Monday, November 26, 2012

History, Neoliberalism, and Brown University

1. As a history concentrator, I am very interested in how this humanitarian politics has manifested itself in the study of history. In his book, Didier Fassin talks at great length about how humanitarianism has become a central focus of the social sciences, where "exclusion and misfortune, suffering and trauma, have become commonplaces" (6). As Fassin notes, "The 1990s were remarkable for the increasing importance, on both sides of the Atlantic, of what we might term a scientific literature of compassion - a body of writing relating to suffering, trauma, misfortune, poverty and exclusion" (5). While Fassin is mainly speaking to sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists (contrary to popular belief, history is NOT a social science, it is a humanity), a similar project has occurred among historians. In recent decades, especially during the 1990s, the history profession shifted the majority of its attention towards uncovering the lives of marginalized and subjugated people.

History has a very different relationship to humanitarianism in that its focus in on the past rather than the present, and therefore it avoids any overtly messy relationships between the historian and the subject. In a sense, history cannot really be humanitarian at all, since the past is the past, and the suffering of past individuals cannot be alleviated. But clearly historians are motivated by many of the same impulses that motivate contemporary social scientists. And, in my view, the fixation among many modern historians with reclaiming the lost voices of the marginalized people of the past contains many of the same contradictions and problematic gazes that Fassin describes.

A good local example of this is the Brown Committee on Slavery and Justice, which authored the 2006 Slavery and Justice Report, detailing the University's (extensive) historical involvement with the slave trade. On the one hand, this report does a valuable service, in that it frankly lays out the University's connection to slavery, and provides a series of recommendations for how the University can address this history. In the Google Earth article, Parks decries the lack of a history of colonialism in the interactive Darfur interface, and the Slavery and Justice Report presents exactly the type of critical history that Parks calls for.

But at the same time, the University has used this report in some problematic ways. Notably, it made a big deal of the report at the time, actively seeking publicity, and garnering a great deal of positive press coverage for Ruth Simmons' leadership on this issue. Thus, the University used a tragic history as vehicle for celebrating its contemporary enlightenment and benevolence. Humanitarian disasters provoke a similar response. As Fassin puts it in regards to the 2004 Tsunami, "We lamented their dead but celebrated our genorosity" (ix). Tellingly, the University has mostly ignored the recommendations put forth by the report's authors, while continuing to play up its heoric efforts to critically examine the University's past (most recently assigning a book about slavery in Providence to the incoming Freshman class.)

So I'm stuck with a dilemma that closely mirrors that of the modern humanitarian: how can we engage in the necessary project of including marginalized or subaltern people in writing history without fetishizing their suffering, or using those histories to celebrate our own enlightenment to the suffering of the world?

2. Now that I've gotten started about Brown, I feel the need to continue.
The direction of Brown over the last decade maps the linkage between neoliberalism and humanitarianism that both Fassin and Parks describe. As Parks puts it, neoliberalism is based upon a set of "political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating entrepreneurial freedoms and skills" (541). Of course, this is perfectly represented by the current hoopla around "social entrepreneurship," where profit making and social humanitarianism are  pursued conjointly, supposedly with minimal contradiction. As professor Chun noted in lecture recently, nowadays, if you want to help the world, people encourage you to go start a business like Skype. You might say that joining the ranks of private corporations like Google or Skype has become the new equivalent of joining the Peace Corps. Thus, social entrepreneurship is essentially a triumph of neoliberalism - profit-making and humanitarian advancement become almost one and the same.

This has happened in a major way at Brown. If my memory serves me correctly, some of the recent major initiatives at the University include:
  • Expansion of the Brown Medical School
  • Creation of a Public Health graduate program
  • Major investment in and expansion of the engineering school (using large donations from private corporations)
These three initiatives all seem to combine this reasoning. What they all have in common is that they simultaneously are big cash cows for the University (bringing in major grants and funding from both public and private sources) while also seeming to contribute to humanitarian advancement (i.e. technical and medical technologies that help people). In this sense they are win-win for the University: they enhance endowments while maintaining the University's benevolent and worldly image at the same time. The recent appointment of Christina Paxson (an economist who specializes in public health) perfectly sums up this new direction in academia.

3. For my slacktivist experience, I worked with my aunt over Thanksgiving break to help her gain page views and likes for her Facbook page in support of Amherst MA's A Better Chance Program. I could describe the program myself, but I'll let the Facebook page do the talking:
"ABC is a national residential high school program which prepares academically talented and highly motivated African American, Latino, Asian, and Native American students from educationally underserved school districts for college and future leadership roles in the broader community. Since the program began, over 100 students have attended Amherst Regional High School which offers a rich college preparatory curriculum and a diverse array of extracurricular and sports activities. Graduates have attended more than 50 colleges and universities.
Scholars live family-style in the ABC House at 74 North Prospect Street in downtown Amherst. ABC Resident Directors provide a warm supportive environment enriched by daily sessions with Amherst College tutors. ABC Board members, community mentors and ARHS faculty and staff also offer guidance and support. ABC Scholars forge lasting bonds with local host families through monthly weekend visits and additional enrichment activities."
Last year, a major charity funding the program cut their support, so my aunt (who serves on the board) started a Facebook page to help raise awareness and money for the program. Over Thanksgiving she asked me if I would be willing to invite all the friends in my Amherst and Amherst Regional High School networks to "Like" the page. I was a little wary of inviting a hundred odd people to like a page that I had hardly anything to do with, but, in the spirit of this class, I accepted. In the meantime, my Aunt  showed me all the portraits of current scholars posted on the page, in some cases accompanied by video testimonials to the efficacy of the program. She also enthusiastically showed my how many page views the she had gotten over the past weeks, and how many people Facebook said they were reaching through friends of friends. If I remember correctly the answer was 123,000. How much of this will turn into donations or volunteers? It's hard to say. Notably, even after sending roughly 100 odd invites to my old high school buddies, not a single person sent me a message or comment indicating that they had received my invite or wanted to learn more about my (nonexistent) involvement with the program. But while I may not have made any significant difference in helping to support the ABC program, I certainly made my aunt happy

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