When asked, in non-academic settings, to defend what we do for a living—whether in terms of practicality or in terms of political efficacy—those of us working in the humanities tend to fall back, as our last line of defense, on a version of the statement: “We teach our students to think critically.” Indeed, “Critical Thinking,” writ large, is the explicit or implicit public rationale for virtually all the activity performed by humanities departments in the United States today (I suspect that a similar argument might be made for the social sciences as well). The problem is that the theoretical framework of institutionalized Critical Thinking, as it currently exists, is one of opening up everything to the potential for critical inquiry—except the very framework of Critical Thinking itself. Indeed, today’s institutional version of Critical Thinking is quite different from—indeed, I would argue, is the diametrical opposite of—the tradition that Edward Said described as “democratic criticism.” So my goal in this presentation is to begin to set out a different agenda for cultural criticism today--which also means a different agenda for scholars and teachers working in the humanities. More than ever, in the age of Trumpism, critics need to engage in conscious, dramatic efforts to make ourselves seen and heard more effectively, and to bring our work into the public sphere—not simply in order to join the ongoing “national conversation,” but to radically change it. I propose to ground this set of propositions in a discussion of criticism and community more generally, but also to speak from the specific context of the community college—a site that I and my students inhabit, but also a site of contestation for a variety of policy proposals, public demands, and political desires of many sorts. The productive unease created by working from and within a community college is what makes it the ideal site for both struggling against “critical thinking” and struggling towards a new public criticism—and, furthermore, for doing this work in a way that might reach different and discrepant audiences.
Anthony Alessandrini is Professor of English at Kingsborough Community College-CUNY and of Middle Eastern Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center, where he is also a member of the Committee on Globalization and Social Change. He is the author of Frantz Fanon and the Future of Cultural Politics: Finding Something Different; the editor of Frantz Fanon: Critical Perspectives; and the co-editor of “Resistance Everywhere”: The Gezi Protests and Dissident Visions of Turkey, and recently published Children Imitating Cormorants, a poetry collection. He is a Co-Editor of Jadaliyya E-Zine and is on the faculty of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.