The University of Resentment: Alan Kaufman’s Wild Idea
By Kwame Opoku-Duku
Forum General Editor
I am very unhappy with current attempts throughout the universities of the Western world by a group I have called ‘the school of resentment’ to put the arts, and literature in particular, in the service of social change…pseudo-Marxists, pseudo-feminists, watery disciples of Foucault and other French theorists…are transparently at work propagating themselves in our universities…I would say that there is no future for literary studies as such in the United States. Increasingly, those studies are being taken over by the astonishing garbage called “cultural criticism.” At NYU I am surrounded by professors of hip-hop. At Yale, I am surrounded by professors far more interested in various articles on the compost heap of so-called popular culture than in Proust or Shakespeare or Tolstoy.
—Excerpted from “Bloom and doom.” Harold Bloom interviewed by Ken Shulman.
Newsweek v124, #15 (Oct 10, 1994) PAGE 75.
Harold Bloom’s interviews in which he speaks of his disdain for the school of thought he refers to as the “school of resentment” have always weighed heavily on my mind. Bloom has always served as a beacon of sorts in my literary journey. I’ve been taught to use him as the primary source for literary criticism since I was 14. As far as I knew, his word was the law.
The “school of resentment” was first mentioned by Bloom in the introduction to his 1994 work, The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages. He claimed he sought to protect the Western canon from the leftist vigilantes who wanted to infuse the canon with minorities and women, regardless of their aesthetic merit. Of course, this was nearly 20 years ago. But living in San Francisco in 2011, it’s impossible not to question how much water this “school of resentment” holds.
One of the biggest sources of pride here at City College is that the school created the first Gay and Lesbian Studies department in the United States back in 1989 — not to mention the school’s longtime, tireless work to promote equity and inclusion among all students. And the reason we’re so proud of it is that if we didn’t do it, no one might have.
It seems to me that the fear of minorities, women and the LGBT community being read by children is the precise reason why it needs to be done more. I know that reading Go Tell It on the Mountain literally changed my life upon first reading it at the age of 14, and I know it’s something Bloom could probably never understand. Let’s face it; he’s set in his ways.
And then, there are the Alan Kaufmans of the world. Kaufman has made a career (The American Outlaw Bible of Poetry, The American Outlaw Bible of Fiction) out of exalting the work of underground legends. He is the champion of the outsider. And this February, Kaufman – along with a group including San Francisco Poet Laureate Diane Di Prima and former Green Party vice-presidential candidate Matt Gonzalez – created the Free University of San Francisco. According to FUSF’s mission statement, they seek “to create a brand new kind of institution, one whose existence makes no sense in the current social order, one that stands in direct defiance of the privatized profit-oriented social engineering centers that pass for universities today.”
The school, which plans to offer free teach-ins until they settle on a full course schedule, was created in the spirit of resentment. Resentment for what Kaufman calls the indebtedness of students, for the decimation of liberal arts and for the current academic establishment, in general. I interviewed Kaufman for the upcoming Spring 2011 edition of Forum. Among other things he described FUSF’s origins, what attracts him to outsider artists and offered an analysis of one contemporary writer he described as the “spokesperson for the establishment.”
Keep posted for an official release date for the Spring 2011 Forum. Until then, here one of Kaufman’s addresses to FUSF:
By Alan Kaufman, Dean of the Free University of San Francisco
If an opportunity arises, we must seize it. If we are possessed by fear, we will achieve nothing.
We have already made history as a kind of protest. But now the opportunity to be taken seriously as an actual university has appeared. The world looks to us to see how we respond to the chance to take a leadership role on the world stage, not only in the field of education but in the very way that society itself is structured, for if we assemble today into an actual university created not by money or political power but by the will of the People alone, then we engender a game-changing cultural, political and economic advance that will, I believe, topple the system as is—by which I do not mean Democracy, by which I do not mean America.
By which I mean a government, an economic system, a health care system, a housing system that have become subdivisions, lower departments, of a vast Pharaohnic dynasty of corporate oligarchical economic plunder and social oppression; by which I mean the conversion of our social order into half-finished pyramids in whose mud pits and stone quarries we slave; in which our Fathers and Mothers, Sisters and Brothers and Children and Lovers and Friends toil at an ever-accelerating pace in order to maximize output and profit for the global elite.
Permit me to repeat that. In which our loved ones and friends toil away their lives in pursuit of a roof, food, health care, education as we bear helpless witness to the snuffing out of their inner lights.
I call upon us to launch our revolution of Higher Ed on this day, February 20, 2011, to form such a university as has never before existed—not only in the spirit of altruism and care for all Mankind but in angry, outraged defiant refusal to allow our children and our seniors and very own families and dearest friends to exist one single day more in this heart-hardening, soul-crushing economic and political slaughter of the human spirit. I call upon each of us to throw down the spades by which we make bricks for the Pharaohs and rise against the overseer who delivers the pink slips to our Mothers and Sons, our Fathers and Daughters.
I call upon each of us to tear these pyramids down, to quit the system that holds us captive and to restore our nation to its highest purposes and to restore education to its noblest goals and not to stop there–though education is where we must begin, since knowledge is the first battleground in any struggle—not to stop but to look at our homes and hospitals and schools and to say: “These belong to us. These belong to the People. I have a right to a roof over my head. I have a right not to sleep in the gutter. I have a right to medical care if I’m sick. I have a right to learn. And if I am Gay, I have a right to wed. And if I am Black, I have a right not to be stopped by the police and shot. And if I am a woman I have a right to be seen as a human being without taint of sexual prejudice, and if I am an Asian or Arab or Latino or a Jew I have as much right to be an American as George Washington did and if I have the right to dream in America then I have the right to make America as I think it should be.
I have a right to walk out into the sun each day without dread of toxins blotting out the light. I have a right to live without fear of surveillance and intimidation and the perpetual bombardment of consciousness-commodifying advertisements that gives me to feel that I am detained in the brainwashing chamber of a corporate reeducation camp. I have a right to live in a society that presumes my dignity and beauty. I have a right to be as human as I am intended by this Universe to be and I will not let you people, whomever you are, who sit around the boardrooms moving us about like chess pieces, I will not build your pyramids anymore. I will not allow you to frighten me with lies and nightsticks. I will not let you bully me out of my house or crush my child with debt or force me or anyone I love to work on your pyramids a single hour more!
I will not allow you to have my house, my country or my world. I am not asking you to let my People go. I am telling YOU to go!
And if you want back into my human house, this human country, our human world, you may return but only as human, stripped of your wealth and entitlement and no more then and no less than my full equal in citizenry and dignity.
Today can be two kinds of day. It can be Sunday, an officially declared Christian Sabbath in a nation in which the Sabbaths of Jew and Muslim go unacknowledged. In which other faiths live dishonored, distrusted, ignored, even mocked. A Sunday of the usual pleasant promenade of the wealthy shopping downtown and of the gentry browsing in the little boutiques of the re-gentrified neighborhoods. A Sunday away from the office, the hard work of making millions on the backs of the lower and middle classes. Just another Sunday.
Or, this can be February 20, 2011, the day when an improbable, even impossible new kind of human endeavor came to be: a Free University with a new kind of collectivist identity, with the largest number of women deans in the entire world, with unpaid volunteer faculty and administrators, with a new kind of social structure in which, for instance, the Deans have no more power within the Collective than any other member of the University. In which the only power of overall decision is in the hands of the Collective. In which the title “Dean” is conferred not to grant leverage within or over the Collective but in the world, where our Deans will serve as a living reproach to those who corrupt the title of “Dean” in today’s universities.
Our title of Dean is conferred not in order to enable one to strut about on campus—our campus is our hearts—but rather to exemplify the highest possible spirit of service to the Collective, which is the Community and the World.
Today can be just any Sunday, just one more bleak wait for dreaded Monday, or today, February 20, 2011, can be the birthday of the Free University of San Francisco as not merely an idea but an actual university. That day when we embraced agency, responsibility and opportunity, a revolutionary birthday for education; a day when we not only established ourselves but laid the first foundation stone of a new nation, a renewed America; one elevated to a new level of dignity and democracy.
Let us make this day a day that will be remembered as that day when we became America again and when men and women of extraordinary intelligence and valor were empowered in a world shrouded by darkness to hold torches over humanity as we made our way to Freedom.