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June 09, 2005

"Imagining America"

I think that academics are pretty alienated--especially after last November, but the problem had been building for decades. Often, scholars feel very distant from the mainstream of American culture. In the social sciences, academics tend to be well left of the American mainstream; they also carry the burden of professional expertise, since they think they know good policies (or at least good reasons and evidence), yet political leaders ignore their findings. I have often criticized social scientists for believing they possess knowledge about values and about the future, when actually public opinion is just as legitimate. See, for example, this recent post. There is a good case for more genuine dialogue between social scientists and citizens, and Craig Calhoun of the Social Science Research Council makes that argument as well as anyone.

In the humanities, the problem is a little different. Most humanists don't believe that they could write a better budget than George W. Bush, or bring democracy to Iraq. They don't possess technical, analytical tools that give them confidence in their practical judgments and make them critical of foolish politicians and voters. However, they do feel very alienated from mainstream public opinion. Americans tend to be religious, pro-business, culturally traditional, and nationalistic, whereas most people who choose to teach and conduct research in the humanities are secular, critical of money and markets, culturally radical, and cosmopolitan. This gap seems to explain concrete, practical problems in their lives--declining enrollments in humanities courses, less financial support for research, fewer jobs, less fulfilling relationships with students. As Julie Ellison writes in a wonderful essay entitled "The Humanities and the Public Soul" (pdf), the "pressure is felt as coercive, as sabotage of the conditions needed for imagination and reflection."

Many of my colleagues assume that their main public role is to provide a critical alternative to mainstream culture--and to be subsidized by tax money and tuition for that purpose. It's a deeply uncomfortable position. Artists, by the way, are in the same boat, as I have argued in an essay entitled "Lessons from the Brooklyn Museum Controversy."

Ellison, whom I quoted above, is founding director of Imagining America, a consortium of 50 colleges and universities--including my own--that claim to be committed to "public scholarship."

Public scholarship joins serious intellectual endeavor with a commitment to public practice and public consequence. It includes

Scholarly and creative work jointly planned and carried out by university and community partners;

Intellectual work that produces a public good;

Artistic, critical, and historical work that contributes to public debates;

Efforts to expand the place of public scholarship in higher education itself, including the development of new programs and research on the successes of such efforts.

Ellison promotes public scholarship as a way of overcoming alienation. Professors in the arts and humanities usually hold different political opinions from other citizens; they also struggle with the contrast between their critical stance and the public's need for hope and inspiration. As Ellison notes, conducting scholarship collaboratively and in public makes these tensions between academic and public values "more pronounced. But at the same time, public scholarship can bring these tendencies into a new and more fruitful balance." Scholars who collaborate with non-professionals can occasionally find inspiration and insight from that common work.

In another essay on the Imagining America website, Julia Lupton writes (pdf): "The crisis in the humanities--in public funding, in public interest, and in support on our own campuses--is our problem, not so much in the sense that we have caused it (there are multiple systemic factors at work), as in the sense that no one is going to fix it for us." It's almost always the case, no matter how unjust a situation may be, that political wisdom starts with recognizing that a problem is ours, that "we're the ones we've been waiting for." Imagining America has contributed a great deal by taking on the humanities' problems as its own and not being satisfied with blaming philistines and reactionaries for cutting budgets. At the very least, the organization has launched projects that would be deeply satisfying to work on.

Posted by peterlevine at June 9, 2005 02:41 PM

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