We Have Been Too Quiet

BY AARON BARLOW

What’s the point of having academic credentials if you can’t use them?

Sure, we make them into bludgeons inside the ivory tower, but that’s really just child’s play: the bludgeons do all the real damage of balloons. Only when there is ‘real-world’ application can they have an impact, do they really mean anything.

Inside, also, credentials only grow. “Use them or lose them” is only vaguely an academic concept at all. Universities are filled with professors who did one remarkable thing twenty years ago and, though they’ve done nothing since, are still venerated for it. Outside, if you don’t use your knowledge (or whatever it is you have), it quickly decreases in value. For the past fifty years, academics have used their “public intellectual” muscles so rarely that they have atrophied into almost nothing at all. The respect we feel we should still command has degenerated into laughter.

Even other academics and the few legitimate public intellectuals themselves participate in the derision. Stanley Fish, whatever I may think of his opinions (they range from profound to petty), has a real claim to both titles. So, I pay attention when he writes: “The Historians Against Trump invest their remarks with the authority of their academic credentials, and by doing so compromise those credentials to the point of no longer having a legitimate title to them.”

Had the Historians Against Trump long been engaged in the public sphere, Fish would have no point or, at least, no one would pay attention to it. To suddenly charge out of the tower and expect everyone to cheer the new saviors is, on the other hand, so naïve as to invite laughter.

Even if it is undeserved laughter.

Fish starts his piece by claiming we professors (he doesn’t limit it to historians) don’t “understand the responsibilities and limits of [our] profession.” He can make that claim precisely because so few of us extend or work beyond our laboratories, libraries and classrooms. The value of our opinions has eroded to the point where it is considered the same as that of anyone.

Making the same argument that rightwing gadfly and anti-professor David Horowitz makes, Fish advises us to stay within the narrow confines of our specialties—as we have been doing, for the most part, for a generation. He writes that, while “disciplinary experience qualifies [us] to ask and answer discipline-specific questions, it does not qualify [us] to be our leaders and guides as we prepare to exercise our franchise in a general election.”

Actually, it does.

As Fish knows, the discipline necessary for earning an advanced degree and then publishing even within a narrow field is not easily developed, nor are the research and analytic skills academic that whatever success we have relies on. Even though they too rarely use them outside of the silos of their fields, professors can provide a focus to even political debate that the general public cannot. We should be providing the balance needed (though we do not) to the “it’s my opinion and I am sticking to it, no matter the truth” forces that can so easily dominate national discussion.

Fish opines: “the profession of history shouldn’t be making political pronouncements of any kind.” It should study history, not participate in it. Its members can participate as individuals but, as a group, they should keep quiet. After all, he argues, there are Trump supporters even among historians.

There are also climate-change deniers within the academy. So what? That doesn’t mean the others should shut up about it.

The mistake the professors made who wrote the letter against Trump is not the letter but everything that led up to it. We should have been speaking up against the spiritual ancestors of Trump at least since the rise of Tailgunner Joe McCarthy and the intellectual quiescence in the public sphere that followed World War II. Some did, but they were quashed, laughed at and ignored—to the point where they crawled back into their ivory towers and let others define the limits of their activities. The ramifications of this have been a dumbing down of public political discussion and even the diminution of faculty power inside our academic institutions. We had lost the skills to be effective advocates either of our public positions or our professional ones. For fifty years and more, we have been easily manipulated away from the centers of power, even in our own institutions.

The historians shouldn’t let Fish chase them back into their studies but need to stand up to the criticism, saying “We have been too quiet, but that time is over.”

The rest of us in academia need to start saying the same thing.

14 thoughts on “We Have Been Too Quiet

    • Thank you for the post. One does not have to be a blowhard to speak truth to power; one only has to NOT be a coward. The only profession that has been given the specific freedom called “Academic Freedom” to express our opinions without losing our jobs, and we waste it on being quiet so as to not be criticized and disagreed with by a few loudmouths incapable of critical thinking.
      Our society has bestowed on us privileges which always come with responsibilities, and to fail to exercise strengths within our role as citizen is to betray the purpose of a liberal arts education. Its not what would superman do, but what should every person do. Citizenship is a duty, especially for the privileged. When we see the actions of international scholars through the lens of Scholars at Risk and Scholar Rescue, we should realize how privileged we are.

  1. I am not sure a PhD or being a professor makes people smarter about history, literature or philosophy than people who studied those subjects in college but did not get a PhD or become a professor. The training and experience you get doing things like developing computer systems is also applicable to the world’s problems. So while I am for those in the academy taking stands, I hope they haven’t convinced themselves they are more qualified to speak than many others without their credentials. Credentializing everything suppresses creativity and inhibits many people from sharing what they think.

    • Of course professors aren’t smarter because of their advanced degrees. But neither are surgeons or lawyers or accountants, for that matter. And others are as able to talk intelligently about medicine, the law and business. The point isn’t that one must have credentials to talk about something but that those with credentials generally know more about their topics than do the self-taught. Your argument, which is never used against doctors, lawyers and accountants, is generally only brought out in order to denigrate professors, not to argue about credentials.

      • You are contrasting professors with the self taught as if your students can never hope to be as smart about the subject as their professors and should always defer to those professors. You make no distinction between those who keep up with their studies and those who never study the subject again. You also talk slightingly about autodidacts. That makes it seem you view professors as some kind of knowledge elite regardless of how smart they are or what and where they teach.

        Is a professor of modern European history always going to be smarter about ancient history and the history of other regions than anyone without a PhD who is also not a professor? Will such a person also be smarter about everything else? Some professors aren’t as bright about their subject as some college students are. And some of them know that.

      • You are putting words in my mouth rather than listening. I am not calling anyone smarter than anyone else or slighting autodidacts. You are falling for an argument that has been used for years to denigrate teachers, one going back at least as far as the movie of The Wizard of Oz. I don’t even disagree–I love the Scarecrow. My point, however, is that you would not use the same argument about doctors, lawyers and accountants. So why do you use it to denigrate others with advanced degrees?

      • Rather I think you are not paying attention to what I say and are mapping me to a champion of those with no expertise. That in itself says a lot about your argument. Doctors, lawyers and accountants do not often assert general expertise about everything and are not fawned on when they do. Experts on information technology don’t get rolled in with doctors, lawyers and accountants by many people but are actually pretty smart about many subjects. So are a lot of other people including police, firemen and others who may not have a college degree. There are libraries everywhere.

      • Ben Carson?

        Some case!

        Angelina Jolie.

        People pay a lot of attention to what some stars say. They pay attention to presidential candidates and politicians who they agree with.

        I pay plenty of attention to professors but not all professors equally. I apply critical thinking to what professors say just as I apply critical thinking to what everyone else says and to my own bright ideas.

        There are plenty of smart and insightful people who have not bothered to acquire certifications showing they are smart.

  2. There are so many forces eroding the underpinnings of the Ivory Tower and the professorate is largely silent or grumbling while ducking their heads so the falling bricks don’t crown them or block a critical passage. One wonders, on a union blog, why there should be concern about playing public intellectual. Maybe its .just a diversion to avoid dealing with the fracturing as in England where the locals picked the stones out of Hadrian’s wall to build their own homes.

  3. Thanks for this post; speaking as a US citizen and a historian (not of the modern US, admittedly), I mostly agree. But I’d offer a couple of caveats. One is that most of us seem to be just as resigned and ineffectual inside as outside the ivory tower, if we take that to include not just academic fields and discourse but universities as institutions. And I think that faculty quiescence/collaboration amid adjunctification and corporatization in the academy is just the flip-side of the lack of wider political engagement you talk about here. Second, I’d be loath to reduce the rationale for academics using their voices to one of personal discipline and skills, partly for reasons David Marshak has mentioned but more importantly because yes, a lifetime of studying and teaching history/politics/society/etc might very well mean that you are better informed about them than someone who stopped reading/thinking about them after college. That’s a matter of specific knowledge, not just skills or discipline. But for that same reason it might be more compelling to legitimize one’s contribution explicitly in terms of those years of work rather than on a decades-old credential — which, to most people outside the ivory tower, means very little.

  4. A quotation I used in a College Comp class, identified in my file as “from Thomas Jefferson in Support of a Law Establishing Public Education”:

    “[Of the goals] of this law none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty. For this purpose the reading of the first stage, where they [young people in general] will receive their whole education, is proposed . . . to be chiefly historical. History, by apprising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experiences of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every guise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views [i.e., intentions].”

    Personally, I claimed my mouthing off in public forums on public issues as counting toward my contractually-required public service, a position seconded by a series of departmental Chairs in passing up the food chain my annual reports. And the conservative administration at a conservative school — Paul Ryan’s Alma Mater in John Boehner’s Congressional District — accepted the claim. Implying that one spoke for the University was off-limits, and flaunting one’s credentials was and is tacky and bush-league; but serving the public by applying one’s training to public issues — that was an remains a duty of the professoriate, especially those at public schools.

  5. Pingback: Stanley Fish, Stop Opining about History | memorious

  6. Pingback: Historians vs Trump 2: Questions in Fish’s Wake | memorious

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