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Lawrence S. Wittner’s What’s Going on at UAardvark?

Lauren Coodley: By extrapolating the trends that are already happening, by daring to exaggerate and caricature in order to dramatically catch our attention, Lawrence Wittner has succeeded in writing a futuristic saga of academe that is reminiscent of Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, and the best of graphic novels.

There have been tremendous satires written about academia. Goodness knows there is no lack of material. Every college and university teems with scandal, corruption, and stories that would raise the dead if only they could be printed. I have read many of these novels by Richard Russo, Jane Smiley, Lev Raphael, and Amanda Cross.

UAardvark

I have not, however, read a satire about academia that is also a dystopian novel of the future. By extrapolating the trends that are already happening, by daring to exaggerate and caricature in order to dramatically catch our attention, Lawrence Wittner has succeeded in writing a futuristic saga of academe that is reminiscent of Rabelais, Jonathan Swift, and the best of graphic novels. What’s Going on at UAardvark? is a rollicking narrative that is brisk, entirely outrageous and yet scarily possible. Here is an example of Wittner’s satirical prediction, from a meeting between the college President and a member of the Board of Trustees at a retreat of the Club for Greed:

The Club for Greed was launching the Free All Tax Payers At Last (FATAL) legislation, which would end state taxes on anyone whose income surpassed $100,000,000 a year…FATAL had become law in thirteen states. Although these states now had the highest unemployment rates in the nation, the club had prepared new legislation to repair this embarrassing glitch. Dubbed Protect Liberty and Guarantee Universal Employment (PLAGUE), the new legislation purportedly would foster increases in US labor productivity and jobs by establishing public flogging of American workers in the nation’s factories-at least those factories that still existed in the United States.

As a teacher at a public college, I watched the evolution of many of the horrors to which Wittner testifies: the disappearance of tenured full-time jobs; the glorification of customer service through a marketing approach which privileges student evaluations over teacher experience; the elevation of inexperienced yes-men and women to positions of authority; the use of power by unscrupulous individuals to promote protégés; the elevation of technology uber alles in an effort to denigrate Liberal Arts.

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Wittner’s description of a department meeting is typical of those I’ve both read and experienced. As his hero waits for the department meeting to begin:

He thought of the many things his colleagues could—and probably should—be discussing. These included the terrible cutbacks in public funding for the university, the rapidly rising tuition that was effectively ending educational opportunity for many students, the corporatization of UAardvark, the mysterious mission of the new technology center, the declining caliber of the student body, and the growing disinterest in the faculty in teaching and among students in learning. The administration not only undermined the credibility of the grading system by promoting student evaluations of faculty, but also didn’t hesitate to alter grades when students or parents complained about them. These things, however, were all considered givens-located beyond political walls that could not be breached. Discussion would be confined within their narrow parameters, which meant that trivia would prevail

Of course, the corporatization of public education is not new. The first book to critique it was written by Upton Sinclair in 1922, called The Goose-Step. Sinclair crisscrossed the country and documented the way that administrators, like those he had observed at Columbia, were subservient to conservative boards and often fired professors for espousing their beliefs in the classroom. Novelist Irving Stone remembers walking through Sather Gate at the University of California, Berkeley: “right across the narrow street, was Upton Sinclair with a box and on top of it about a dozen copies of TheBrass Check.” Stone asked him why he was selling the book on the street corner “instead of where he belonged, on campus, with a dignified table loaned to him by the university.” Sinclair replied that he had applied and been refused permission.

What Wittner is doing is thoroughly in the Sinclair tradition: he has welded Sinclair’s critique to a Philip Dickian sensibility. What’s Going on at UAardvark at is a roaring tirade, a Mad Magazine of horror and laughter, a healthy tonic for what ails us in higher education.

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 Lauren Coodley