November 28, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Cornell’s Hypocritical Academia

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Does anyone else find this university absurd in its constant juxtaposition of social education and capital endeavor?  That is to say that I have learned so much from my courses about critically analyzing social structures and their impact from a  psychological to sociological level.

Yet at the same time, I see my university constantly, actively working to reproduce the very structures it has taught me to resent. Initially, I found this inimical relationship too much to hold in my own head, and instead I attempted to compartmentalize these knowledges so that my understanding of social phenomena would be irrelevant when I learned about socially oppressive systems or else to disconnect my own professional development from conversations about race, class gender or sexuality. Problem solved, no more dissonance. . . for a time. But the deeper I traveled into academia the more I began to realize its own complacency. The ivory tower is willfully, sublimely disconnected from its surrounding environment, the sociopolitical context. At least, it often deludes itself into believing it is.

This is how I failed to acknowledge the inherent whiteness of academia until the age of 20 (a short period by some metrics, but nevertheless a substantial amount of time). I came to this university as a classics major, convinced that I could get along by studying Latin, mother of all languages, and Greek, its titanic ancestor. How had it never occurred to me that Latin was relevant solely to Western European languages? How had I failed to acknowledge its value to only half of my heritage? I might argue for its importance to the other half; where would we be without the holy prayers for safe passage issued by the white men on the voyage from the Congo to the dealers in the Carribbean. But I also might acknowledge that this connection becomes relevant in an imperialist, slave trading tradition because which of the European empires did not take inspiration from the glories of Rome’s classical age?

Honestly, I’ve got a terrible habit of asking too many questions, it does not write an essay well. However, do you see what I am saying? Classics is a poor example. Recently though, I’ve heard from another student, a year ahead of me, who studies computer science. They told me about the wonderful applications of facial recognition software to medical diagnoses — how very exciting! He then proceeded to mention that this very software is also used for military drone technology. In fact, much of the funding that supported Cornell’s research into the medical software was funded by the US Department of Defense. I just find that so curious, although I shouldn’t be surprised because the DoD is historically known for its humanitarian values and belief in the common good. It should be obvious here that good-willed people can be involved in nefarious outcomes. The humanitarian scientist is then also responsible for the inhumane treatment on an international stage.

Yet another example comes from my friend, an economics major, while discussing commodities trading and analyzing a particular trade relation. The discussion entirely omitted any notion of a supply chain. Or when discussing a supply chain, failed to consider the socioecomic differences between each link in the chain, distinctions between the welfare of the producer and the wealth of the distributor. Any economics major could rightly accuse me of being unspecific and I would be apologetic if it made a difference. But frankly, what I’m saying is not difficult to validate and identify on Cornell’s campus.

Lastly, I will consider my friends in the humanities. It might be obvious now that I gravitate towards the humanities, and as a result, many people I know study literature: English, Russian, comparative etc. How many times I have heard a complaint that a class only reviews the works of white authors might possibly astound you. Except it isn’t all too surprising, I would be challenged to name an author outside the European American library. By all means, that library filled my middle school and high school and a popular imagination of prose and poetry. Summarily, studying literature most often means studying the experiences, wills and emotions of white heterosexual cisgender men and the occasional woke white woman. When will my university move past this state of assuming whiteness as the basis of consciousness? When will my university acknowledge its own whiteness? When will students of color, domestic or international, be able to study the world from a lens apart from the European American bourgeoisie?

The divorce between academia and society is under negotiation and hopefully my generation will witness their unification. But for the time being, all I can do is watch the frightened beast, unaware of its impending doom stumble into painful awareness of its own unobjective white fantasy. Perhaps when the economists learn to acknowledge the impact of development sociology, the colored bodies of the working class will become human once again.

Carlton Riley is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments may be sent to