“Rubbing his head against the college wall”

harvard ivy league gate

The title quote is from a passage I love in Ellison’s Invisible Man, where the blind Reverend Barbee spellbinds chapelgoers in a Southern state Negro college by recounting the mythic, bootstrappy ascent of the Founder, the man who risked death to get an education, and to whom the campus owes its existence. It seems a fitting introduction to this exciting news: on Tuesday, FAS voted unanimously to adopt an open access policy for faculty research.

Open Access is terrific for a lot of reasons, most of which I’m not qualified to explain well. Check out the blog by Peter Suber, a major advocate on the issue, for the ins and outs of this particular policy text and its implications. What’s clear to me, though, is that (a) Harvard is the first university to require its faculty to make their research available for free online; and (b) other institutions are sure to follow suit. Sounds like a reason to celebrate, which is certainly welcome. Lately I’ve been feeling anxious about my school and its many walls.

As we plunge ever deeper into the depths of senior thesis writing, a frequent topic of conversation among my friends is the seemingly inescapable elitism of our academic pursuits. We study, train, write, and learn, according to the college, in order to become “leaders.” (That’s the latest liberal ed mission; as a professor told me wryly the other day, the buzzword used to be “excellence,” followed by a brief hailing of “more excellence.”) Aside from conjuring some hilarious Brownian-motion imagery of a school brimming with leaders but no followers, the ubiquitous Enter-Learn-Lead narrative obviously suffers from some serious ideological problems. Those of us who don’t buy into a top-down model of social change — the enlightened experts leading the passionate masses — try to stick our fingers in our ears. It’s not easy. I’ve probably spent hours of my life deleting TFA recruitment emails alone. (“Dear ______, Congratulations! You’ve been identified as a Student Leader on campus. Please defer your pending acceptance to Goldman-Sachs/Morgan Stanley/random i-banking firm and come teach some needy kids with us for two years. We know you can do it — you’re a Leader!”)

Where it’s not so easy to avoid this lunacy, however, is in the content of our scholarship itself. In my case, I’m torn between writing my thesis with my evaluators in mind, and writing it in a way that might be more useful to people outside of school. bell hooks faced similar dilemmas in her bouts with the ivory tower, which is why her books don’t have footnotes. (What regular person reads texts crawling with academic conventions?)

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not waxing anti-intellectual here. There is a difference between intellectualism and elitism, though too often they go hand in hand. Many of Harvard’s characteristics — the way it conceives of a scarcity of education; the physical self-containment and border policing of its college campus; its lack of respectful integration into surrounding communities; its pedagogical impoverishment (in the social sciences, at least), not to mention its allocation of resources — shape it as an elitist and conservative institution. Want to make your scholarship accountable to extra-academic communities? Finding mentors here will be a struggle. Academic superstars get priority over public intellectuals and scholar-activists.

I’d like to think that the Open Access mandate will chip away at Harvard’s elitism. If the idea that capital-k Knowledge (in the form of research) should be hoarded within a single community didn’t seem utterly backward before, maybe this shift will reveal its absurdity. On the other hand, I’m not exactly swooning from optimism. Rubbing your head against the college wall may win you some education and cultural capital, but as Ellison’s tragic main character discovers, it will not erode the wall itself. Or gate, as the case may be.

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