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.