U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Engagé Historian; Disengaged Scholar?

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.

6 Thoughts on this Post

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We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Tim, thanks for this. Between the 2016 election and the emergence of the #MeToo movement in fall 2017 (which may well not have happened as it did, or hit with the force that it did, had the election gone otherwise), I find myself increasingly incapable of putting on the mantle of disengagement or detachment (though maybe they’re not the same). But my engagement is perhaps less practical than yours. I marched, I gave money, I organized a read-in in response to racist/white supremacist flyers posted at my university, but mostly I just got angry and gained weight — I guess I’m carb-loading for the apocalypse or something.

    On the other hand, every last f*ck I’ve ever given about pleasing other people in ways large and small shriveled up and died on the vine. Which, ironically, has resulted in deeper and more meaningful relationships with everyone in my life. That’s probably because loving other people and “doing unto others” are other matters entirely, and I feel freed to do that now more than ever. My biggest struggle is finding and guarding the place where I can write scholarship from love, and figuring out what that looks like, or I fear I won’t write scholarship at all. And then of course if I do write it, someone will doubtless take pains to tell me it isn’t real scholarship because there’s too much love or passion in it, or something.

    I also feel very pressed for time. When some people feel this, they turn to the desk and crank out extraordinary scholarly work for posterity or generations to come or whatever. But when a sense of my mortality impinges upon me more than usual (and God knows I’ve been aware of my eventual demise since I was three years old), I tend not to turn to writing, but to reading.

    I’ll be 50 next month — my late August, the fairest of the seasons, turning to September — so I am reading a lot lately.

    Anyway, thanks for this post.

    • I think my post accidentally perpetuates, or reifies, the activism/research dichotomy. I know they don’t have to be separate. But this particular political administration has challenged me in terms of integration. Many recent happenings have felt so immediate and pressing, emotionally and in terms of need for action, that scholarship hasn’t even been a part of my equation. This has been my primary problem. The felt immediate need has been, to me, qualitatively different. My prior conceptions of “scholarly time” have been massively disrupted. I have no rhythm. That lack of rhythm drove this reflection.

      • Understood. In this current political moment — not to mention in the unpredictable rhythms of life — there are matters that really are urgent. They require our attention, individually and collectively. It’s all well and good to counsel ourselves not to succumb to the tyranny of the urgent — but that’s advice most easily given when tyranny isn’t literally looming in the shadows (and then slumping onto center stage!).

        And, this is going to sound weird, but it’s really difficult these days to find the energy or the collective will for engaging in a good old-fashioned argument of the kind that we really need in order to sharpen our understanding.

        There’s so much outside the realm of scholarship to argue against and work against, and the daily onslaught of dismal news and treacherous gaslighting is all so deeply exhausting, one hardly feels like arguing — really, deeply arguing — with one’s fellows in scholarship. But that’s what makes scholarship good and worth reading, I think — a willingness to contend for one’s perspective on “the narrative(s)” on X, whatever X is, not out of some sense of pedantry, but because these things matter, if only to our little fellowship. (And I think they matter more broadly than that, or they wouldn’t matter to us.)

        Still, it’s hard to sustain the belief that differing views of historical epistemology or the place of religion in academic life or the idea of home or whatever it is are all that important to hash out just now, when the whole damn world is going to hell in a flaming crap-filled basket.

        This is not helpful for the writing of books.

  2. Thanks for this excellent and thought-provoking post, Tim. I’d add that scholarship can take many forms when it comes to political engagement. Moving beyond the world of monographs, public historians and curators have pursued greater dialogue through rapid-response collecting initiatives and the Museums Are Not Neutral movement: https://artmuseumteaching.com/about/

    • Agreed on the many forms. Of course some of those things you mention require institutional sanction, which complicates how one utilizes appropriate outlets for felt needs. As I note above in my reply to LD, there has been something qualitatively different—something that I guess hasn’t been felt by faculty and students since the late 1960s in relation to both the Vietnam War and certain aspects of CRM. The compelling immediate has overwhelmed one’s ability to reflect and do the scholarship that is (still) needed. – TL

  3. Thank you for the chance to weigh in on this topic, Tim. A few stray thoughts:

    Scholarship, teaching, and political activism are all insatiable realms of action. In each case, there is always more to be done. If you have more than one of these in your life, some crazy balancing act is necessary. I have all three, plus a family. This has been a difficult last few months.

    Compartmentalization is possible. I don’t think there is necessarily any inherent conflict between scholarship and political activism, other than time. When I was working on campaigns, I wasn’t thinking as a scholar or historian. I set that identity aside.

    Of those who worked politically for Democratic candidates in Texas this season, I saw a number of people make great sacrifices of health and wealth. Most were women. It was because of them that we were able to succeed where we did.

    In terms of the claim above, for scholarship, one might substitute any creative endeavor. By that I mean any endeavor that calls upon all available talents and skills. Like most folks, I’ve always had to make a living, and therefore I’ve had to find ways to fit scholarship or creative endeavor around the immediacy of earning a paycheck. Mindless work allowed more time for creativity, but less of a paycheck. Teaching pays better but … well, see above.

    Still wondering if the trade-off is worth it.

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S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.