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.