[UPDATE on Thursday, August 29: In the comments, we ask Patrick Provost-Smith about the GCAS’s connection to the Whitestone Foundation. Through internet searching, we had come to believe that the name referred to this rather alarming organization. As it turns out, it is actually this organization, which is run by Carl Raschke and closely associated with the JCRT.]
It should be clear to my Twitter followers that I’m deeply skeptical of the nascent Global Center for Advanced Studied headed up by Creston Davis and Patrick Provost-Smith [UPDATE: Provost-Smith has announced he’s withdrawing from this effort]. It seems to me to be a repetition of the model of the long-standing European Graduate School, except located in the U.S. — and I’m just not sure how a celebrity-driven institution with very minimal full-time faculty counts as an alternative to neoliberal education. Indeed, it seems likely that one of the primary concrete achievements of the institution will be, as in the case of the EGS, to provide YouTube videos of lectures, i.e., it will almost literally be a MOOC provider. And really, there’s no harm and considerable good in providing YouTube videos of lectures for public consumption — the problem, as with MOOCs, is putting that forward as an alternative to in-person education.
What strikes me about the response to the school so far is how infatuated people are with the sheer potentiality. The school’s website itself makes liberal use of the present tense, and its fans and “faculty” fall into similar grammatical patterns. It is an alternative to the corporate university. It is subverting that corrupt model with something radically different. It is the kind of place where someone uncomfortable with actual-existing academic institutions can find a home, finally!
It may yet turn out to be all of those things. I don’t expect it to, but it may. What’s more interesting to me than the concrete probability of the school’s success is what it shows about the present academic scene: people are obviously deeply hungry for an alternative, any alternative. This holds for people who have been marginalized or excluded by existing institutions, for people who have purposefully struck out on their own path apart from those institutions, and for people who have been quite successful in traditional academic careers. The fact that so much hope can attach to an institution that is currently, so far as I can see, little more than a website seems to me to show a deeper hopelessness: the current system can’t be salvaged, at all. There are no spaces available for something genuinely different, and so we need to start from scratch.
It may be that I’m a total sell-out who wants to maintain my privileges, but I see things differently — and I think that’s in part because I have managed to chart a path through existing institutions that manage to be a concrete, actual-existing alternative to the neoliberal way. Chicago Theological Seminary and Shimer College are both institutions that I believe in, very deeply, and they both need and deserve support and defense from the academic community at large. Neither is perfect, and both have to make unavoidable compromises with the powers that be — but both work hard to provide a distinctly different kind of education that forms whole people. And it is really hard work to keep institutions like that going, which may be why the enthusiasm for the GCAS has been so frustrating to me (though I’ve expressed myself mainly through irony rather than anger).
The notion that a couple guys can come out of nowhere and totally revolutionize hitherto existing education just is the neoliberal approach to education. In reality, there is no need for a radical new model. We know exactly what we need to do: we need small classes, with deeply invested faculty members, allowing for the development of long-term pedagogical relationships characterized by trust and mutual respect. We need to create a space where people can talk seriously about good books and work together on concrete problems. We need an atmosphere of shared inquiry among equals — just the opposite of a seminar made up of star-struck grad students soaking up the wisdom of an academic “luminary.”
It’s hard to create such spaces in existing academic institutions, but I don’t know what other circumstances are going to be more favorable. This may be a failure of imagination on my part, but I think that viewing something like the GCAS as a genuine alternative is an even greater failure of imagination.