Image credit: moj0j0 / Shutterstock

In his essay on how democracies die, the political theorist John Keane asks us to consider democracy “as a whole way of life” and “a special form of social interaction and self-realization.” 

If how humans commodify environments should be, as Keane suggests, “most worrying for democrats of all persuasions everywhere,” then one democratic task is transforming the institutions that train people to see the world in terms of commodities. 

Business schools obviously train students to see the world in terms of commodities. But what about the rest of the university? 

In a polemical recent essay, Yale law professor and intellectual historian Samuel Moyn observed how many of his students end up working at firms that defend the interests of corporations rather than ordinary people. Moyn also noted that these students ask themselves a series of questions along the way: “Can I reconcile my politics with my self-interest? Am I really devoting myself to a career that will lead to systemic change, or to one that will reproduce hierarchy instead?” 

If the social justice work of his elite law school students harmonizes so easily with “credentialing for power and wealth,” Moyn continued, “is it good for society? Or even for you?” 

While the university where I teach has a business school and a law school, I have been thinking about Moyn’s questions in light of my role teaching philosophy and African American Studies to undergraduate students. 

My Catholic institution declares its mission to be “the pursuit of truth for the greater glory of God and for the service of humanity.” 

What would it look like if I were to encourage my students to carry out that mission “as a whole way of life”?

We charge students about $50,000 per year to join us in our pursuit of truth, even though most of them pay closer to $25,000 on average. 

My students who come from modest backgrounds face a challenge. If they go into nonprofit work or the arts, paying back a debt of $100,000 will be difficult and take many years. If they take a more lucrative job in consulting or tech, paying back their loans will be much easier. 

What would it look like for my university to consider its implications not just for a generation of students, but for humanity as a whole? In addition to introducing our students to “critical thinking,” what kinds of questions would we then be asking of our students and ourselves?

In recent years, some concerned professors have asked our universities to account for their situation on Indigenous land and construction through Black labor. My university is no exception, sitting as it does on Osage land, and having been built by enslaved people with whose descendants we have yet to repair our relations.

In the process of writing this essay, I asked my students whether they knew on whose treaty land we sat or who built our university. They did not. These are things my university simply doesn’t teach. 

By not discussing this context, we as professors perpetuate various assumptions: that knowledge can be separated from land and history; that reason is abstract and without place; and that academic or career success need not have any local or communal accountability. 

To fail to train our students how to situate themselves within the land we are on, the community we are a part of, and the history we reflect and create each day is, in effect, to fail to teach them how to be careful citizens in a democracy. 

Placing in the foreground how universities prevent students from realizing robust ethical versions of themselves, the philosopher Wael Hallaq has recently argued that we are equipping our students with a thin morality—that the indignation a student feels about colonialism and capitalism “lasts no longer than the moment when she has been made a generous offer by a corporation.” 

Beyond several such humorous jabs, what is perhaps most instructive about Hallaq’s argument in Restating Orientalism: A Critique of Modern Knowledge is his demonstration that no student, professor, or person can fully escape some common modern presuppositions that shape how we value our world today. 

Hallaq understands modernity first as a relationship to the environment, exemplified perhaps most clearly in the modern philosopher Rene Descartes’s line, in Discourse on Method, that through knowledge we render ourselves “masters and possessors of nature.” 

To vocally state our position against modernity—or capitalism, racism, sexism, colonialism, et cetera—does not necessarily help us to shed the illusion that we are masters and possessors of nature.

If Hallaq is right, then some of the ways justice-oriented programs and departments at universities go about advertising, recruitment, and framing what we do are misguided. To claim on our brochures, posters, and web pages that we are against gender, or in opposition to racism, or welcoming to all might make us feel good about what we do, but they do little to transform the structures on which our universities sit or to change our presuppositions about our position as humans with respect to nature. 

Worse yet, while self-promotion of the justice-oriented work we do in our classes and departments might be tactics that win majors, if we are already thinking in terms of enrollments and majors, then we are already operating on the neoliberal model of scarcity and competition. This is what it means to presuppose a paradigm we think we are resisting. 

In his response to Keane’s essay, the political theorist James Miller notes that placing political power within ordinary people is “an extraordinary wager on the good will and magnanimity of the human species.” It is a wager because the results are unknown, depending upon the collective action of the masses. 

What if wagering on a democratic university looks less like succeeding on the university’s terms and more like shifting the institution’s sense of accountability? This would be a wager, as the political theorist Sandy Grande puts it, that steps back from understanding justice as recognition (from the dean, provost, president, and board) and instead understands justice as refusal (of the very moral criteria most university administrators take for granted). 

To realize such a refusal, the usual calls apply: we might publish less in prestigious journals and more in places where we can reach wider audiences. We might avoid jargon and instead teach and write in clearer terms. On our department’s web pages, we might highlight not how much our graduates have earned, but rather the ways in which they have served others. 

But more is required if universities are to live up to Keane’s call to understand democracy as a way of life. Our institutions of higher education not only need to acknowledge the land on which they sit, but also to repair relationships with the communities our institutions have dispossessed

In this way, we would model for our students a sense of restorative and communal democracy as a way of life. We would practice a mode of social interaction and self-realization that lives up to a bold and expansive understanding of the demos.

This amounts “to a revolution,” Hallaq writes, “not only against how we think but, more importantly, against who we, as humans, ultimately are.” 

And what we are, I am trying to suggest, is beings who are able to respond to one another as well as to the non-human environments in which we live. 

Perhaps, then—and this is my suggestion to Keane—the question of democracy and the environment is above all a question of responsibility. 

If it is, then creating an environmentally responsive democracy is not just a legal and political challenge. It is also, fundamentally, an ethical one.

Benjamin P. Davis is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the African American Studies Department at Saint Louis University and author of Choose Your Bearing: Édouard Glissant, Human Rights, and Decolonial Ethics, forthcoming with Edinburgh University Press. With Jon Catlin, he wrote “Theses for Theory in a Time of Crisis” and co-curated the subsequent series “Sentencing the Present” at Public Seminar.