Monday, January 18, 2010

Liberal Arts and the Public Intellectual

The usual roar of angst about the relevance of the liberal arts has not gotten louder lately, but it does seem to be taking on a particular tenor and timbre. In part based on Louis Menand's book about the professionalization of the humanities as an obstacle to creating public intellectuals, and in part based on a study done in sociology that both documents and explains a clear tendency toward liberal political affinities among humanities and social sciences scholars (h/t to Claire Potter at Tenured Radical), people doing the same job that I am doing are apparently not doing it to the satisfaction of someone else.

All of this hand-wringing in the general populace about the relevance of the liberal humanist academic to the, umm, real world is all sorts of things at once: troubling, democratic, anti-elitist, anti-intellectual, politically conservative, misinformed.

I do indeed understand the anxiety that the political middle and right have about the bias in the classroom--and of course its there, no matter how much we may hedge against our own politics. I do wonder though whether bankers, financial advisers, Army generals, CEOs of major corporations, even MBA faculty in the same institutions are as anxious about the political biases of their fields. Do we really think that those are politically balanced professions? As Gross and Fosse argue, these professions (English prof and army general and many others, too) self-select as much as anything, and I really do wonder whether the professoriate in the humanities really does have any out-sized influence: It's not like millions of conservatives didn't go through the same humanities coursework that is required in gen-ed curricula the nation over.

So whatever about political bias: I'm over it, and my tactic in the classroom is not to hide it, but rather to be crystal clear about my politics, and then invite debate. I want conservative students to speak up, and I don't try to "make examples out of them." Articulate conservative students are frequently quite persuasive in these (still infrequent) politically charged classroom moments.

But the review of Menand's book (which I hope to obtain and read soon) suggests that Menand's argument is essentially, ... Fine, the humanities are self-selecting. But the narrow band of folks who self-select academia tells us that the professionalization of the humanities has made it too insular to be healthy...

I agree and disagree. In the introduction to the co-edited collection on anti-disciplinarity (wow! in the top million in book sales! Who knew?), my co-editor and I argue that we do need to cut across the narrow disciplinary lines created by both the professionalization of and the state regulation of the academy. But we do not do so on the argument that this creates a more competitive marketplace of ideas (I so dislike the capitalist logic of that notion), but rather that doing so can better create conditions for a more politically engaged classroom space. Not the marketplace of ideas, but the town square of ideas, the speaker's corner of ideas. It's the academy as preparation for the democracy, not the market. I'm self-consciously training citizens, not consumers. And other disciplines do self-consciously train consumers, and even more pointedly, laborers. So the late-market capitalist bias functious right alongside my leftist one (though really, is teaching for democracy actually leftist?).

When we are told that English needs to better communicate its value to the job market, to the career preparation of its students, and in short, to produce better human capital, I get it. It's both a survival tactic for English, but also a cultural shift in the place of the academy, an argument made in turns cranky, troubling, and illuminating by William Chace recently in The American Scholar. But we also must assert our value in training citizens, something without a specific exchange value, but is, as the MasterCard commercials say, priceless.

While Menand [eta: rather Gideon Lewis-Kraus, the Slate reviewer of Menand's book] wants a public intellectual who functions in the public marketplace, I want (and want to become) a different kind of public intellectual: the sort who engages the public sphere of our commonly owned government and governance. And for me that starts in the classroom, and in fact demands that I be the political provocateur that I sometimes become. I will tie Wordsworth's laments in "Tintern Abbey" to arguments over mountaintop removal. I will make clear that the imperial tactics in Heart of Darkness are primarily economic, and therefore still entirely in operation today in the under-developed world. I will note the particular nature of the construction of masculinity in Tennyson, and the ways that those constructions are still rooted to our sense of nation and empire as well as leadership and achievement. These are reading tactics that help my students translate the ideas of literature into the very practical world of their own, where their votes might well hinge on their beliefs about mountaintop removal, their sense of international economic policy, or their biases against a female candidate for the highest office in the land.

Now, Menand's argument (and Chace's and to a degree Stanley Fish's in Save the World on Your own Time and in the most recent issue of Profession) rests upon decrying (depending upon the specific argument) increased specialization, disciplinary fragmentation , cultural studies inflections, politicization, and professionalization of our research and writing. I think there's a legitimate claim in here that our published work does often reach only a very tiny coterie audience, needlessly speaking a specialized language. But I think there's a lot of factors here, including the very limited demand (again, marketplace, dammit) for the work of even the most accessible of public intellectuals. The Slate review of Menand's book holds him to the highest standards, but he doesn't sell nearly as many books than the intellectually mendacious Glenn Beck, or Dan Brown, or Nicholas Sparks, or Stephanie Meyer or ... or ... or (although admittedly his Amazon rank on all of his books are higher than for my co-edited So how many public intellectuals can we really sustain, after all?

But to become a kind of public intellectual in the classroom, we do need ways to converse and distinguish ourselves, and sometimes this means writing to each other, to our coterie audiences. The texts I write about appear seldom on my syllabi, especially at the undergraduate level. Sure they make cameos. but I'd never dream of writing about Shakespeare in any concerted fashion, and yet I teach his work constantly in the genre classes on drama. This is its own marketplace of ideas (or idea-havers), and runs (devastatingly for most on the job market or in contingent positions) with its own cruel logic. If we add the consuming public to the machinery of that particular market, we make our demands for scholarship nigh on impossible.

But, perhaps there is something usable here, something about opening up the standards of the discipline, rather than building them up by accretion of demands. Perhaps we do need to be thinking more broadly about "what counts" not just toward tenure, but as labor. Does the demand for public intellectual production extend to activism on the local, state, or national level? Does it include op-eds or even the occasional letter to the editor? Does blogging belong in this discussion?

Or, is all of this sturm and drang another pissy set of cliches that is aimed at deflating academic egos? Does the critique amount to little more than bitching about somebody else getting paid to do something that too many people believe that a) they could do and b) isn't really work. Or alternatively (and sometimes simultaneously) that c) they were never able to do (often as students themselves) and d) weren't willing to put in the work to accomplish. There are old and mean biases against intellectual labor here, and they abound, and when cast in ideological turns, they get vicious.

But really let's be clear about some of they monetary stakes here, because money does get mentioned often. I could be making more writing cheap ad copy for computer resellers (which I got more for per hour as a part-timer during grad school than I get now per hour on a 9.5 month 40 hour work-week basis). I'm not bilking America, or my students, or the state, or parents, or anyone. I'm doing my job, which is to think, write, and teach about literature, and I do it damn well. Most of my colleagues do, too.

All of this is to say that I think that, sure, academic reform is useful in places and ways. But rarely in these zeitgeist ways that make it onto bestseller lists or into the pages of the NYT or the WSJ. I'd love to become the kind of public intellectual who writes smart books that lots of other people want to read. But even were the figure of the public intellectual to emerge more prominently at the broader cultural level, the public appetite for public intellectualism in the humanities will still staff only a handful of actual English departments. In the meantime, everywhere else there are (often underprivileged) students to teach, and a democracy that keeps on demanding a citizenry that should, after all, know how to participate.


Flavia said...

Fantastic post, Horace.

Lots of good stuff here, but the most important one, I think, is your argument that one can be a "public intellectual" in the classroom--and that that has a greater and more important effect, on a more diverse population, than being one who writes for The New Yorker.

I also totally agree about the "academic overspecialization" argument--I think it comes out of a prestigious-research-school environment, where people see their colleagues teaching small seminars on seemingly esoteric topics (although even in that context, it often requires ignoring the actual texts that get taught in those classes, and it definitely requires ignoring the big, bread-and-butter survey classes that serve the largest number of students).

Most of us teach broadly, and we teach primarily major authors and major works (within whatever our field is). I virtually never teach the works I do my research on, either--although that work and its issues absolutely inform my teaching, and make me better at it in all kinds of material ways.

Anonymous said...

Such a thoughtful post, Horace. I wish I had time to post a deservingly thoughtful reply, but no, I do not. Just know I've tagged it to think about at least.

Flavia: exactly!

Earnest English said...

Really wonderful post, Horace! I'd love a copy of your intro for the article I'm trying to write (that I'm having major problems with as discussed on my blog), but I can't find your email. My email is if you'd like to talk about it.

Doctor Cleveland said...

Wonderful post, Horace.

I also think the attack on specialized research comes out of the old gentleman-scholar tradition, in which gentlemen scholars didn't do the kind of "pedantic" specialized work that arriviste professional scholars did, but concentrated on Teaching the Eternal Verities.

Menand seems to be advocating no research at all, but instead "public intellectuals" who operate on such a level of vast generality that they're not really offering any new knowledge at all. He's not talking about doing less specialized research, but about doing no research at all. No thanks.

Michael Bérubé said...

Great stuff, yes, but I do have one quibble: the idea that hyperspecialization is preventing the American university from producing more public intellectuals isn't really central (or, on my reading, even marginal) to Menand's book. That particular take, I think, is Gideon Lewis-Kraus's (he's the Slate reviewer), and it owes a great deal to Russell Jacoby's 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals -- a jeremiad that, imho, has warped discussion of academe and intellectuals long, long past the sell-by date.

Menand's much more concerned with time-to-degree and intellectual groupthink than he is with "hyperspecialization," and that's because his take on professionalism (unlike that of Lewis-Kraus ... or Jacoby) is nuanced and ambivalent (i.e., it's not the usual nonsense about how professionalism is bad because it keeps knowledge out of the hands of the public). And the problem with Menand, on that front, is that he strains mightily to see groupthink as an epiphenomenon of long time-to-degree statistics. Basically, he argues that when it takes 10-12 years to get a Ph.D. in the humanities, you're going to produce a lot of thinkalikes, which is why everybody in the humanities is safely left of, say, Evan Bayh. But as I point out (in a NYTBR review that'll be out this Sunday), this doesn't begin to explain why Democrats outnumber Republicans 10 to 1 in departments of physics.

Anyway, I do agree with the post, heartily. I just wanted to say that your critique is better aimed at Lewis-Kraus than at Menand (who, btw, has no problem with specialized research).

Horace said...

Thanks for the catch, there, Michael, and thanks to everyone for the thoughtful and thought-provoking feedback.

I do want to clarify that I still haven't read the Menand text, only now several reviews of it--three courses and childcare probably mean that it's a spring-break read.

But Menand need not to have written this book, I suspect, as a pretext for this post. Since I think the line of thinking is too pervasive (as again, Michael's comment points out).