It is difficult, of course, to be both politically active and a working scholarly historian. Political activity requires supreme attention to the nuances of the present, as well as time away from reading, the archives, and one’s writing desk. You can’t simultaneously be at a rally, or helping prepare for a gathering, and also be attentive to the slow process of gathering evidence, organizing your findings, outlining, writing, and editing.
Scholarship requires remove and reflection. It needs time for simmering and gestation, comparison and contrast. Scholarly progress also requires testing—review, comment, and criticism. We all know it’s a time-consuming process. That time helps guarantee its ability incorporate necessary nuance and to be sufficiently reflective.
The line between being an intellectual and being politically active is crossed regularly. History provides plenty of examples of those filling both roles. Being an engagé intellectual means being committed to a cause. You can be one of Gramsci’s organic intellectuals—both part of and a leader of the working class. Recently scholars have also recognized the category of public intellectuals as capturing those who ride the lines between scholarship, public presentation, and the intellectual life. Even politicians occasionally fit the bill. And some politicians—Wilson and Obama, for example—were scholars before they became politicians.
Generally, however, something suffers when the boundaries between scholarship, intellectualism, and politics are transgressed. Intellectuals in public life are mocked for their elitism, personality quirks, attention to complexity, focus on details, etc. Politicians who display intellectual or scholarly traits are castigated for being out of touch. They’re labeled elitists. Their calculations are regarded with suspicion, engendering conspiracy theories and wild accusations. Organic intellectuals—of which their seem to be few in history—are embraced by all classes of people, even when their roots are middle and upper class, and when they earn noteworthy education credentials. I’m thinking of Che Guevara, Fred Hampton, Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Margaret Sanger, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, etc.
Despite some exceptions, my general point remains: scholarly production and political productivity are at odds. Positive gains in one arena crowd out progress in the other.
Since November 2016, I’ve been a politically active historian. I’ve used the critical thinking skills and historical knowledge gained as a working historian to fight for social, cultural, and political progress—and against perceived regressions. My skills and knowledge have made me an informed activist. Although I planned and ran, in early 2016, to be chair of the 2018 S-USIH conference in Chicago, and had an early desire to center that conference on anti-intellectualism, the results of the 2016 presidential election cemented my decision. I wanted a conference on a capacious topic that addressed past-present political currents. What happened a few weeks ago in Chicago was a product of my training, historical interests, and, in part, commitment to political engagement.
Even so, and while I retain my right to use the title of historian, my scholarship has suffered. I finished a book manuscript, for a coauthored project, just after the election in April 2017. But our publication plan fell apart and I’ve not found the time, or energy, to revise and resubmit my half elsewhere. I also have changed jobs twice since the last presidential election. That and other personal, family matters have massively disrupted my plans for marginal scholarly progress. Those matters prevented my full attendance and, more importantly, my full engagement with the entire run of presentations at the S-USIH conference. But even if my personal and professional life had been more stable, my political commitments would have been sufficiently disruptive. My work as an engagé historian has hamstrung my scholarly engagements.
How many of you have suffered, in the scholarly realm, because of your social and political commitments? Has this been, like me, since November 2016? Do you feel that your commitment to scholarship has been jeopardized? How and when will you return to your planned, regular historical work?
Before 2016, I felt that the slow, deliberate work of scholarship was *the* way toward deep and lasting political change. My primary concerns, in my dissertation and first book, were democratic culture, civic engagement, critical thinking, and education. I expressed those concerns and themes through deep research on the great books idea. I believe that was a valid scholarly endeavor in relation to those topics. My second unfinished book manuscript is on “great books cosmopolitanism,” or how the great books idea engages globalism, universalism, and world culture. I also feel that has been an important extension of my prior work. My next project will shepherding a scholarly encyclopedia, as the editor in chief, on the topics of anti-intellectualism and elitism.
But I can’t escape the nagging feeling that our times—meaning the immediate present—demand something more than scholarship. I am wondering if I can balance the roles of engagé historian with the less engaged work of scholarship.* Does our “shared now” demand more of me, and us, than does the important but less immediately useful work of scholarship? I’m not sure I’ve provided my inner self the most convincing answer that question. – TL
* I think I’ve been wondering about this divide for some time, well before the November 2016 presidential election.