Philosophy journal covers border politics

Pictured above, this year’s edition of the Vassar College Journal of Philosophy, which focuses on borders. It features essays and book reviews on the topic, and an interview with President Bradley./ Courtesy of Clark Xu

While a common conception of a scholarly publication is of a journal that highlights only specialized knowledge, the Vassar College Journal of Philosophy ruptures that assumption. The Journal brings in its fifth annual publication a wide-ranging critical discourse about controversies on campus and in society. This year’s edition, which has a theme of borders, features essays and book reviews that engage with issues such as the ethics of U.S. border restrictions for migrants, as well as an in-depth interview with President Elizabeth Bradley on her intellectual background and its implications for the future direction of the campus community.

As faculty advisor to the Journal, Professor of Philosophy Giovanna Borradori reflected, “Part of the journal’s agenda was to intensify the relationship between Vassar and its outside, and to analyze political and social relations within Vassar.”

Editors-in-chief of the Journal Sessi Blanchard ’18 and Henry Krusoe ’18, along with 16 other students on the editorial board, selected essays submitted from the University of Canterbury, the University of Calgary and Smith College based on a blind review process that considered the essays in relation to the Journal’s current theme. Considering the political engagement of the Journal this year, Blanchard noted, “I think the theme really lends itself to that, given the national, global and political order of things right now.”

Krusoe commented on the topical nature of the essays featured, saying, “In the context of the philosophy journal, it’s important for us to make a philosophical comment that these events are worth philosophical concern … We should not consider treating these events as invisible and only write about dead philosophers.”

The essay “Border Policy Behind the Veil” by Maryellen Stohlman-Vanderveen, a student at Smith College, challenges arguments by Professor of Philosophy Christopher Heath Wellman at Washington University in St. Louis. Wellman believes that a social group’s freedom to choose its members justifies policies that limit immigration to the United States and that policies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Border Industrialization Project (BIP) fulfill America’s moral obligations to other countries. Stohlman-Vanderveen objects that NAFTA and BIP, as substitutes for open borders, do not adequately address global inequalities to which the United States has historically contributed.

Similarly, the book review by Griffin Scott-Rifer ’21 on Jasbir Paur’s 2017 book “Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability” reports that the U.S. Border Patrol destroys humanitarian aid to migrants crossing from Mexico to the United States. Drawing a connection to Operation Protective Edge by the Israeli Defense Force in 2014, Paur suggests that countries with a colonial mentality, such as the United States and Israel, have engaged in violence that seeks to disable rather than kill. According to the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, Operation Protective Edge killed over 2,000 Palestinians and injured over 10,000.

Soliciting, reviewing and publishing work from other institutions and countries represents a core aspect of the Journal’s work. Borradori elaborated, “We want to have an undergraduate platform which is visible on the global scale…to strengthen relations between Vassar and its outside by providing a site of dialogue.”

The editorial board of the Journal has also interpreted the theme of borders to include institutional challenges associated with a transition between two states of being. With regard to issues on campus, Krusoe suggested, “There are the ongoing changes in the liberal arts that question how liberal arts institutions that have previously focused on humanities should be redistributing their resources towards athletics and science.” Considering philosophy as one of the humanities, the editors-in-chief consider these trends to be a serious concern. Krusoe also indicated that the future of Vassar’s need-blind policy is still an open question in the college administration.

Discussing the transition state of the on-campus dining service, Blanchard offered, “From my experience with SLD [Student/Labor Dialogue] and just being in collaboration with a lot of folks from the Deece, people who work in the Deece are very much in a crisis condition … The labor is so exploitative and management is just generally rude. [The management] fails to meet workers where they’re at and is just interested in asserting its dominance.”

Borradori explained, “Philosophy has a unique ability to identify new social ontologies and, on that basis, critically map emerging geographies of power. In this perspective, issues that look very different, such as labor relations on campus, the status of the humanities in the liberal arts and the protection of migrants can be usefully examined as the effects of systemic structures of oppression rather than contingent situations.”

The Journal typically publishes several interviews per issue with philosophers and other scholars about their way of thinking. The current issue features an interview between Borradori, Blanchard, Krusoe and Bradley about the President’s commitment to the global planning method known as Grand Strategy as a model for social change. Borradori elucidated, “This year in order to politically thematize Vassar it was important to get into a dialogue with its President … We should have the awareness that Vassar is undergoing a transformation because of changes at the head of the administration.”

Grand Strategy was conceived in Britain in the interim between between the World Wars as a form of global planning that seeks to achieve the greatest number of military objectives with a minimum expenditure of resources. While teaching at Yale University, President Bradley learned Grand Strategy from Professor of History Paul Kennedy and Professor of Military and Naval History John Lewis Gaddis. Inspired by a conversation with a collaborator in Ethiopia to apply the principles of Grand Strategy to meeting healthcare objectives, Bradley went on to found the Yale Global Health Leadership Institute, which has fostered international partnerships for public health policy in China, the U.K., South Africa, Rwanda, Liberia and Ethiopia.

From the perspective of Grand Strategy, Bradley indicated that building community must come before discussions about identity. Once the campus community has established support structures from New Student Orientation, Bradley believes that Title IX and Sexual Assault and Violence Prevention (SAVP) will be more effective measures. For Bradley, the successful formation of community also depends on sacrificing some individual freedom for the sake of the collective and keeping in mind that large institutional transformations take time. Holding a critical discourse on the assumptions, arguments, beliefs and conclusions in this kind of thinking represents a core aspect of the Journal. Borradori noted, “The journal was created to blur the boundaries between administration, faculty and students … We engage each other in spaces that are not the classroom.”

The themes for previous issues of the journal have included action, nature, nonhumans and the good life. The acceptance rate for essays submitted to the Journal was 12 percent this year. A majority vote by members of the editorial board during the blind review process determines essays that the Journal publishes. Blanchard summarized, “With each journal, we’re refining the process of producing the document.” While senior students have typically directed the editorial board, the next issue of the Journal will include a position for a junior editor. Blanchard also urged women, women of color and queer people to develop their presence in philosophy, which remains a male-dominated academic discipline.

Considering the social impact of the Journal, Blanchard said, “The political utility of philosophy can be to destabilize the assumed and what we take as the state of things and how they are.” Krusoe concluded, “Philosophy very much at its heart is focused on critical thinking, argumentation, being able to express yourself and your ideas, analysis and research. In that way it’s at home with a lot of disciplines … This leads to a political but also a philosophical question: What does it mean to be both a Vassar student and a political subject?”

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