Earlier this calendar year I attended a university panel on how to teach successfully about climate change. I found the experience deeply unsettling, not because of the persons involved but because of what I take to be prevailing structural and discursive constraints and assumptions. I have allowed the experience to jostle about inside of me until the semester ended, not wanting to appear to criticize any of my colleagues who were involved in the event, who are all lovely persons.
None of the five panelists were humanists, though one was a journalism professor. The presentations were impassioned and factual. But none of them struck at the heart of the obstacles to teaching climate change, which to me involve not only acceptance of the facts but also a fundamental change in how we live our lives in relation to those facts. The structure of the conversations felt to me a victory for what I call neoliberalism’s “age of the algorithm,” that is, the assumption that if we mine the data and churn them through the right equations, then human practice and policies should quickly line up to match their truths. It is an assumption I detest for its reductiveness and the assumption has come to crystallize a resistance in me that shapes the forms and contents of my syllabi.
In light of the panelists’ assumptions and my resistance, I tried ineptly to say something about value, that is, about the labor of discerning what many of us privileged, mostly white, mostly economically well-off U.S. citizens unthinkingly value, and on the need both to bring those values to conscious reflection and to develop ethical, practical, and political supports for transvaluing those values toward more ecological and more globally just values. I was not very articulate, which was odd considering I was teaching this material twice a week to my undergraduates. My class and I had developed a smooth vocabulary and workable set of mantras to help us theorize “value” and transvalue dominate values. We substituted “corporotage” for “ecotage” (since it really is sabotage committed for the sake of corporations), we insisted we needed to think ecological justice alongside any press for human justice and think human justice alongside any press for ecological justice. We agreed that a human body indifferent to ecological justice is a privileged body, and we began tracking the economic interests that fight tooth and nail against environmental regulations.
None of this discursive accomplishment came across in my poorly formed statement to my scientific colleagues. My failure doesn’t matter, really, except for the discursive and cooperative death I think it signals. Many universities remain organized centrally around a core program of “arts and sciences,” a structure that has a long and noble history to it. My attempt to speak into the embrace of this historical relationship felt, to me, more like speaking into a brick wall of resistance. I am not unversed or uninterested in the natural or social sciences. In fact, I used to be a biochemist at Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, and I used to think that my labwork would be my entire career. Now, however, it feels that the sciences have no regard and little interest in the contributions that humanists (or humusists, as Haraway suggests) can bring to the conversation or debate. There is no conjunction, no “and” between the arts and sciences today. Is it because humanists do not traffic in “pure” facts, and thus do not count? Has humanistic inquiry become “the part that has no part” of the common task of educating the next generation–the part, as Rancière describes it, that is visible and active but literally not counted as valuable or participatory in the acknowledged dynamics of the socius?
The humanists on the faculty senate felt they had received precisely this message from our Provost this spring when she appeared to assert the administrative goal of ensuring that every undergraduate would obtain a STEM experience during their four years. Indeed, my department chair announced in our faculty meeting that the Dean was seeking humanists willing to incorporate STEM discussions or material into their classes. A humanist outcry ensued, predictably, and it was loud enough to cause the Provost either to back peddle or restate her original intention, depending on one’s interpretation of events. The Provost now assured the senate that the administration will not require all courses to have a STEM component and that she recognizes many pursuits important to a university. Sports are important to many of us, she noted, as are “arts and entertainment.” Her words generated another distressing moment for us humanists, since we do not see ourselves as necessarily sports enthusiasts or teachers of “arts and entertainment.” We are critics, philosophers, cultural theorists, gender and race theorists, writers, poets, and ethicists. We attend to many things, but almost all of what we do involves some attention to valuation as it is developed, lived, and/or politicized.
Let me frankly assert, then, that scientific facts are not, are never, dissociated from values, not in their production and certainly never in their promulgation. Of course, we know from consumer advertising culture that image, fantasy, lure, and promise sell better than mere facts. This knowledge has led me to structure my classes around valuation and transvaluation, and around specific in-class meditations and group work that enable students to articulate what it is they value, what they see and sense in the environment around them, what excites and enrages them about climate change, and what practices and policies are necessary to encourage personal, local, national, and global change.
The natural and social sciences are fact-based, yes; but to communicate their facts successfully, they need to embrace humanistic concern. If we want that carbon tax, dear colleague, we need to unspool that need in relation to what our students–who are already our citizen-peers–value, desire, and aspire to.
RIP, arts and sciences. You had a long run.
May you rise again one day, like the phoenix.