Beyond Guilt: Working in “The System” With Intellectual Responsibility

Apple with books(Image: Apple, books via Shutterstock)The author argues that as long as some academic freedom exists, public intellectuals – students and teachers – have a responsibility to the public to challenge knowledge production and the system within which it is embedded.

Reading Susan Searls Giroux’s marvelous, and urgent book, “Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility, and the University to Come,” [1] I was particularly struck by her attention to the idea of responsibility, on the part of both teachers and students. She begins the first chapter of her book by evoking Delmore Schwartz’s 1937 short story, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities”:

“The young Schwartz, heralded as an up-and-coming voice of his generation, penned a narrative describing an epiphanic moment in a young man’s life. The protagonist, upon waking from a dream about his parents’ disastrous courtship and marriage, recognizes the necessity to assume responsibility for his own actions in the world…. He mapped a normative context that pre-dated him and in the production of which he had no role, yet through and against which his own choices could be made intelligible to himself.” [2]

I had heard of Schwartz, but never read him, so spurred on by this reference, I bought his collection of short stories. [3] What immediately caught my eye upon opening the book is that it is graced by a preface by Lou Reed (who was one of Schwartz’s students, and who called the story “the greatest story ever written”) and an afterword by the critic and Democratic Socialist leader Irving Howe.

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Clearly, there is something in Schwartz’s writing that spans generations, and in particular, generations in the midst of great historical crisis. Howe’s remarks on the short story in question echoed my own sense of how and where the author articulates the ideas of history, responsibility and youth:

When I first read the story, at the age of seventeen or eighteen, I felt my blood rise at the point where the narrator cries out to his parents on the screen: “Don’t do it. It’s not too late to change your minds, both of you. Nothing good will come of it, only remorse, hatred, scandal, and two children whose characters are monstrous.” The helplessness, and as it seemed then, the rightness of the son’s lament appealed to my deepest feelings as another son slipping into estrangement. Naturally, this struck me as the high point of the story, the cry against the mistakes of the past.

Only later, when I would now and again reread the story, did I come to see what I could not yet see in 1937: that its tragic force depends not so much on the impassioned protest of the young narrator as on the moment in the last paragraph when an usher hurries down the aisle of the theatre and says to him: “What are you doing? Don’t you know that you can’t do whatever you want to do?”

At that powerful moment, the focus shifts from the young man’s plea to his parents to stop the narrative that will inevitably lead to his own birth, to his own responsibility to deal with that established and irrevocable fact.

The context of the story – the early part of the 20th century in the United States – locates the personal crisis with a collective one. The parents represent one of the first waves of Jewish immigrants, fleeing the pogroms in Europe, into the newly modern America. Their struggles alone are remarkable as they try to locate themselves in this foreign and disjunctive cultural, social, economic world. Yet their children face what is perhaps an even more daunting task – being born “American” while living in the ethnic enclaves of the United States.

Today, we of course face other challenges, presented by the global financial meltdown, the massive power of the 1 % to pervert the democratic process and steer it toward their further enrichment. On the one hand, students are rightfully anxious to secure means of living in this world, and on the other hand, many are wondering what they can do to change the terms of engagement. One offshoot of this issue is the fact that many feel that taking on responsibility for the latter is compromised by their presence in the university itself. How can they take on, in Giroux’s phrasing, “intellectual responsibility,” as well as personal responsibility? How can they help fashion not only the “university to come” but also a better world for all?

Read more articles by David Palumbo-Liu and other socially engaged academics at The Public Intellectual Project on Truthout.

This question always seems to come out at gatherings of activist-scholar-students. For example, last spring, during the question and answer sessions at an Occupy Art event here at Stanford, a graduate student asked a panel consisting of actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, writer filmmaker Elaine Kim, writer and musician Rubén Martínez and writer Adam Mansbach about how she could imagine herself a progressive activist while pursuing her PhD at an elite, privileged, private university. Mansbach put it best, saying that she should realize that we are all in “the system” and the idea was to learn and take those tools into the world.

And then just a few weeks later, at his lecture here, writer Junot Díaz was faced with pretty much the same question, posed by a very earnest young undergraduate. She wondered how she could act politically without feeling guilty about her privileged position inside the academy. Díaz (who, after all, teaches at MIT) was more blunt: “It’s too fucking late, just too fucking late.” He went on to say that everyone, everyone is already embedded in “the system,” but the idea was to act, rather than try to achieve some pure uncontaminated political position. This response connected up with other remarks he made on other subjects – that white supremacy was something that inheres in all of us, that ours is certainly not a “post-racial” age, and that the supposed divide between intellectual work and artistic creativity is a false one. At one point, he said that there was nothing more intellectual than writing a poem. In each case, he was trying to clear away obfuscation and open the way to see how we all carry within ourselves the ideologies of racism, misogyny, homophobia, classism and ageism, but that the moral choice is ours as to how much we allow ourselves to face away from that fact and how much we glide along with the current, how much we relish the silence bought at a price of conscience, and how much noise we want to make, as painful as that might be.

And that is pretty much the same message I deliver to my students. To dwell too long on whether or not simply by being here at (fill in the blank) University or College has separated you from “real” political work, or compromised you irredeemably, is the worst thing you could do (other than sell out to the other side). You may think yourself privileged, but presumably you have earned your place in college through a lot of hard work and brainpower. It is your right to be here, and with that comes a certain responsibility. Don’t let your amazing intellectual, creative resources be siphoned into too much self-reflection. It can bleed into self-indulgence. We need you too much for that.

Furthermore, and essentially, remember that you are not here to simply soak up knowledge passively. You are also here to challenge knowledge production. When a professor asks you if you have any questions, you should have a handful. Not the ones you think he or she wants to hear, but questions that nag and bother and irritate and provoke the professor to push back. Or venture your answers or propositions. Go out on a limb and expect to be challenged by everyone in that classroom. That is political work, because in the most basic form, you are not accepting the world, the depiction or explanation of it, as a given. As the existentialists would say, you are transcending through collaborative action the mere “fact-icity” of the world. And do not think one has to only tackle huge problems. Aim to the scale of your capacities and possibilities. Large-scale action is critical, but there are many arenas to press change. Remember that nothing important ever starts big, fully formed.

Another topic that often comes up in community-based learning courses: what, exactly, is meaningful “service”? Many of my students are incredibly committed to social change and eager to use a service-learning course to do so in the midst of their other academic coursework. Yet a number of them are disappointed when what they do seems not to yield any dramatic, large-scale results. To them, I tell this anecdote: I teach a course called Asian American Communities and Cultures. The first few years, we worked at the Manilatown Heritage Foundation (MHF) in San Francisco. One day early in the term, we got there and the staff said there wasn’t much to do, but could we flier the neighborhood? The students looked disappointed, but they headed out. When we met up afterwards, I asked how it went. They were charged up – they said it was amazing meeting the people in the shops, talking not only about the events at MHF, but also the daily lives of the shopkeepers. They learned more about how the foundation fits into the lifeblood of the city – the particular “ecology” of the neighborhood – and that knowledge and understanding came at the ground-level. They also saw their work through somebody else’s eyes and life experience. What we all came to appreciate was that that afternoon of walking about Stockton Street and the environs will also deeply influence all future work we were to do, and it strengthened our commitment. “Service” in this sense was both immediate and long-term.

As my title says, by all means, listen to your conscience, but widen your consciousness too. The fundamental problem that has haunted so many of our greatest thinkers – Lukacs, Gramsci, Bourdieu, Ranciere, many many others – has precisely been the relation between intellectuals and publics.

Let me return quickly to the first person who asked that question at Occupy Art, because there is something to be said that she is, of course, a future professor, and so her question has everything to do with the particular way this issue presses upon university faculty. Are we, simply by virtue of working and earning our living in powerful institutions that promote all sorts of power, condemned to reproduce inevitably the structures of power that be, in obvious and less than obvious ways? In getting her PhD, did this questioner automatically cut herself off from the ability and chance to act politically? My answer is a clear “no.” In fact, so long as the idea of academic freedom still exists (as admittedly tattered and besieged as it is), we have an invaluable opportunity. It is not the right to spew dogma or the party line (as those on the right accuse us of doing). It is, rather, to ask that not only our students, but we ourselves think critically about the assumptions we have about the world and the ways those assumptions are engrained in us. In that respect, students have a great opportunity to act politically in the classroom and professors have the obligation to engage in serious dialogue.


Stanford University Press, 2010.

Giroux, 33, 42.

Delmore Schwartz, “In Dreams Begin Responsibilities and Other Stories.” Preface by Lou Reed, Introduction by James Atlas, Afterword by Irving Howe (New York: New Directions, 2012).