Occupying Academe

| November 3, 2011

The Grove of Academus, Site of Plato's Academy

Sitting here, late at night, in a tower of Academe, I am writing about the occupation of Wall Street, thinking about how the trope of “occupation” has found such a strong resonance. I imagine it is in no small part because we have been raised on the images of education. Not the images within education, but the images of some hypothetical education, images that allow us to know where we fit and how we are to navigate the “real world.” Among other things, we Race to the Top, Leaving No Child Left Behind, and so it should be no surprise that when these tropes fall flat, we are left to wonder what it means to occupy something that doesn’t exist, or to occupy the pathways themselves. Enacting stories of being on the move, we find ourselves in the midst of things.

What is it that we are occupying ourselves with while we are there? And if this is bound up with the story of education, what is it that we are learning?

Interestingly enough, the story of Academus is a story of a person inextricably in relationship to a place. And this connection, over time, comes to stand for an odd bargain sparing things from occupation. As Plutarch would have it, Helen of Troy has been abducted, and her brothers are on the move, looking for where she might be concealed:

At first, then, they did no harm, but simply demanded back their sister. When, however, the people of the city replied that they neither had the girl nor knew where she had been left, they resorted to war. But Academus, who had learned in some way or other of her concealment at Aphidnae, told them where she was hidden. For this reason he was honored during his life by the Tyndaridae, and often afterwards when the Lacedaemonians invaded Attica and laid waste all the country round about, they spared the Academy, for the sake of Academus. —Plutarch, Theseus, 32.

What is the pact that the Academy must make to have it’s space spared, what secrets must it reveal of another place? And since we find ourselves there, what does it mean to occupy a space that is protected from occupation?

As the imagery of occupation shows its wild unwillingness to stay still, searching perhaps as it is for Helen, it finds itself everywhere or anywhere. But before we too quickly set out to Occupy Education, we should be careful to reflect on it as a question. What are we doing when we occupy the groves of the Academy? We should also be careful, however, to not treat it as a question for mere reflection, as only academics can do. A subject for suitable inquiry. Instead we have to realize the place that is this question is busy being occupied. We have been busy occupying ourselves in it. We are Lacedaemonians and Greeks alike. And the challenge we face is to see whether we can not just inhabit the difficult place we are in, but to do so as an active question, a question of activity.