The New Intellectuals

Political wars on college campuses aren’t really about free speech. They’re about what it means to be a student.

A group of students holds signs that read "resist" outside the Columbia University Library.
Students protest at Columbia University in New York City (Frank Franklin II / AP)

The political wars on today’s college campuses are being quickly reduced to a small number of unsatisfying explanations. Many of these are injurious and insulting to the students who already hold marginalized positions within the university. Diatribes against the “coddling” of students may have given way to debates over “free speech.” But both conceptual frameworks, despite notable complications to the latter, get in the way of any meaningful understanding of the situations students, faculty, staff, and administrators find themselves confronting.

Representing campus protests under the heading of free speech helps to obscure the actual struggles occurring over the allocation of resources and the revision of curricula—struggles being led by students. In the context of campus rape, structural racism, gender-based wage discrimination, and skyrocketing expenses over student housing, battles over “free speech” might as well be waged on a different planet. At stake on college campuses today is the status of students as intellectuals—but to shift the discussion to this terrain requires a radical reimagining of who gets to be an intellectual in the first place.

To look at the situation differently, it might help to think alongside Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist, political theorist, and educator who died in 1937, shortly after being released from prison. Some of Gramsci’s best known writing revisits the nature of intellectual work. Gramsci might have seen the question of campus protest in 2017 as a question about who the intellectuals are on college campuses, and about what it means to do intellectual work in the location where it’s most expected to happen: the university.

For Gramsci, being an intellectual has nothing to do with your profession. It has nothing to do with “eloquence,” with elitism, or with standing in front of a lecture hall. Being an intellectual means “active participation in practical life.” Intellectuals, who for Gramsci are always present in any profession and in any economic class, are distinguished by their “social function”: They direct, organize, construct, persuade. To be an intellectual means to be invested in a certain “conception of the world” and the will either to sustain it or to change it, “to bring into being new modes of thought.”

Gramsci’s worry was that, already in the 1920s and ’30s, universities had become too specialized, too enamored of skills and job-training. His worry doesn’t sound far-fetched in an age when universities are not so much beholden to their publics as to private corporations and donors. It certainly rings true, for a different reason, on my own campus, Clemson University, which was founded for the democratic goal of educating agrarian workers. (Clemson’s democratic mission relied, as democratic missions often have, on erasing the convict labor of black workers.)

Gramsci, who was from a rural background in Sardinia and who spent much of his life as a teacher in rural settings, would perhaps have been at home with such a mandate for a university. But he would not have been satisfied with it as the goal of an education. In his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci writes, “democracy, by definition, cannot mean merely that an unskilled worker can become skilled. It must mean that every ‘citizen’ can ‘govern’ and that society places him, even if only abstractly, in a general condition to achieve this.”

The goal of education, in other words, is not only to teach skills. Education prepares students to be intellectuals in the Gramscian sense—that is, to be in the condition to govern, and thus to reorganize, at the very least, the university they attend. So threatening, so revolutionary, was Gramsci’s vision that, at his trial, the public prosecutor famously stated, “for 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning.”

This week, the Afrikan/Black Student Alliance at the University of California at Santa Cruz reclaimed Kerr Hall with a list of demands. The demands were reasonable, by nearly any measure: They would like to live together in guaranteed housing; they would like to have a designated social space inside that housing; they would like to choose colors of black liberation and diaspora for the exterior of the housing; and they would like “mandatory in-person diversity competency training.” It appears that the university has committed to all of the demands.

What is most striking about these demands is that they are a robust “conception of the world.” They ask for the protection of students who are continually endangered by existing conditions on campus. They ask, in the form of a demand, for the modest redistribution of campus resources as well as for the equally modest recognition of campus power structures. Those reading this who might condescend to the third demand might recall the campus fashion of naming student housing after white supremacists. Those who would balk at the fourth demand are welcome to spend a day on a college campus.

The problem with turning to the free-speech argument is that it does not even get close to grappling with the material histories in which students are situated, their “historical selves,” as the poet Claudia Rankine might say. As others have rehearsed, the First Amendment forbids Congress to make a law that abridges the freedom of speech or of the press, that prohibits the right to assemble or to petition the government for a redress of grievances. It’s a negative freedom, one that insures against the potential loss of something. The “free marketplace of ideas” has nothing to say, whatsoever, about granting positive protections or rights to already disadvantaged students, staff, faculty, or administrators. Of course it doesn’t: As soon as the analogy between the “free marketplace of ideas” and the “free market” locks into place, progressive change on campus becomes a moot point.

Classrooms have long been the venues in which material struggles over redistribution are subject to vigorous intellectual debate and discussion. What has often gone missing is the recognition that the university itself is contiguous with the rest of the world. Campus politics—and they are politics, not “culture wars”—matter because they make visible the myriad ways that the university is inseparable from the state’s monopoly on violence and from the history of global capitalism.

The vitriolic pushback against today’s students exposes the fear that the university will be seen as what it always was: a place like any other, where (to paraphrase the philosopher Walter Benjamin) the dead are never safe and the enemy continues to be victorious. It is hardly surprising that the students, faculty, and staff—the rioters, poets, athletes, strikers, and protesters—involved in those very struggles on campuses throughout the world are claiming, via their words and actions, the contested status of the new intellectuals.