Unlike other animals, humans “can transform the purpose of their life-activity.” So explains Martin Hägglund in This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, where he continues: “We are not simply consigned to reproduce a given form of life but capable of calling into question and changing our way of living. This is why our life-activity is fundamentally a free activity.” For Hägglund–who is specifically referring to what Karl Marx called our “species-being”—humans do not, in this sense, have a “natural” environment or a “natural” way to move about the world (like other animals). Rather, we humans are burdened and blessed with the freedom to determine how we live our lives; what we value; whether our explicit values, norms, and commitments align with our reigning institutions; and whether the former or latter are worth preserving for posterity or are to be discarded. Our form of life is always up for court; nothing is self-evident.
And yet this unique aspect of the human species—the need and ability to critique one’s life, so as to change that life—is under assault. The specific target is the university, but the attack ultimately transcends this institution.
The university is the one institution officially sanctioned by society to perform the kind of thinking and evaluating celebrated by Hägglund (here, I am referring to the American liberal arts institution today). Those of us in the humanities and social sciences, for example, do work oriented toward a critical theory of society; for us, the university provides a formal setting for producing, circulating, and debating the most progressive forms of thinking about who we are and where we could be, or should be, heading. I write this not to undermine the importance of thinking done outside of the university. But it is necessary to underscore the role both assigned to and assumed by us when we enter the profession, regardless of how secure our position is within the institution itself. For viewed as a collective enterprise, there is no other institution (think tanks are often bastions of well-funded ideology, for example) that has taken on the specific task of thinking critically about ourselves: of acting, so to speak, as society’s self-appointed self-consciousness. In this way, we might view the university as the institution that takes what makes us distinctive as humans—our unique relationship to our “life-activity,” or our “species-being”—most seriously into consideration in merely executing its daily charge.
Consider the following tale of two institutions: the University of Kansas and the University of Chicago. Within the last 12 to 18 months each announced changes to their departmental structure, but for decidedly different reasons.
At one point in recent deliberations, the Kansas Board of Regents (KBOR) was considering eliminating 42 academic programs at the University of Kansas, where I teach in what was then the Department of German Studies (and is now, due to a merger decided from above, the Department of Slavic, German, and Eurasian Studies). To determine the value of each program, KBOR rather arbitrarily decided that programs containing fewer than 25 junior and senior majors would be put on the chopping block.1 When pressed, one regent—invited to a KU Faculty Senate meeting to defend KBOR’s “Workforce Management Policy,” which resulted in the unprecedented termination of thirty tenured and tenure-track faculty at Emporia State University last fall—claimed that he had no prior knowledge of how KBOR had arrived at this metric. The first department to be eliminated at Kansas was the Humanities Program, a vibrant, interdisciplinary unit consisting primarily of historians, literary critics, and philosophers.
Meanwhile, in early 2022, the University of Chicago created a new interdisciplinary unit: the Department of Race, Diaspora, and Indigeneity. Unlike the University of Kansas’s cuts and consolidations, Chicago’s actions constitute what could be viewed as an organic response to the emerging need to develop a disciplinary home for students and faculty who were finding themselves intellectually alienated or professionally unsupported. In so doing, they showed how our profession, our institutions, and the conditions of knowledge production itself can evolve thanks to our own efforts.
The University of Chicago’s actions, moreover, demonstrate how students and faculty alike are fully capable of making necessary changes to their institution simply by doing their job. First, they acknowledged a lacuna within the existent configuration of the institution. Next, these institutional actors found a way to formally address the social, cultural, and intellectual demands of the present moment. Indeed, in the long run, their decision may even prove to be profitable, assuming that the creation of such a program will ultimately attract more students and talented faculty to their institution.
The university is invariably evolving. In fact, it is potentially the institution most prone to evolve, on account of the specific nature of how it affects and is, in turn, affected by the public. There is a productively dialectical relationship between academia and society: as social needs continue to develop, so can the university show itself to be responsive to such needs, and, in turn, exert an influence back on society.
The issue at stake is how this evolution is shaped. Will it be guided by those who are most intimately involved with the university’s inner dynamics and concerned with its viability and continued relevance? Or will it be led by those who myopically consider only short-term solutions to crises, both real and artificially created?
The top-down shuttering of an interdisciplinary humanities program; the organic creation of an interdisciplinary humanities program: Marx is particularly well-suited to think through both scenarios. This is certainly because his transdisciplinary body of work justifies the collective pursuit of the liberal arts education; but that is not the only reason.
To reckon with the university today, I suggest we consider a return to the concept of “species-being.” This notion (Gattungswesen in German) was first introduced by the German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach but then transformed by the young Marx, most notably in his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844.2 In brief, Marx claims that under the dominion of capitalism, the human being has become alienated from the product of their labor, the process of their labor, society at large, and themself—or from their species-being. Crucially, Marx does not suggest that species-being is an innate essence to be retrieved or recovered from the precapitalist past (in this and in many other ways, he is no conventional Romantic). Rather, species-being is, for Marx, a kind of conscious act of self-determination, hence Hägglund’s interpretation thereof as our freely determined “life-activity.”
When viewed through species-being, then, the relentless assaults against the liberal arts education are revealed to be distinctly injurious. Faculty are not merely capable of assuming, but professionally obligated to assume a critical perspective toward their own work: to create courses and produce research that challenge the inherited methods or conventions of their respective fields, and that both shape and speak to the needs of their students and the wider public. We are the most intimate knowers of our own profession. We are also, moreover, the most inclined, in virtue of its dictates, to enact necessary changes from within and to reflect on our sometimes-reified views and practices.
Nobody is more qualified than faculty (and students) to do this. And yet, our assigned role is undermined at every turn.
As we know, politicians are attacking the university. And, as we know, such assaults are pursued on two fronts. First, there are external legislative bodies whose members often have no authentic experience in higher education; second, there are internal university administrators, increasingly plucked from the private sector.
This political attack targets both the content of what we teach and the formal structure of the institution (resulting, most consequentially, in the casualization of the profession). And this double attack contains a corresponding double form of pedantry: they accuse university faculty of being utterly out of touch with the real needs and interests of society, and they insist that such faculty are incapable of making the changes needed to operate a lean, “efficient,” and socially productive institution.3 These kinds of assumptions inform the decisions made at the University of Kansas and Emporia State, and many other colleges and universities.
In sum, faculty and the institutions they work for are often accused of being at once radical, elite, and economically wasteful. Such a contradictory critique puts those of us actively engaged in critical discourses in a precarious position.
If we disavow the accusation altogether, we risk undermining the very task we’ve set for ourselves: namely, the production and circulation of new forms of knowledge. This task, after all, does necessarily entail a certain distance from society, even though we inherently want its results to be influential. Otherwise, what would be the point?
If we do not actively challenge the accusation, we risk overinflating our role in society and further inciting the ire and skepticism of our critics. It appears that this dynamic has been rehearsed in nearly every generation and is thus lodged at the core of the liberal arts university’s ambiguous status. That is, the university is touted as society’s knowledge production center, and yet undermined when the knowledge produced is deemed unsavory or socially harmful. This is a serious predicament with serious consequences, since such an assault effectively constitutes an attempt to further alienate us from our species-being if we accept the premise of the dialectical relation between society and the academy introduced above. This is what is at stake.
It is an insult of the highest degree to allow those who care little about the pursuit and implications of knowledge production to decide what constitutes as knowledge
What should universities do if they aspire to remain society’s avant-garde “thought leader” (in the market-parlance of our times)? We must continue to fight back against the words of these ideologues and the actions of the acquiescent administrations. If our labs, classrooms, lectures, and publications do matter—and we must believe that they do while combating the reactionary caricature of them—then we are the ones who must determine our shape as an institution.4 Thinking with Marx, we must assert our socially sanctioned role with an unshakeable confidence and defend our processes of knowledge production as necessary and intrinsic to our job. We are and must continue to be recognized as a public‑serving institution. Simultaneously, we must continue to fight for institutional self-governance at all levels, including and especially through unionization—exactly what we are undertaking at the University of Kansas and what faculty at institutions like Miami University have recently accomplished.
As society has changed, so too must we. As such, there is no internal change to the structure or content of what we do that is off the table. But by the same token, however, such changes must be the result of our own decision-making: using democratic and transparent self-governance and peer review, debate, disagreement, and constructive forms of self-criticism. After all, such deliberations are already built into what we do.
Without such actions and deliberations—and without the vocal support of the wider public—the decisions that affect us will not be made by us. Administrators, ostensibly strapped for cash, will continue to dispose of sizeable funds to hire external, nonacademic firms to make crucial decisions about how to best “right-size” their institution. As we know, such decisions often demand uncompensated labor to be performed by those who will be most adversely affected by their implementation; even worse, they result in the termination of faculty and staff deemed superfluous by those who simply have no idea.
The challenge of how to effectively and thoughtfully adapt to (rather than merely submit to) the vicissitudes of the contemporary world is not to be taken lightly. It presupposes an ability to distinguish momentary impulses from more lasting movements, or at least to perceive the relationship between the two and act on this judgment.
An example from my own discipline might illustrate. We have recently begun teaching gender-neutral pronouns in German and regularly implementing them in the classroom. Such a practice ought to be fully reflexive within a couple of years, since we as German-language and literature instructors have determined that this is a necessary effort. It is a matter of responding to, and formally recognizing dormant or suppressed forms of subjectivity and identity in and through language. It is a matter of how we communicate with each other.
This is our challenge, and we are up to the task. It is but one example of how our discipline can and will continue to evolve. And, hopefully, even exert influence beyond the walls of the classroom.
Resisting all forms of change within our institutions will ossify us; allowing a culture of nonacademic “experts” to make the most crucial decisions about our structure will destroy us. Rather, the species-being of the university enjoins us to constantly self-reflect, adapt, and evolve in order to fulfill the obligations of the profession.
It is an insult of the highest degree to allow those who care little about the pursuit and implications of knowledge production to decide what constitutes as knowledge, whether this appears in the form of a devastating budget cut, a threat to tenure and academic freedom, or an ignorant and harmful legislative move to ban the dissemination of critical race theory. Each one of these assaults projects disrespect for the kind of self-evaluation our profession entails and demands.
Some see—or claim to see—higher education as superfluous, dangerous, unproductive, or inefficient. Such a view must be combated on all fronts at once. To do so demands that we reassert our socially authorized function: ultimately, that is, to think about who we are as a species.
- Why not, for example, give consideration to minors, given that the minor is precisely where language- and literature-based programs continue to thrive? In our humanities-devaluing climate, students are no longer incentivized to major in a language or literature, but many with such interests will choose to minor in them while they pursue ostensibly more practical degrees. ↩
- Though not explicitly revisited by Marx in his more mature writings, “species-being” has received renewed attention among the more philosophically oriented approaches to Marx and Marxism in recent years. Apart from Hägglund’s book, I am thinking here of recent work by Sean Sayers, Amy Allen, Rahel Jaeggi, and Marcello Musto. ↩
- Taking a closer look at the assault reveals to us one of its central contradictions. On the one hand, the university is frequently characterized by the cultural Right as an “elite” and radical institution that exerts a corrosive influence on the way society thinks of race, class, gender, sex, identity, and politics. The presumption on which this assault on our content is based is that the university should consider returning, say, to a time when its faculty—especially its humanists—taught about “great white men” mostly to white men. It is therefore reactionary in its refusal to recognize any value in the internal changes that humanistic and social scientific pedagogy and research have undergone over the last several decades. It suggests that the university has strayed from its central mission, and yet in no possible way could this vision be reconciled with the simultaneous neoliberalization of the university. For the same critics will also stress the economic inefficiency of higher education and its need to become leaner and more vocational in its structure. The conventional solution to both problems thus far has been to simply eliminate the programs (or those who teach in them) determined to be deleterious or superfluous; but practically speaking, the one assault cannot support or be supported by the other, since faculty will always find a way to teach what must be taught. Contradictions of this sort abound in public discourse on higher education. ↩
- To be sure: my objection is not only to the neoliberalization of the university. Already among us are those—whether out of intellectual idleness or ideological bent—cling steadfastly to the views and conventions to which they have become accustomed, who balk reflexively at the introduction of a new technology (such as “generative AI”) without further consideration, who refuse to effectively integrate new developments within their fields into their research, and who resist innovation tout court. The technocrats increasingly in charge, however, wish to paint the entire profession as antiquated in these various ways; in a gesture of bad faith, they impute this reactionary character on us all rather than viewing it as the contingent lot of the few. ↩