Ph.D. Octopus

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Archive for the ‘academic freedom’ Category

Birthright Versus Yiddishkeit?

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by David

Me and my dad at the desecrated Jewish cemetery in Budaniv, formerly Budzanow, where his father (my grandfather) grew up

There’s a new player in the Jewish continuity game, with a new plan for bringing American Jewish youth back to their roots. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the idea, called the Helix Project, is to bring Jewish young adults, ages 18-23, on an all-expense paid trip to eastern Europe: Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, to learn about their rich Jewish heritage and ancestry that existed before the Holocaust. The trip, sponsored by Yiddishkayt (literally “Jewishness”), an LA based Jewish cultural organization, has only six participants this summer (three students from UCLA and three more from UC-Berkeley), but its founder, Rob Adler Peckerar, envisions the program becoming an alternative to Birthright Israel.

Regular readers of this blog know my thoughts on Birthright Israel, the all-expense-paid 10-day trip to Israel. I’ll summarize briefly: Birthright Israel is about birthing Jewish babies, not Zionism. Despite all the Zionist propaganda present on the trips, the program was designed to counter rising rates of intermarriage in the United States, not to strengthen the state of Israel (or at least, any benefits to Israel were tangential, or products of the former goal). Thus Birthright serves as a sort of Jewish meat market, where young Jews hook up with Israeli soldiers or with each other, in the hopes of finding a spouse, all for the greater good of the Jewish people.

This raises the question: would the Helix Project be any different?

On the surface, it seems that the answer is yes. The content of the trip, focusing on pre-WW2 eastern Europe, is critical to the Helix Project. As the LA Times reports, “it is, in more than one way, a deeply subversive idea.” And Adler Peckerar doesn’t mince words:

You know, you do a quick survey of college classes and you see that more is being taught about the destruction of Jewish culture than about the culture…. We have a whole postwar generation that has grown up knowing far more [about] Nazis and concentration camps than knowing Jewish writers and major Jewish centers of culture in Europe. And that’s terrible. To me, that is — I don’t want to be extreme about it, but it is a continuation of the Holocaust.

Um, that sounds a little extreme, kind of like the whole “intermarrying is like finishing Hitler’s work” slogan. Still, Adler Peckerar’s idea is an interesting one. As the late Tony Judt wrote: “Many American Jews are sadly ignorant of their religion, culture, traditional languages, or history. But they do know about Auschwitz, and that suffices.” It’s true that much of American, or even global Diaspora Jewish identity, centers on the Holocaust and the State of Israel. Heck, that’s exactly what the (subsidized but not free) March of the Living trip for 16 and 17 year old high school students is all about. It takes you to pre-war Poland, shows you something of the lives that Jews led there, but then focuses on the death camps, the gas chambers, the crematoria, all the other horrors of the Holocaust. The “highlight” of the trip is the reenactment of the “March of the Dead,” a brief silent march from the concentration camp Auschwitz to the death camp Birkenau.

And then, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, rises the State of Israel. The second half of the 16-day trip takes place in the Holy Land, contains a health dose of that Zionist propaganda, and basically shows you how wonderful Israel is, with the highlight being the awesome celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day.

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Written by David Weinfeld

April 29, 2012 at 16:35

The Harvard Conference on the One-State Solution in Israel/Palestine

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by David

This weekend, my alma mater, Harvard University, is hosting the “One State Conference,” subtitled: “Israel/Palestine and the One State Solution.” Lots of people are up in arms about this, it’s become something of a controversy. I don’t need to rehash the arguments here. We’ve been through them before, especially with the late Tony Judt’s controversial 2003 article, “Israel: The Alternative.” I’m a big critic of the current Israeli government, I support a just two-state solution, and equal rights for all people in both states, while maintaining a Jewish character in Israel and an Arab character in Palestine.

Very briefly, a one-state solution would be a logistical nightmare that the vast majority on both sides don’t want. When Palestinians say they want a one-state solution, it means one in which they ultimately become the majority and the Jewish voice is denied. This would mean the destruction of any real Jewish autonomy in the region as we know it.

Still, I won’t sign a petition against the conference at Harvard: they have every right to debate this in an university setting. The Crimson, my old paper, basically came to the same conclusion. Apparently Harvard Students for Israel, a student group that I used to participate in, also came to this position. So did active Zionist and free speech supporter Alan Dershowitz. That’s all good. I support the principle of open inquiry and academic freedom. Actually, an academic setting is perfectly appropriate, as the one-state solution is purely academic – nobody on the ground actually wants it and it will not happen in our lifetime.

 But I think something needs to be said about even the academic support of a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think it’s morally consistent to support the one-state solution, but only if you really support a “no-state” solution, that is, if you believe in a universal, one-world government, maybe divided into loose geographic units. And some, on the far left, claim that is their position. That’s the theory. The reality, however, is quite different. In fact, their position is best summarized this way:

Ethnic nationalism is bad, and all ethnic nation-states should cease to exist…um… (awkward pause)… starting with Israel.

This “Israel-first” position (as in, the first to get axed), under the pretense of leftist internationalism, is frankly antisemitic, in effect if not in intent, as Larry Summers would have it, and should be described as such. It is a position that I think many of my colleagues on the left take, though they probably don’t think of it in these terms. But they should. And that’s all that really needs to be said about the matter.

Written by David Weinfeld

March 2, 2012 at 14:35

Do Scholarship and Politics Mix? Stanley Fish and Howard Zinn on Academic Freedom

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by Julian 

Scholarship and politics don’t mix. At least not according to literary theorist and New York Times blogger Stanley Fish, who has been arguing for years that professors should “save the world on their own time.” Just last week, he reiterated this point in a column about a conference he attended on “originalism,” the contentious legal doctrine that judges should interpret the Constitution as the framers had originally understood it. Despite the subject matter’s obvious implications for hot-button issues like immigration and the health care mandate, Fish happily reported that conference participants stayed focused only on matters of academic concern. They never waded into the territory of political partisanship.  As he explained,

It would be an understatement to say that these questions provoke heated discussion in the world at large, but at the conference they were not themselves debated; no one stood up to say that he was for or against the individual mandate, or that citizenship standards should be relaxed or tightened. Instead participants argued (vigorously, but politely and with unfailing generosity) about where and with what methods inquiry into the questions should begin. Actually asking and answering them was left to other arenas  (the arenas of the legislature, the courts and the ballot box) where their direct, as opposed to academic, consideration would be appropriate.

While Fish’s insistence on the stark distinction between partisanship and scholarship might strike some as unrealistic, it comes out of his broader view on the nature of academic freedom. From his perspective, academic freedom differs fundamentally from the free speech rights guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. Unlike most workplaces, colleges and universities don’t have the right to fire their academic staff because of their opinions. More accurately, they don’t have the right to do so if they operate under the academic freedom guidelines established nearly a century ago by the American Association of University Professors.

How did faculty members gain these special protections? In the United States, academic freedom began to gain institutional support during the Progressive Era, a period in which many placed a high value on the ability of disinterested expertise to solve social problems.  Academic freedom was originally designed to advance such expert knowledge. The AAUP argued that faculty members needed professional autonomy in order to remain free of the corrupting influence of business interests, religious groups, political parties, and labor unions. To advance knowledge, only accredited specialists could judge the merit of academic work: this explains the necessity of peer review.

By politicizing their work, Fish argues, faculty members weaken these philosophical justifications that protect academic freedom. If the broader public believes that professors at the universities they support promote a political agenda—rather than disinterested scholarship—the public will then have reasonable grounds to insert itself into decisions about research and teaching that had once been reserved for academic experts. The rationale for academic autonomy crumbles.

Not long after reading Fish’s recent column, I happened to come across a speech on academic freedom written by the militant historian, Howard Zinn. As anyone at all familiar with Zinn’s work will have probably guessed, the speech promoted a vision of the academic enterprise diametrically opposed to the one articulated by Fish. Delivered to an audience of South African academics in 1982, the speech implored all scholars to fight against the temptations of political complacency. For Zinn, academic freedom had

always meant the right to insist that freedom be more than academic –that the university, because of its special claim to be a place for the pursuit of truth be a place where we can challenge not only the ideas but the institutions, the practices of society, measuring them against millennia-old ideals of equality and justice.

From Zinn’s standpoint, any understanding of academic freedom that urged scholars to remain aloof from contemporary social struggles remained hollow to the core. Professional autonomy might have its place, but at what cost? 

American higher education, Zinn insisted, had historically served the interests of wealthy elites that dominated the worlds of big business and the state. As long as faculty members quietly went along their business—training the middle managers and professionals that would keep the deeply unequal society running smoothly—the powers that be would grant them a degree of autonomy and prestige. Should scholars really be content with this state of affairs?

Zinn also maintained that in attempting to remain apolitical, academics actually performed a disservice to scholarship. Under the guise of objectivity, academic standards often masked support for the status quo. These standards encouraged social scientists to put on blinders when they examined issues of racial, sexual, and class inequality. In the name of supposed neutrality, professional disciplines such as engineering and finance often eschewed questions of values all together. This kind of thinking, he believed, helped encourage the mindset that led American academics to play important roles developing weapons and providing expertise for the Vietnam War.

Zinn used his own experience teaching courses at the historically black Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in the 1950s and early 1960s to illuminate the limitations of a narrow view of academic freedom.  The Spelman campus, he remembered, was beautiful. Ideas were openly discussed within college walls. However, faculty and students were expected to publicly remain silent on segregation.  If they had publicly expressed themselves on this issue, it would have caused a scandal and threatened the college’s vaunted autonomy. With the rise of the Civil Rights Movement, Zinn explains, a critical mass of students and faculty stopped self-censoring themselves. They had realized that a measure of academic freedom within the college meant little if it was not accompanied by the right to fight for justice and equality on the outside too. In stark contrast, to Fish, Zinn concludes,

I did not think I could talk about politics and history in the classroom, deal with war and peace, discuss the question of obligation to the state versus obligation to one’s brothers and sisters throughout the world, unless I demonstrated by my actions that these were not academic questions to be decided by scholarly disputation, but real ones to be decided in social struggle.

Zinn practiced what he preached. He served as a faculty advisor to SNCC in the early 1960s. In the 1970s, he engaged in sit-down strikes with campus workers at Boston University. In 1980, he produced one of the most famous and contentious works of revisionist scholarship in American history.  Throughout his career, he devoted his writing and public life to exposing injustice. Due to his outspoken activism, he was trailed for decades by the FBI and at least one high-ranking member of his university tried to have him fired.

Is there a middle road between the radical commitment demanded by Zinn and the academic formalism celebrated by Fish? It seems to me that academics often produce first-rate scholarship that also happens to promote a political agenda. There are many works based on meticulous research and judicious reasoning that also make clear interventions into contentious public debates.  Just in the past year or two, this appears to be the case in books as varied as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner-Takes-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer and Turned its Back on the Middle Class, and, Corey Robin’s The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin. The authors of these books have all received praise (and criticism) from their peers in academia, while also making important and pointed contributions to debates of major public significance.

Fish is right to the degree that the academy shouldn’t be a place that promotes political propaganda. On the other hand, it would be a sad state indeed if at least some academics didn’t also heed Zinn’s advice. We need more, not less, rigorous works of scholarship that deepen an often shallow public discourse on issues of crucial concern.

Written by Julian Nemeth

February 10, 2012 at 12:54

The Deep Roots of Conservative Victimhood

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The roots go much deeper.

By Julian

Last week, Newt Gingrich reinvigorated his presidential campaign with a fiery appeal to conservative victimhood. Questions about his past infidelities, Gingrich explained, reflected the liberal media’s efforts to destroy the conservative movement. “I’m tired of the elite media protecting Barack Obama by attacking Republicans,” he thundered. Cue the multiple standing ovations from the rapt audience of South Carolina conservatives. Never mind the fact that Gingrich had helped build his career by denouncing Bill Clinton’s commitment to “family values” while he himself engaged in extra-marital affairs. For those in this audience, all that mattered was that they had found a politician willing to voice their grievances against the all-powerful liberal establishment.

The right-wing populism that Gingrich so effectively marshaled at last week’s debate is often contrasted with a more reasonable brand of conservative thinking that supposedly flourished in a past golden age. In this declension narrative, touted by Mark Lilla in his controversial review of Corey Robin’s new book, The Reactionary Mind, a sophisticated conservative intellectual tradition has recently descended into the swamplands of populist demagoguery. As Lilla explains, “Most of the turmoil in American politics recently is the result of changes in the clan structure of the right, with the decline of reality-based conservatives like William F. Buckley and George Will and the ascendancy of new populist reactionaries like Glenn Beck, Ann Coulter, and other Tea Party favorites.”

The problem with this view, as others have pointed out, is that American conservatives have been bashing the “liberal elite” now for going on six decades.  It’s part of their DNA. William Buckley Jr., the most influential intellectual in the postwar conservative movement, might have rejected the conspiracy theorists at the John Birch Society, but he also supported massive resistance to the Civil Rights Movement, wrote a book defending Senator McCarthy, and praised the fascist government in Franco’s Spain. While he could be witty and charming, Buckley was also merciless in attacking a liberal elite that he believed had come to dominate (and enervate) American society since the New Deal.

In fact, Buckley launched his career in 1951 with a book that claims liberals had used “academic freedom” as a tool to monopolize higher education and suppress conservative thought. During a period in which over 100 professors lost their jobs because of the Second Red Scare, Buckley asserts that conservatives were academia’s true victims. In God and Man at Yale he also calls for the elimination of peer review and tenure in favor of a system that would allow those who pay for colleges and universities—typically parents and alumni—to determine their ideological content: “For in the last analysis, academic freedom must mean the freedom of men and women to supervise the educational activities and aims of the schools they oversee and support.” Universities needed to be run by the people who paid for them, not a band of unaccountable academics. It’s hard to imagine a critique more populist in character.

To be fair, right-wing appeals to populism explain why conservative intellectuals helped inspire a mass movement rather than a club for disenchanted, antediluvian curmudgeons. Still it’s worth remembering that intellectuals such as Buckley gained fame and notoriety by providing learned support for causes such as McCarthyism, Massive Resistance, and the firing of liberal faculty at Ivy League Universities. They provide a blueprint for today’s Newt Gingrichs, not an antidote.

Written by Julian Nemeth

January 25, 2012 at 21:39

Occupy Economics?: A Report Back from the Nerdiest Protest I’ve ever been to.

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By Peter

I just got back from Chicago, where, along with attending the American Historical Association, I participated in a series of protests held by Occupy Chicago, along with CACHE (Coalition Against Corporatization of Higher Education) that targeted the American Economics Association (AEA). Its not everyday that the worlds of street protests and academic conferences blend so well. But then again, part of the point was to “puncture the bubble,” that academic economists live in.

The protesters gave out “alternative” awards for Most Conflict of Interests (Columbia’s Glenn Hubbard), Intellectual Narrowness (Harvard’s Greg Mankiw), and top prize, the “Toxic Waste of Space Award” (Harvard/Obama administration’s Larry Summers). Other than a brief yelling match that one protester got in with a professor, the tone was light and fun. Protesters “accepted” awards acting as Mankiw, Hubbard, and Summers (who reminded us how much smarter he was than us) and served “Rahmon” noodles, in honor of the Chicagoans impoverished by Rahm Emmanuel’s neoliberal policies. Overall a lot of fun, albeit fun that might have gone over the heads of the random shoppers on Michigan Ave.

According to protesters: “The bankrupt ideologies of ‘neo-liberalism’–trickle-down theory, austerity, deregulation, privatization–have all been proven empirically disastrous. Those ideas still enjoy a monopoly in the mainstream debate due to the massive scale of academic subsidizing by the bought AEA and it’s cohorts in the 1%.” Watch a great interview with an organizer at the bottom of this post.

It just so happens the protests came at a time of particularly hot debate about the ideology of the economics profession. The recent release of the minutes of the 2006 Federal Reserve Meetings well illustrates—along with Timothy Geithner’s utterly pathetic sycophancy towards Alan Greenspan—that the High Priests were asleep on the job, completely unaware of the looming housing crisis. Said one professor quoted by the New York Times:

“It’s embarrassing for the Fed,” said Justin Wolfers, an economics professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “You see an awareness that the housing market is starting to crumble, and you see a lack of awareness of the connection between the housing market and financial markets.”

“It’s also embarrassing for economics,” he continued. “My strong guess is that if we had a transcript of any other economist, there would be at least as much fodder.”

Not the discipline’s finest moment, no doubt.

I have a longstanding hatred/fascination with the foundational logic taught in modern Economics courses: its technocratic imagination, its inability to question its own premises, its ahistorical logic (see Daniel Rodgers’ Age of Fracture, Chapter 2 for more on how society, power, and history dropped out of the Economics discipline), its inattention to moral consequences, its reductionism (like the horrid Freakonimics series, which thinks all aspects of human existence can be explained by their simplistic assumptions about human behavior), and its normative amorality (seriously, studies have shown that taking economics makes students less generous people).

And this is all important because Economics inhabits a unique disciplinary position. Part academic discipline, part incubators of elite policy makers, academics in no other departments transition so seamlessly from academia to government to Wall Street. Look at a figure like Larry Summers, who has (in the last five years alone!) inhabited leading roles in all three worlds. While taking money from Wall Street while producing intellectual material about Wall Street suggests casual corruption, the influence that economists, and what Tony Judt called economism (the tendency to think of all social problems in terms of the marketplace) has deep ramifications on our public policy. The very power of economists makes it more likely that they will be captured by elites. I think, then, it is fair to target the AEA, even if many, if not most, economists are actually innocent of any corruption. It matters to the public what economists talk about, much more so than whats going on in, say, the MLA.

A silver lining, though, to the economic collaspe might be a rethinking of some economic thought.

Writing about the great shift in Economics departments that occurred in the 1970s, as Samuelson, Galbraith, and the other Keynesians lost favor, Daniel Rodgers writes:

“The economic crisis of the 1970s was, in short, not merely a crisis in management. It was also, and at least as painfully, a crisis in ideas and intellectual authority. An extremely confident analytical system had failed to explain or make sense of the unexpected.”

The results, according to Rodgers, were that the profession increasingly moved towards a more neoclassical model and microeconomics prevailed over macroeconomics. Meanwhile, the logic of markets and economic thinking invaded other disciplines: rational choice theory in political science, the “law and economics” movement in law schools, etc… One hopes that our recent crisis and the inability of our policy elites to predict or solve the problem, will produce a similar paradigmatic shift. This time, though, hopefully it will be away from such apologias for capitalism.

So in that spirit, I wanted to highlight two interesting thinkers. The first, I saw over at Crooked Timber, where New School economist Sanjay Reddy gives a fabulous interview about the need to bring moral reasoning back into the study of Economics. Reddy argues against the notion that Economics is a value-neutral science, restoring an “evaluative framework” to the discipline. It is impossible, he argues, to come to purely technical solutions to most problems. In a sense, Reddy is asking that we take moral sides before we engage in economic debate. First, for instance, we say that a goal of policy should be to aid the poor, then we figure out ways to so.

This seems to fit well with an article in the latest issue of Jacobin magazine (also featuring an excellent piece by friend of the blog, Andrew Hartman), by Mike Beggs, calling for radicals to occupy economics. Begg’s article asks economists to be less technocratic, and more openly political in their ends. Beggs takes a middle ground (for radical intellectuals), acknowledging that “mainstream economics is both an ideological bastion of capitalism and a genuine social science.” A tool for understanding the world, it is also wrapped up in a set of assumptions that are not neutral, but that favor a free market approach to the world. Nevertheless, as Begg’s points out, the stereotype that many have of a discipline of Milton Friedmans is actually unfair. A wide swath of economists agree with the need for some government intervention, and, other than a few reactionaries in Chicago or George Mason, most also acknowledge the importance of Keynes. The problem, Beggs suggests, is “not that mainstream economics was delusional, or biased to the right, but that it was technocratic.” It presumed it could manage and control, rather than take sides in class warfare.

In the opening editorial of Jacobin, the editors declare that, as the rebellion of Occupy Wall Street spreads, “we are in the last throes of the era of Ezra Klein.” What they mean, I think, is that the tepid liberalism of the technocratic elite (poor Ezra has, a bit unfairly, become a symbol of this) says nothing to the fundamental message of the OWS movement: the restoration of politics—full throated politics—to our understanding of class and economics. Class will no longer be something discussed in dry studies by the Brooking Institute or in economics seminars, but in the chants and marches in the streets, as those without challenge those with. Millions of people simply standing up and rejected these “market-based” solutions that have been crammed down our throats, will do more to change the dialogue than any polite article or policy paper ever will.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

January 16, 2012 at 23:21

Psychiatric Scandals

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By Nemo

Whatever happened to the couch?

If you haven’t already read Marcia Angell’s two review essays on the state of psychiatry in the New York Review of Books, I urge you to do so now. They are absolutely devastating. Angell, the former editor in chief of the New England Journal of Medicine, provides so much evidence of systematic corruption at the heart of the profession that it might just give you a newfound respect for the Church of Scientology. (Okay, maybe not.)

Others have documented the growing number of seemingly common forms of behavior that psychiatrists describe as mental illness, the increasing prevalence of drugs over talk therapy as a preferred method of treatment, and the vast sums of cash that pharmaceutical companies spend marketing their wares. Angell ties these phenomena together. She also raises serious questions about the quality of research that justifies the prescription of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications.
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Written by Julian Nemeth

July 6, 2011 at 20:23

The Kushner Affair and Academic Freedom

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by Nemo

Most observers seem to agree that the CUNY Board of Trustees made a boneheaded move by vetoing an honorary degree that the faculty and administration of John Jay College had planned to award to the playwright Tony Kushner. When you have people like Jeffrey Goldberg and Ed Koch attacking you for going too far with your “pro-Israel” activism, you know you probably went overboard. In fact, the trustees themselves seem to have realized the error in their ways, since they have now decided to overturn their previous decision.

Tony Kushner

Now, there were many reasons to criticize the board’s initial move to deny Kushner the degree. These include its unprecedented heavy-handedness (this was the first time that the board had overruled a motion for an honorary degree), its gross mischaracterization of Kushner’s views on Israel, and the obvious attempt it represented to narrow the range of acceptable debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even some of Kushner’s harshest critics believed that the vote to deny the honorary degree was patently unfair and gave Zionism a bad name. This is to their credit.

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Written by Julian Nemeth

May 10, 2011 at 15:31

Act Like a Scholar? Thinking the Cronon Affair through a Bunch of German Scholars

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Bill Cronon

by Luce

There’s a good round-up of commentary at Cliopatria on the Bill Cronon affair, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a packet of his emails a few days ago, exempting a broad range of materials and declaring Cronon’s conduct above reproach. Hopefully this will take the blowhardiness out of the Republicans’ sails. But it was distressing to learn a few days ago that a conservative group had issued a public records request for the emails from professors at three Michigan state university labor studies departments, looking for political involvement in the Wisconsin labor toil. The material these scholars study alone made them targets, raising the question of whether conservatives have decided on a new method to attack academic freedom.

In his post on Cronon, Wiz wrote that this is “a clear attack on the idea that historians might engage in public debate and dialogue,” and I agree. Cronon began his blog Scholar as Citizen to reflect on “the public practice of history and the ways in which academic scholarship in his chosen fields of history, geography, and environmental studies can offer useful perspectives on contemporary political debates.”

Obviously not all scholars are held to the same regulations as Cronon is as a professor at a state university, but I think think this episode presents an opportunity to consider the think about what connotes proper conduct on the part of the scholar in relation to his or her society. Should s/he be a social critic? Should s/he advocate some sort of social good? It might be useful consider how a few well-known German scholars thought about the role of the academic in society, particularly as German universities have historically been state institutions and German professors civil servants. This selection obviously has nothing to do with the fact that I will be examined  on these guys in three weeks time.

Kant‘s “What is Enlightenment?” is a good place to start.

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Written by Kristen Loveland

April 3, 2011 at 20:55

Solidarity with Bill Cronon

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By Wiz

Republicans: attacking labor, women’s rights, teachers, and now… nineteenth century historians?

The background, for those who don’t follow Josh Marshall (who has written about this here), is that Bill Cronon, a professor at U-Wisconsin, has come under bizarre but clear intimidation from the Republican Party. First he wrote a blog post, showing the influence that a bunch of shady national convervative groups have on state politics. He followed up writing an op-ed in the New York Times decrying Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.

Then, the Republican Wisconsin Party counterattacked, filing a Freedom of Information Act Request against Cronon, arguing that since he is a public employee (Wisconsin is a public university), he has to turn over all his email records to the Wisconsin Republican Party.

This hits personally to me for a couple of reasons. First, like Josh Marshall I cannot speak highly enough of Cronon’s academic work. Marshall mentions Cronon’s Changes in the Land, certainly a fantastic book. But for my money, his study of Chicago– Nature’s Metropolis– is simply one of the best and most original books on American history ever written. It is a rare book that both contributed significantly to my thinking about academic topics like urbanization, westward expansion, and industrialization, but also, if I can sound melodramatic, changed the very way I think about the natural environment. A major theme is how the logic of Chicago’s urbanization is intricately tied in with environmental changes miles away (deforestation in Wisconsin, destruction of Nebraska’s prairie, etc…). That the idea that we can divide between rural and urban is complete fantasy: rural America looks the way it does because urban American looks the way it does.

Nature’s Metropolis is an incredibly deep book, and I’m probably not going to do justice to it. But I took away from it the profound ways that the spread of market relations completely reshape so many aspects of the human experience, often in ways that are completely obscured to people themselves. Land becomes a commodity, and so we get perfectly identical plots of square farmland in Kansas (all the better to buy and sell in New York City by speculators who know nothing about the physical land in Kansas). So do animals and timber, changing the way we interact with non-humans and with forests. Cronon, in a chapter that is only rivaled by E.P. Thompson’s famous essay on work discipline shows how railroads required abstract and predictable time schedules. The result was time zones, where everyone measures time, not by the sun any longer, but by an artificially imposed grid, which pretends that everyone in a massive block of land has the same time. Everywhere the market goes, then, the messy real earth is replaced abstraction, commodification, and a fictional homogenization (fictional because, for instance, every bag of grain is actually different, but we have to pretend it can be classified as the same, so that it can be bought by someone who has never seen it.)

Anyways… the second, and clearest, reason to be offended by the Republicans’ treatment of Cronon is that it is a clear attack on the idea that historians might engage in public debate and dialogue. I’ve constantly been frustrated by the unwillingness of historians to engage in public discourse, and am thrilled when prominent ones try to make their voices heard. This blog was created partly to do our small part in getting the voices of historians out into the world.

And lets be clear, asking for his emails is entirely about silencing Cronon and intimidating other professors who were thinking about speaking out. Yes, they can’t fire him (yet) because tenure is designed to protect people in situations like this. But they can harass him, and publish his personal emails to the world. As Cronon writes, “they’re hoping they can embarrass me enough to silence me as a critic.”

Read the rest of Cronon’s response to this. He is entirely correct, Freedom of Information laws are supposed to allow the people to keep the government accountable. By subverting them, and turning them into tools to silence dissenters, they are being used for the exact opposite effect. If the Bill Cronons of the future stay silent, because they don’t want Scott Walker reading all their emails, democracy loses.

My hope is that, combined with the more general assault on teachers, public universities, and unions (including academic labor unions), American academics might start to wake up a bit, and re-engage publicly. If it can happen to Cronon, who with his prestige, tenure, and moderate reputation, is as well-protected as one can possible get, it can happen to anyone.

So, anyway, let me end by suggesting that everyone go out and buy a Bill Cronon book, if they don’t already own them, as a small way to show solidarity (and educate yourself). There is Changes in the Land, a fantastic environmental history of colonial New England, Nature’s Metropolis, my personal favorite, and Uncommon Ground, which I’ve never read, but just ordered.

Written by Peter Wirzbicki

March 25, 2011 at 11:49


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