In Defense of Imagination

West Virginia University's unprecedented cuts to its liberal arts programs sells the public a university tethered to market demands at the expense of imaginative expansion and intellectual curiosity.

In his short story “The Paper Menagerie,” Ken Liu makes a case for imagination’s value: for its innate significance and material power. I teach “The Paper Menagerie” every year in my introduction to literary studies course at West Virginia University, and every year, it makes me and most of my students cry. Liu’s story charts the deterioration of a once tender relationship between a Chinese mother and her Chinese American son, figuring their connection through a set of magical paper animals. The creatures that Mom crafts out of recycled wrapping paper using zhezhi, or Chinese papercraft, are imbued with life, and Jack establishes a strong bond with all of the animals, especially Laohu, a tiger. But as a preteen, after a neighborhood child instigates a racist bullying campaign that centers around the menagerie, Jack distances himself from his mother and all that she stands for: her cultural practices; her papercraft; her racial difference. It’s only years after her death, after his girlfriend finds the menagerie in storage and Laohu comes alive once more, that Jack finally values his mom and realizes all that he’s lost.

In its emotional intensity and exquisitely crafted plot, “The Paper Menagerie” is a wonderful vehicle for reaching students, but the feature that really draws me back each time is its rich theory of art. For Liu, art’s power resides simultaneously in its three main elements: the creative process, the work itself, and the act of aesthetic appreciation. Liu registers this flexible and expansive theory of art through the trope of paper—this story’s dominant motif. Paper takes many forms in “The Paper Menagerie”: it’s a reusable resource (like the wrapping paper that Mom uses to craft her animals); a method of facilitating transnational connection (in the printed catalogs that Jack’s dad uses to meet Mom, who was then in Hong Kong); a metonym for immigration documentation (Mom needs papers to move to the US); and a medium for communicating a personal history (Laohu unfurls his body upon his revival, revealing a letter from Mom to her estranged son). It’s through art—through Laohu—that Mom is able to posthumously reconnect with Jack by narrating her life story, expressing her pain at his emotional distance and confirming her abiding love for him. It’s also through art that Jack is finally able to appreciate both his mother and his cultural heritage. Unlike the ineffectual paper tigers of idiom, Liu’s animate paper menagerie signifies art’s vitality: its liveliness and magic; its necessity and power.

Believing in art’s magic—in the power of creativity to bring imagined worlds to life—underpins every aspect of my work as an English professor, and never more so than this year, when both my job and its very purpose were under threat. As a professor at the now infamously beleaguered West Virginia University, a labor organizer with West Virginia Campus Workers, and a faculty senator engaging with a frequently hostile administration, my own reflections on art’s value, and more broadly of the liberal arts, have taken an acute turn.

In March 2023, WVU president E. Gordon Gee made the shock announcement that hundreds of faculty and staff would be subject to a reduction in force (RIF) and dozens of core educational programs would close. Since then, WVU employees have lived in a state of significant anxiety. By June 2023, 135 faculty and staff had lost their jobs. By July, nearly half of the remaining faculty were under review. By August, afflicted programs appealed their fates, defending themselves against drastic cuts that would see entire departments eliminated and others losing nearly half of all professors. By September, the board of governors had cut an additional 143 faculty at all ranks while an additional eight people were unilaterally laid off in the John Chambers College of Business and Economics. By October, faculty who’d been cut had received their notices of termination. By November, RIFed faculty had begun the process of appealing the university’s decisions; only one was successful. They’d also learned that, despite the best efforts of a team of DC and WV employment lawyers, their cases lacked the necessary common ground for a class action suit. By December, more people had learned that they would be let go; 16 people were RIFed in the Libraries and 9 people in the Teaching and Learning Commons. So far, 311 people have lost their jobs, with untold consequences for the university’s reputation, employee morale, the local economy, and the future educational opportunities of young West Virginians.

Narrated this way, the picture is bleak—and the mood in Morgantown is bleak indeed. Too many talented employees have lost their livelihoods because university leadership has seemingly decided that higher education should cater to market needs rather than cultivate independent thought and intellectual passion. President Gee’s insistence that there is no financial crisis, despite a well-publicized $45 million deficit, suggests that these unprecedented cuts are at least as much ideologically fueled as they are caused by taking on an unsustainable debt load and failing to convince Republican legislatures to increase spending on public universities. WVU’s administration continues to spend lavishly on their own comforts, including unnecessary flights on private jets. Meanwhile, more than 300 people and their families have lost their jobs and incomes, harming our local economy and the very fabric of our community.

But what’s happening at WVU is not an anomaly, except in scale. Since WVU announced its unprecedented cuts, administrators have announced layoffs at UNC Greensboro, SUNY Potsdam, the University of New Hampshire, and more. And it’s not just the humanities that are at risk, either; WVU’s sweeping cuts have impacted programs as diverse as math, chemistry, music, languages, public health, soil sciences, and education. Leadership teams across the country are coming for the liberal arts, selling the public an inferior product that’s been packaged by management consultancies, particularly Huron Consulting Group and rpk GROUP. What’s emerging is a radicalized belief that the public university is a place not to acquire deep knowledge but to learn basic job skills. In their commitment to market logics and the whims of a small sector of the right-wing electorate, an increasing number of university presidents have little time for independent thought or creative intellectual inquiry that might not bear immediately practical applications. In West Virginia, the current legislature has cast young people in the state as unworthy of having career aspirations beyond a handful of localized industries. The transformed university that Gee imagines as his legacy, from this, his last presidential post, is built on market logics that valorize skill acquisition and ignore the value of deep learning.


Publishers and Scholars, Unite!

By Rebecca Colesworthy

In August 2023, when uncertainty over my own employment and academic future was at its highest, and when all of us on campus were worried about our colleagues and students, teaching “The Paper Menagerie” offered a welcome reprieve. Immersed in an exquisitely crafted and conceptually complex story, I could share with my students the value of studying what you love. Unlike WVU’s leadership or the consultancies that it’s used to legitimize its actions, Liu rejects the oppressive dictates and dull uniformity of market logics. His account of the paper menagerie applauds experimentation and idiosyncrasy, curiosity and imagination—qualities that are not only dismissed by neoliberal advocates of market dominance but that cannot thrive under such conditions. Jack and the animals play together for years, sharing adventures that sometimes produce sheer pleasure and at other times lead to casualties: the water buffalo tries to wallow in soy sauce, only to discover that his paper feet soak up the liquid, damaging his capillaries and leaving him with a permanent limp. Laohu chases sparrows in the backyard but stops after “a cornered bird struck back in desperation and tore his ear.” And a shark drowns after Jack places him in water: the shark “became soggy and translucent, … the folds coming undone.” Yet these methods of failed experimentation also lead to discoveries: the buffalo learns to avoid liquids, Laohu learns to avoid sparrows, and Jack learns that paper sharks are not made for water—but that their tinfoil variant can swim. The process of deep learning, Liu suggests, requires imagination and creativity, experimentation and play, whether or not these activities yield profits or strengthen markets.

If the paper menagerie represents the capaciously imaginative and intellectually pleasurable values of the liberal arts—the very ideals that are under threat at WVU and across the country—the world beyond Jack’s home imposes a market-driven model that demands standardization for the benefit of corporate profit. Jack’s creativity and joy are quashed when a new neighbor, a white boy named Mark, derides the menagerie as worthless trash—an extension of how Mark sees Jack and his mom. The menagerie fights back against this verdict on their value; coming to Jack’s defense, Laohu breaks Mark’s plastic Obi-Wan Kenobi toy. “This was very expensive!” Mark wails after punching Jack. “You can’t even find it in the stores now. It probably cost more than what your dad paid for your mom!’” In correlating mass-produced goods and international marriage, Mark at once diminishes Mom through the racist stereotype of a docile, sexually available East Asian woman and reveals the extent to which his own understanding of the world is shaped by market needs. This jingoistic, bullying child appreciates only products that offer conformity and the cache of purchasing power. By contrast, Liu’s protagonist finds aesthetic and affective value in handcrafted toys, their idiosyncratic designs deriving from carefully recycled materials.

Seeking convention, ease, and assimilation, Jack adopts Mark’s market sensibility, growing increasingly resentful of his mom and the values that she represents. He insists that she cook American food, speak only English, and buy him some “real toys”: the commercial variety that meet existing consumer demands and demonstrate his compliance. By the time Jack is in college and Mom is hospitalized for cancer, he has distanced himself so fully that her impending death barely registers; he’s busy “schem[ing] about how to lie to the corporate recruiters most effectively so that they’d offer to buy me.” Jack’s ideological trajectory only takes a turn several years later when, prompted by Dad’s advancing age, Jack and his girlfriend are clearing out the family home and discover the menagerie. “Your mom was an amazing artist,” Susan observes, and her approval enables Jack to again recognize the value of his formerly beloved toys. Eventually, sensing Jack’s renewed receptivity to the magic of art, Laohu “unfolds himself,” revealing a letter from Mom in Chinese. After finding a tourist to translate the document, Jack listens to Mom’s account of her life: her childhood happiness; her forced displacement following the Cultural Revolution; her contentedness with Dad; her joy in sharing her life with Jack; and her devastation when her son pulled away. Carefully delineated by Liu in touching prose, the story ends with Jack taking stock of the magnitude of his loss, his only comfort deriving from Laohu’s purring presence. There’s no restoration at the end of Liu’s tale—but there is solace.

“The Paper Menagerie” offers a fitting metaphor for WVU. The loss and grief that underpin Liu’s story also characterize the experiences of employees who’ve been cut, students who’ve lost majors and advisors, community members whose friends and neighbors will be forced to move away, and young West Virginians whose educational opportunities have diminished. Just like in “The Paper Menagerie,” there’s no restoration available for those whose lives have been upended—and yet, like in Liu’s story, there is still some solace.

Fighting against WVU’s cuts has forged solidarities that before were only nascent, bringing together students, alumni, locals, and employees from all ranks, clarifying our shared interests. Numerous protests have shown the depth and breadth of commitment to this university as it once existed and as it might yet exist again. A newly formed and highly effective union, West Virginia United Students’ Union, organized the biggest campus walkout in at least several decades. Held in the first week of the semester, this walkout drew a crowd including state legislators, community members, faculty, staff, and administrators: at least one dean turned up wearing red in opposition to the cuts. Passing drivers showed their support by honking loudly, their vehicles indicating that they work in university maintenance, catering supplies, local trades, and delivery services. A car full of police officers put their arms out of their window and pumped their fists. This kind of solidarity is at once unusual and telling. It’s indicative of growing worker solidarity across the country that might yet be further mobilized.

The fight to save our university has similarly built faculty networks across disciplines that would not otherwise be in contact. Our wall-to-wall union, West Virginia Campus Workers (WVCW), organized the university-wide vote of No Confidence that saw faculty affirm 797–100 that they had lost faith in President Gee and 747–97 to freeze the cuts. WVCW has also facilitated press interviews, coordinated the legal campaign that assessed the possibility of a class action suit, and liaised with faculty across the country whose institutions are facing similar threats and want to learn from our experiences. Unions remain vital, even in right-to-work states like West Virginia—a state that has made striking illegal.

It’s never been clearer that faculty reject the neoliberal educational model that WVU now exemplifies, its restructuring serving the needs of private equity rather than the underserved students of our state.

From my work as a faculty senator, I now regularly hear from colleagues in departments ranging from math to chemistry, landscape architecture to law, marketing to medicine, soil science to civil engineering. Contrary to administrative chiding, faculty from diverse disciplines share common goals for our university: to provide students with the most robust possible education, one that supports their dreams and opens doors to whatever future they desire. It’s never been clearer that faculty reject the neoliberal educational model that WVU now exemplifies, its restructuring serving the needs of private equity rather than the underserved students of our state.

If solace can be wrought from being an object lesson in the consequences of gutting a university to protect highly paid administrators and corporate profits, WVU’s depreciation of the liberal arts offers an urgent warning that other public universities cannot afford to ignore. Like Mark and his plastic Obi-Wan Kenobi toy, WVU leadership and administrators across the country are selling a vision of the university that submits to immediate market demands at the expense of imaginative expansion and intellectual curiosity. Ultimately, this vision has space only for majors that provide immediate job readiness; it fails to see either the immediate or long-term value of deep learning in subjects like math, world languages, and jazz. But if Jack’s paper menagerie reveals art’s imaginative power and its capacity to shape our lives in deeply meaningful ways, so too does it register the lively animacy of disciplines that fall outside the vocational demands of the neoliberal university. As Jack discovers, and as all of us should remember, models of learning that involve curiosity, experimentation, and cultural sensitivity bear value that lasts far beyond their application to one particular profession. This value, Jack learns, cannot easily be replicated; nor can it easily be replaced. icon

This article was commissioned by Ben Platt.

Featured image: Postcard that reads Greetings from West Virginia, c. 1930–1945. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library.