing, but only if that institution’s resources have been put to the test. And so, I would say that global citizenship is not only about Greeks or nukes. It is also about books.