Thursday, July 3, 2008


Is the academy destined to become a haven for bland, apolitical scholars?

The NYT reported today on a study of political beliefs among academics by sociologists Neil Gross and Solon Simmons. Gross and Simmons found a generational gap between academics who came of age in the 1960s and those who came of age in the 1990s. The former are more likely to self-identify as liberal and consider themselves as activists. A majority of the latter call themselves moderates.

I am not a child of the 1960s (except in the broadest sense that everyone in our time lives in the era's shadow). The whole world wasn't watching me and my generation. I inadvertently drooled through Kennedy's last year, learned to walk just a few months before LBJ took office, and was forbidden from watching the evening news coverage of the Vietnam War. I was too young to join the 60s protests, occupy campus buildings, and party with the counterculture. I don't really remember 1968, other than watching the Detroit Tigers win the World Series, and that's not because I spent the year in a smoky haze of pot. I didn't inhale.

But I am not a child of fin-de-siecle America either. As a young academic at a rich university, I found myself uncomfortable in the 1990s, in an era that was the zenith of neoliberalism, when income inequality was taken for granted, when students from super-rich families believed that they were "middle class," when hyper-professionalization ran amuck through undergraduate and graduate education, and when uncritical acceptance of market values shaped even people with whom I share many common political and social values.

In age, I am closer to the younger scholars, but politically I am closer to the older ones.

In many respects, the implications of Gross and Simmons's study are depressing--and not because I hold some romantic brief for the 60s generation. In both print and in public forums, I have pointed out many of the blind spots of boomer politics and scholarship. One of the greatest failures of the 60s left was that it was too suspicious of power, deeply anti-institutional, and too uncritical about grassroots resistance, local control, and the power of the "people." The left's suspicion of organized politics, in particular, exacted a high price. To paraphrase Todd Gitlin (in one of his better moments) while the right was taking over government and the media, the left was taking over English departments.

Don't get me wrong: I am not calling for the reassertion of liberal or leftist hegemony in the university. Overall, academia is not diverse enough politically for my taste. I am all for robust debate among people of differing political vantage points. I have many colleagues whose politics I find problematic, but we share the common goal of fostering intellectual discussion and training our students to examine their assumptions, whatever they may be, with rigor. My political skills are sharper because I spend time with people who disagree with my politics--forcing me to express my ideas more clearly, carefully, and subtly. There's nothing more intellectually deadening than spending all your time preaching to the choir.

But the trend that Gross and Simmons identify: the dominance of political moderation among academics, bodes ill for the intellectual life of the university. Moderation spells blandness to me. The one thing to be said about boomer academics is that, even when they are wrong, they are passionate. They argue like it matters--and sometimes it does. Passion is an essential ingredient of their intellectual life--and it should be of ours too. I'll take scholarship that tries to engage the central problematics of our day--that has political implications--over bland, if technically competent work, that eschews risks.

The leftists and left-liberals of the 60s generation believed that the university could be the seedbed of revolution. They were naive--and wrong. But I hope that as they pass into retirement that their passion for engaged scholarship, for bringing the world into the ivory tower and climbing out of the ivory tower and spending time in the messy, non-academic world does not disappear into a sea of blandness. That would be a real loss.


Comrade said...

I had some mixed feelings reading this article, from the perspective of a self-hating leftist. Part of me actually doesn't think it's all a bad thing. In my own (informal and anecdotal) experience, too many self-consciously radical/leftist/"activist" graduate students I have met are more into that label and advertising themselves as such than in doing the heavy intellectual lifting that it should require (and really thinking reflexively, as Genovese did in "On Being a Socialist and a Historian" better than anyone else since, about the activist-academic boundary, the pro's and con's of blurring it, and the limits of the intellectual's role in social change). I've also seen lots of left academic celebrity worship, especially among the TheoryHeads, though that's not exclusive to the left (but we should be above it and often aren't.) And left activity in academia too often takes the form of toothless petitions, new disciplinary causes, and short-lived ad hoc committees and letterhead organizations that stand in for sustained political activity (not that I think any academic should feel obligated or guilt-tripped into doing any). I wouldn't be too sorry to see the above decline.

This all said, I agree with the general trends identified in the NYTimes piece (again based on informal experience only) and share the blog post's concern. It's interesting to note the concurrent (and paradoxical) strong interest among graduate students in "relevance" and becoming "public intellectuals." Coupled with apoliticism or bland, uncritical politics, this relevance chic seems pretty dangerous to me since it omits the critical "relevant to WHOM?" question, along with related concerns about how catering to mainstream tastes and the imperatives of mass consumer media, and (especially) dancing with power, can erode intellectual integrity and independence. Less important, but still grating, so much of the conversation about "public" whatevering is ABOUT "public" whatevering rather than actual output worthy of the name. (For an example, see all the treatises on "public sociology" at and compare it to the amount of actual "public sociology" produced, which isn't much.) At its worst, what might be called The Jacoby Disease seems to just mask the existential hang-ups of people who can't register that scholarship doesn't always pay short-term immediately "relevant" dividends, and who fail to appreciate that having 200 people read one's book or article -- and thousands more listen to its contents in lectures and seminars -- still amounts to more attention than most people get in their lives. But I do think periods of political de-mobilization give way to political empty fads like the "public"/"relevant" thing. (By the way, I'm not against public writing by academics at all -- just aspiring to "public intellectual" status for the sake of it and no real consistent message or politics behind it all.)

Finally, the piece quotes the Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright a few times. It made me think again about the absence of a significant Marxist presence in the American university and its intellectual consequences. (One of the most interesting conversations I had in graduate school was with a Belgian exchange student who found the critique of methodological individualism that we were reading for class very standard and remarked that, in Western Europe, the "alternative" social science that it proposed was in fact much more widespread and accepted. It's true -- compare the Cambridge Journal of Economics to the American Economic Review.) American Marxist scholarship (of many strands) had its moment from the late 1960s to early 1980s. It gave us a bunch of great journals like Politics and Society, the early Telos, and the Review of Radical Political Economics, dramatically reshaped entire disciplines (geography and history especially), and shaped individual students who successfully made significant inroads later into departments here and there, Penn among them. But it stagnated at some point, especially post-1989/1991. Nowadays, most references to "Marxism" that I hear come in the form of single-word pejorative shorthand, often by people who have barely tried to work through the texts themselves (and who don't realize how much their own theoretical inclinations in fact originated out of response to or extension of the strawman that they attack.) The increasing re-marginalization of Marxist/left ideas in the academy, I think, has to have blunted the critical ability and political sharpness of the new generation, though it's only a partial explanation, of course. It has also made most leftists in the academy ill-equipped to critique capitalism in any rigorous manner, thus ceding that critical terrain to economics departments. I do think the growing economic inequality and turbulence and frightening militarism of the early 21st-century will make these post-Cold War dismissals of Marxist and socialist thought look increasingly premature.

Of course, I'd prefer a bland academy any day to real-world political and economic turbulence.

This was unfortunately the only screenname I could get close enough to what I wanted, even though it's pretty stupid still.

Tom S said...

Greetings, Comrade and thanks for this thoughtful post. There’s so much here that I’ll stick to a few points. 1) All good intellectuals eschew facile labels and self-advertising in favor of heavy lifting and reflexive thinking. 2) Celebrity worship is one of the many ways in which neoliberalism has transformed the academy: the academic marketplace usually rewards the performance of radicalism rather than the hard intellectual and political work of scholarship and activism. There are some scholars who are exceptions, but in my experience those most deserving of celebrity are one or two rungs down the ladder of recognition from their glib, polysyllabic, theatrical, and usually less intellectually rigorous or important counterparts. 3) Relevant to whom?—-your question—-is THE question that all politically engaged intellectuals should be asking. 4) I need to read more about public sociology—and when I do, I’ll post something. 5) Having spent time with my counterparts in France, Germany, Japan, and Canada, I agree wholly with your point about what the relationship of Marxist and “radical” scholarship to the mainstream. Though I am loathe to label myself an American exceptionalist, there are ways that the lack of a vigorous (or even once vigorous) left in the United States narrows the range of academic discourse. What passes for radical scholarship today in certain fields (I’m thinking especially of American Studies) is often fairly mainstream, conventional scholarship with a theoretical patina or a superficial nod toward radicalism (many good examples in recent issues of the Radical History Review). By contrast, a lot of French scholarship (which I’ve been reading lately) is deeply engaged in larger theoretical debates. And most refreshingly, its authors don’t feel compelled to name-drop or sprinkle neologisms to prove their politics. 6) The corrolary to my last point is that there are few left-identified scholars with the intellectual toolkit to challenge various revanchist scholarly methods, like rational choice theory and, now, the socio-biological turn, that have spread like kudzu in the American academy since the 1980s (see my posts on Charles Tilly and on neuroscience and social science on these points.)

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