The university (or college) keeps us honest: Robin Wagner-Pacifici
It is a typical week in my honors Political Sociology seminar at Swarthmore College. I have assigned hundreds of pages of dense theory, covering issues of state formation, state violence, nationalism, structures of authority, and forms of political participation, among others. For a change of pace and genre, I have also assigned an article by Michael Ignatieﬀ from a 1997 issue of The New Yorker magazine, on the foundational and problematic neutrality of the International Red Cross. Conﬂicts of moment in 1997, Bosnia, Rwanda, the ﬁrst Gulf War (not yet termed the ﬁrst Gulf War) loom large in his intelligent journalistic survey of Red Cross workers in various situations of danger and violence. Descriptions of atrocities are heart-rending in the article, and Ignatieﬀ highlights the problematic neutral stance the Red Cross insists upon maintaining. Ignatieﬀ also does a masterful job of describing the origins and subsequent development of the Red Cross, the Geneva Conventions, and the international ﬁeld of human rights. He tracks the historically gradual accommodation of these organizations to combatants with less formal ties to recognized states and unconventional methods as the organizations seek to respond to and manage the violence of undeclared and unconventional wars. I see this article as a perverse kind of gift to my students – accessibly written, topical, explicitly raising issues of consequence regarding neutrality as an organizational principle. I expect robust discussion and an appreciative, albeit disquieted, read of an analysis from a historical moment just prior to the onset of their historical consciousness. Instead, my students cut to the chase with their critique. They claim that in spite of Ignatieﬀ’s careful survey of irregular conﬂict around the globe, he ends up taking a normative position on the direction war should take. They point to a passage late in the article in which he writes: “More than development, more than aid or emergency relief, more than peacekeepers, these societies need states, with professional armies under the command of trained leaders … Where the international community sees a clear prospect of winning, it will have to help one side or the other, one militia or tribe … to win outright, to
consolidate power, to restore order, to create armies with the authority, discipline, and self-control to regain the monopoly of violence.”1 My students argue that Ignatieﬀ is ignoring his own genealogical tracking of the Geneva Conventions, a tracking that demonstrates the expansive and expanding recognition of the Conventions of the unmonopolized violence of contemporary conﬂict. And they argue that, in doing so, Ignatieﬀ reverts to the default Western nation-state position of demanding a world in its own image. I am ﬂabbergasted. I need to take in their critique in the moment of the discussion, react, and adjust my own comments. Are the students simply reverting to a default position of their own – criticizing every perspective they perceive as reﬂecting United States hegemony or ethnocentism? Do they have a point? I stutter a bit about how we should ﬁrst seek to understand Ignatieﬀ’s central aim in the article – that of contrasting the fundamental neutral stance of the International Red Cross with the fundamentally normative stance of human rights organizations – before we criticize him. I locate a passage in which Ignatieﬀ excoriates the dishonorable war techniques in the ﬁrst Gulf War of targeting civilians in Baghdad with cruise missiles, in order to show that he is an equal opportunity critic. Nevertheless, the students have set the conversational train on a diﬀerent set of rails. We move on together. I recount this experience at length because it demonstrates several things I want to
argue about how the university (or college) keeps us honest and allows us to matter: the necessary crucible of face-to-face interaction in education, the ways scholar/teachers simultaneously bear witness and carry out their work in front of witnesses; the signal centrality of encounters between diﬀerent generations, with diverse experiences of the same events and diverse (even divergent) memories; the signiﬁcance of the speciﬁc media through which human encounters in educational institutions take shape (and the concomitant claim that interaction is always mediated); and the unpredictability of good education. I’ll take up each of these themes in seriatim. But ﬁrst, a few comments on our anxious institutional moment. These are clearly confusing and diﬃcult times for institutions of higher learning in
the United States. Such confusion is connected to, but also analytically distinct from, the general economic crisis of universities, particularly public universities, in this era of what Fred Block and Margaret Somers call “market fundamentalism.”2 It is also distinct from issues that resonate ambiguously from what I would call the feminization of higher education (the recent relative profusion of women presidents of prestigious universities, women provosts and deans, and female tenured faculty). On this politically delicate front, sociologists will conﬁrm that whenever a previously male profession feminizes, the status of that profession risks decline. Finally, current diﬃculties regarding the relevance and importance of universities might also be connected to the kind of critiques that French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu leveled at such institutions – that they are fatally bound up in the project of reproducing class inequality through the management of acquisition of cultural and social capital by elites. Rather than these worthy topics, the distinct confusion I consider here regards institutional identity (analytically separable from institutional survival, institutional status, and institutional distinction).