Is Sean Wilentz the “Intellectual Heir” of Arthur Schlesinger Jr.?

Wilentz

Timothy Shenk, in a review of two Sean Wilentz books, makes the case.  Here is a taste of his review at The Nation:

As the campaign to impeach Bill Clinton rolled forward in 1998, the White House called on the assistance of a longtime ally: the Ivy League. The administration summoned a team of experts to testify on the president’s behalf in front of the House Judiciary Committee that included a Yale law professor, a Harvard political scientist, and a Princeton historian. The historian, Sean Wilentz, was the youngest member of the group, but he was also the most zealous. After the witnesses were sworn in, Wilentz told the committee that if they supported impeachment without being absolutely certain that the president’s transgressions constituted high crimes and misdemeanors, “history will track you down and condemn you for your cravenness.”

Wilentz’s appearance garnered poor reviews—“gratuitously patronizing,” wrote The New York Times—but it whetted his appetite for partisan skirmishing. He had come to the Clinton team’s attention as the result of a campaign he’d led with Arthur Schlesinger Jr. to gather signatures from prominent historians for a petition that charged the supporters of impeachment with endangering the US Constitution. Now it seemed that Schlesinger, the aging liberal giant, had found his successor—a public intellectual, rigorous scholar, and Democratic Party street fighter who would carry the battle for liberalism into the next generation.

Over the following decade, Wilentz cemented his place as Schlesinger’s intellectual heir. Like Schlesinger, he’d begun his career as a specialist in early American political history, then moved on to writing about the entire scope of the nation’s past. Outside academic circles, he was well known for his regular contributions to the Leon Wieseltier–run “back of the book” at The New Republic, where he opined on subjects ranging from the influence of postmodern theory (bad) to the popularity of David McCullough (also bad) in essays thrown down like lightning bolts from Mount Princeton. In 2005, he published The Rise of American Democracy, a 1,000-page opus on the emergence of popular government in the United States, from the Declaration of Independence to the Civil War. Three years later, he followed it up with The Age of Reagan, a survey of American political history from 1974 to 2008 that not so implicitly set the stage for a coming liberal era after Reagan’s. With the 2008 presidential election under way, rumors swirled that Wilentz was poised to follow Schlesinger’s example yet again, this time as the court historian for Hillary Clinton’s upcoming administration.

Read the rest here.

Historian Thomas Sugrue on Public Thinking

Sugrue

Over at Public Books, University of Chicago historian Destin Jenkins interviews New York University historian Thomas Sugrue about his work as a public scholar.  Here is a taste the interview:

DJ: We could talk shop all day. How and why did you decide to communicate this history with the public?

TJS: Throughout my career, I have chosen topics that have contemporary relevance. I don’t see a bright line between past and present. When I was in graduate school, one of the harshest criticisms you could level against a historian was that he or she was a presentist. Somehow our historical scholarship would be compromised by our engagement with the world that we live in now. I’ve never found this argument to be persuasive. It’s a fallacy to see the present as somehow uprooted from history. The opportunities and constraints that we experience in the here and now are the result of historical processes.

I also don’t draw a bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy. I think those of us who have the skills to write clearly should exercise those skills. We should try to reach beyond a couple hundred specialists in our scholarly subfields.

DJ: You said there’s no bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy, but is the process different? Is the process of writing an article or book chapter different from writing op-eds? Walk us through the mechanics.

TJS: When you write an op-ed for the New York Times or the Washington Post, you might have 750 or 800 words. You have to take a lot of complex material and boil it down to its essence. That requires making really hard choices about what’s in and what’s out. We historians love detail. We love the specifics, but when you’re writing short, popular pieces, you’ve got to let a lot of that detail fall by the wayside.

Some would say that it’s dangerous to simplify complex arguments, but I think it can be done well. The key is to be faithful to the substance of your argument even if you’re leaving a lot of the evidence out. Readers who want to know more can find my articles online or go to their local library or bookstore and pick up a copy of one of my books.

DJ: What have been some of the other ways you’ve shown up as a public thinker?

TJS: I have been asked to be an expert witness in a number of civil rights cases. That requires another type of writing. I’m an archive hound. I’m really rigorous. I try to leave no statement that I make in a book or a scholarly article unsupported. I try to turn over every last stone. The burden of proof, already high, is even greater when you are engaged in research for a legal case, because your work is going to be used in an adversarial process. I go through every word, every footnote, and make sure everything is absolutely precise. I know my work is going to be subjected to close scrutiny by lawyers who want to demolish my credibility.

Another way in which I engage different audiences is through public speaking. I’ve given hundreds of talks and workshops and lectures, not only at colleges and universities, but also to community organizations, museums, religious congregations, and foundations. I once even gave a keynote at a chamber of commerce event, because that audience needed to be exposed, more than most, to scholarship on race and inequality. I speak to people who agree with me, but also to people who don’t.

Read the entire interview here.

Back in 2014, I offered my two cents on public scholarship in a 9-part video series published on YouTube as part of the old Virtual Office Hours.  Here is episode 1:

 

From a Ph.D in Medieval Literature to a Public Critic

JosephineLivingstoneI really enjoyed this interview with Josephine Livingstone, a culture staff writer at The New Republic.  She describes the difference between academic writing and public writing.  Here is a taste of her interview with Rachel Scarborough King at Public Books:

RK: How do you compare the kind of writing you do now to your academic writing? What do you like and dislike most about the public-facing writing that you do?

JL: Being productive is a big hallmark of my attitude toward this work, which is a little different from how I saw the academic work that I did before. The difference between that and my academic writing is kind of temporal. When I wrote my dissertation, I felt like I was speaking to myself and to the past. I was trying to make diagnoses implicitly about the modern world, but mostly my materials were medieval, and what I was doing was trying to push back certain arenas of postcolonial theory to apply to culture before the era of mass colonialism. For me it was kind of about trying to define my existence as not being part of the contemporary world. And I liked living elsewhere, which is a form of fantasy, but I really enjoyed it, and it felt productive and like I was doing something that had an ethical drive behind it.

But the work I do now I think of as service to the community of people who make art; I feel that reviews are a very important part of the economy—okay, maybe they’re not very important, but they are in some way a part of cultural production in 2019. And so I feel this ethical duty now to take every work of art seriously even if it’s a minor novel that’s coming out and I just want to boost that person’s name. You have to take every work of art equally seriously and ignore how famous or prominent the person who made it is. And that is an ethical drive, but it’s really different from the ethical drive that I felt in the academy.

RK: So do you see yourself as taking skills you learned in grad school and translating them, or are they different skill sets?

JL: A lot of my writing is about gender and race, and I definitely draw every day on the critical theory and some of the primary texts that I read in grad school—there’s no line there, it’s like a fuzzy overlapping boundary. The thing that Jill Lepore calls academic jargon is much maligned in the media. The first editor I ever had would give me so much shit about it, but I think that when you’re in an academic community you devise certain kinds of shorthand for much bigger ideas that help you to imply much more than it looks like you’re saying. A good example is that I used to use the word “horizons” a lot, and my editor would always be like, “Stop using this word,” but to me the word “horizons” implied this critically aware way of describing social historical context and how that limits or inflects an individual’s thinking. That makes perfect sense, but it doesn’t make sense to most people, so it took a lot of unlearning.

I also like Livingstone’s thought about being a “public intellectual”:

I think it would be very grandiose for me to think of myself that way, so no. I also don’t think that public intellectual is something that—like, no one ever introduces themselves at a dinner party and someone asks them what they do and they say, “Oh, I’m a public intellectual.” It’s more of an idea and a way for people to group and better understand a sector of professionals at work now who don’t quite fit into old typologies of who does what, because the public intellectual is something that has always been around. Today I think it incorporates things like editors, people who founded publications, columnists but not op-ed writers; it includes some podcasters and some radio people. Yeah, I think it includes so many types of people that the term “public intellectual” has to somehow describe a sensibility more than a workday.

Read the entire piece here.

Intellectualism and Anti-Intellectualism in the Age of Trump

hofstadter

Richard Hofstadter still looms large in any discussion of anti-intellectualism in America

Here is a taste of Adam Water‘s and E.J. Dionne‘s recent piece at Dissent: “Is Anti-Intellectualism Ever Good for Democracy?

Intellectuals are not entitled to special privileges, and “intellectualism” should not be seen as a superior way of life. But the intellectual project, involving the search for truth and understanding with some independence from the pressures of both the state and the market, must be defended. And it is a project that citizens who do not have any formal status in the academy or think tanks can join.

Intellectuals are integral to the battle against falsehood, but they need to work as part of a broad democratic enterprise involving citizens of every background who are concerned about what Trump and his cronies’ systematic denigration of facts means for the vitality of our democracy. There is no magical political strategy for building this coalition, and in the range of priorities for progressives, this would not rank as a central cause.

Read the entire piece here.

On Historians, Public Debate, and Journalists

hofstadter

The days of Richard Hofstadter are over

Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education published an interview with Harvard University historian Jill Lepore. We posted about it here.  During the course of the interview, Lepore said:

The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

When Lepore laments the lack of public engagement among historians, I imagine that she wants historians to write for popular publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or The New York Review of Books  Or perhaps she means writing books with trade presses.

Thomas Sugrue, a Professor of History and the Director of the New York University Collaborative on Global Urbanism, whipped-off a series of tweets in response to Lepore’s article.  I have included these tweets below.  Since I have mixed feelings about these tweets, I have decided to comment on some of them.

I don’t hold an academic appointment that most in the academy would consider prestigious, so I am not sure how many folks listen to me or take me seriously, but I have been preaching about the need for historians to engage the public for more than a decade.

I think Sugrue is correct.  Lepore’s criticism of historians staying in the ivory tower and not writing for the public is not as strong as it was a decade ago.  But what counts as public engagement?  It seems that Lepore and Sugrue are in general agreement that public engagement is primarily about writing in magazines that have very little readership beyond a well-educated, urban class that either live in blue states or aspire to live in blue states.

Moreover, those who publish pieces in The Washington Post and New York Times usually write for online audiences.  Most Americans do not search for these kinds of pieces in the online versions of national newspapers.  The thinking classes usually learn about these pieces through social media–usually Facebook and Twitter.  As a result, pieces in the Post or the Times circulate among the proverbial choir.  Is this really shaping public debate?

I agree.  The Internet has enabled this.

Yes.  I appreciate Zelizer on this front.  He is engaging a much wider audience every Saturday on CNN.

This is all well and good, but all of Sugrue’s examples here are historians shaping public debate by, for the most part, preaching to the choir.  I don’t want to be unfair to Sugrue because I largely agree with him on most of these tweets, but some of us do not live in a world where a well-targeted op-ed or a review in the LA Review of Books is going to be read.  The people I encounter every day in American evangelicalism or in south-central Pennsylvania do not usually read The Atlantic or The New Yorker.  They don’t see these magazines shaping public debate in their neighborhoods and towns.

I live in a world where we need to defend the very idea that historians have something to offer public life.  The people I know need to be convinced that history is important.  They do not breathe the rarefied intellectual air that Sugrue and Lepore breathe.

While I have published pieces in The AtlanticThe Washington Post, and other places that Sugrue or Lepore might deem worthy of a historian-public intellectual, I am convinced that we need more than this. I want to push for a deeper, even more engaged, public witness.  We need public historians laboring tirelessly to present the past to visitors in small museums. We need historians making cases, in their own backyards, for why these small museums need funding.  We need historians to earn trust among audiences through public lectures (reading papers in public venues are not public lectures) and face-to-face conversations about their books.  We need historians willing to educate college presidents and boards on the importance of the humanities. We need historians to build communities through blogs and social media. (Kevin Kruse is a great example here, but most of his audience represent one political/ideological perspective).  We need to work with teachers and make connections with local school districts.  We need historians teaching Sunday School.  We need to embrace the opportunity to teach large survey classes that put us in front of young men and women who need to see the importance of the past for their work in the worlds of business, engineering, and health care.  We need to stop thinking about our own ambitions and start using our skills to serve the common good in the places where we live and work.  The age of the superstar historian who speaks to mass culture is over.  Mass culture no longer exists.  We now live in what Daniel Rodgers has called “the age of fracture.”

Finally, we need to abandon the term “public intellectual.”  The only people who care about this moniker are other “public intellectuals” or scholars who aspire to a life as a “public intellectual.”  The phrase invokes a bunch of elite white men sitting around in Greenwich Village writing pieces that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not read.

Instead, perhaps we need to reclaim the public dimension of the term “historian.”

I don’t think Sugrue would disagree with any of this, but if we really want to reach as many people as possible in the age of Trump, we need to have a much more expansive view of public culture.

Scholars Respond to Trump’s Border Policy

immigrants

The Chronicle of Higher Education is running a piece on the way scholars stepped-up to the plate during the “Trump border crackdown.”  I am glad that The Chronicle is noticing our work.  Here is a taste of Mark Parry’s article:

…In recent weeks, seemingly every Trump immigration move has prompted a real-time counter-mobilization of academic research, either by scholars themselves or by journalists calling on their expertise.

You see that in John Fea and Yoni Appelbaum’s breakdowns of how a biblical passage cited by the attorney general was used by defenders of slavery. You see it in Aliza Luft and Daniel Solomon’s analysis of Trump’s animalizing rhetoric. You see it in the debate over whether it’s fair to call America’s migrant detention centers concentration camps. (The answer, say two experts, is a qualified yes.)

For some scholars, research that had percolated for years suddenly carries an immediate resonance. On Monday, for example, the political scientists Emily M. Farris and Heather Silber Mohamed published a journal article documenting how news outlets stoke fear of Latino immigrants through imagery depicting them as criminals. Farris drew on her research in a Twitter thread contrasting two images that have shaped the family-separation narrative: the photo of a little girl crying as a border agent frisks her mother, and a picture released by the Trump administration of faceless boys in detention.

“We should think about how those images play a role in who we think is deserving of our concern,” Farris, an assistant professor at Texas Christian University, said in an interview. She added, “Images are powerful, and we don’t necessarily think about them as mediums for the ways we can interpret different policies.”

In interviews with The Chronicle, other historians and political scientists emphasized a dilemma of engaging this debate: how to raise alarms about the potential for human-rights abuses while conveying a nuanced understanding of a fast-changing situation. (Trump signed an executive order on Wednesday intended to stop family separations. It remained unclear on Friday how relatives would be reunited.)

The academics’ challenge is complicated by a paradox of scholarly communication right now. Thanks to social media and the proliferation of outlets like Vox and Monkey Cage, scholars are mixing it up in public like never before. But some scholars are frustrated that academe’s fact-backed warnings don’t penetrate to policy makers or large swaths of the public. Their struggle: getting readers to consider their evidence without dismissing them as Ivory Tower elites yet again denouncing Trump.

Read the entire piece here.

Alan Jacobs: Christian Intellectual

jacobsCheck out David Michael’s piece on Baylor humanities professor Alan Jacobs.  A taste:

Early in his career, Jacobs experienced what might be called an extended crisis of audience, a crisis he recalled when I interviewed him in February. At the time a professor of English at Wheaton College, an evangelical school outside of Chicago, he was publishing scholarly work within his field but was increasingly devoting time to writing essays and theological pieces for Christian magazines and journals. Switching back and forth could be disorienting, and he spent several years debating and praying about which audience he should focus on. “At one point, I just had an epiphany: You don’t get to choose.You’re gonna have to write for your scholarly peers, and you’re gonna have to write for your fellow Christians because you have things to say to both audiences. So, that means, you gotta learn to code switch.”

Since making that decision, Jacobs has published 15 books on literature, technology, theology and cognitive psychology and has written for such disparate publications as The American Scholar, First Things and Harper’s. His résumé is nine pages long without his book reviews (approximately 75) or online writing (hundreds of articles and blog posts). It calls to mind David Foster Wallace’s comment about John Updike: “Has the sonofabitch ever had one unpublished thought?”

Jacobs is now 59 and teaches humanities at Baylor University, a Baptist school in Waco, Tex., with the delightful motto “Pro Ecclesia, Pro Texana.” He has kind eyes beneath mantis-like glasses and a warm, mischievous smile framed by a trim salt-and-pepper beard. He looks and dresses less like an academic than a middle-aged middle manager at a tech company—which is to say, both cool and not.

In the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Jacobs grew concerned over what he was witnessing. “I was watching the country come apart. I felt that, across the board, there was this failure to think. There was also a failure of charity, and I wanted to address that.”

So he quickly wrote How to Think: A Guide for the Perplexed, a short and engaging book that offers strategies for thinking more clearly and charitably at a time when the media fosters agitation and discourages thinking. The New York Times columnist David Brooks called it “absolutely splendid.”

Read the entire piece here.  See our posts on Jacobs’s work here.

Are There Any Evangelical Intellectuals Who Support Donald Trump?

Metaxas

Is Eric Metaxas an intellectual?

First,  a quick comment about the title of this post.  I am operating under the assumption that “evangelical intellectual” is not an oxymoron.

Can anyone name an evangelical intellectual who currently supports the administration of Donald Trump?  I am not asking for names of evangelical intellectuals who voted for Trump in 2016, but rather someone who uses his or her intellectual skills and public access to mainstream American political discourse as a means of supporting Trump’s presidency.  I would also consider culturally engaged and well-published evangelical academics as “evangelical intellectuals.”

I am thinking here about intellectuals who identify as “evangelical” and have a platform that transcends the evangelical subculture.

I am not trying to be snarky here.  I really want to know if there are people out there that I am missing.  Every evangelical public intellectual I know is anti-Trump.  Yesterday a reporter asked me to identify a thoughtful pro-Trump evangelical and I could not come up with one.

Could Eric Metaxas fit the bill?  Is it fair to call him an intellectual?  This reporter did not seem to think so, but others might disagree.

I am eager to read your suggestions, but I am also eager to read how you might deconstruct the question.

How to be a Public Intellectual

intellectual

Over at the Pedagogy & American Literary Studies blog, Randi Tanglen of Austin College offers some ways to get started:

  1. Serve the public good
  2. Align your personal and professional values
  3. Write for a general audience
  4. Be an activist

Here is a taste of her piece:

At a time of political discord and increased activism on our campuses and in our communities, some of us may be seeking appropriate and productive ways to offer our professional perspectives as highly trained academics and educators. As a matter of fact, those of us academically prepared in the field of American literary and cultural studies have much to offer a society that is grappling with what it means (and has meant) to be an American, whose story matters, and who gets to control the narrative. Indeed, the American literature and American literary history we have spent years studying, researching, and teaching can provide remarkable and hopeful insight into this daunting political moment.

Our field birthed the original American public intellectuals Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, who both lectured in the Lyceum movementand endeavored to make their ideas relevant and useful to the American public. Thoreau first lectured on “Civil Disobedience” and Walden to his Concord, Massachusetts friends and neighbors. Emerson’s 1837 “American Scholar” address tells us that the fully engaged American scholar is not sequestered from the public, but “breathes and lives on public illustrious thoughts.” The public intellectual, in Emerson’s view, is fully integrated into public life as “the world’s eye” and “the world’s heart.”

Although we may not see ourselves as public intellectuals in the distinguished tradition of Emerson and Thoreau or the more contemporary Stanley Fish, Claudia Rankine, and Ta-Nehisi Coates, many of us are probably already engaged in outreach, teaching, and other efforts as public intellectuals.

Read the rest here.

Mary Beard

mary-beard
I recently read Charlotte Higgins‘s long form essay at The Guardian on Mary Beard, the Cambridge University classicist, public intellectual, and blogger.  The piece is worth your time.  Beard is a model of a publicly-engaged scholar.

Here is a small taste of the piece:

One reason Beard is so widely beloved is that her interventions in public life – whether one agrees with her or not – offer an alternative mode of discourse, one that people are hungry for: a position that is serious and tough in argument, but friendly and humorous in manner, and one that, at a time when disagreements quickly become shrill or abusive, insists on dialogue. Still, it is these precise qualities that can, equally, land her in deep water. The point of her notorious 9/11 article was that one could simultaneously deplore the terrorists’ murderous violence, and try to understand their position. After the deluge of angry emails arrived, she tried to reply to most of them, even making a couple of friends along the way. When I asked her if she would countenance taking Isis’s ideology seriously, she said: “That’s the wrong question. There is no argument that I won’t take seriously. Thinking through how you look to your enemies is helpful. That doesn’t mean that your ideology is wrong and theirs is right, but maybe you have to recognise that they have one – and that it may be logically coherent. Which may be uncomfortable.” Few would think it worth arguing with Arron Banks, the Ukip donor, when he said the Roman empire had collapsed because of immigration. Beard pulled him up on Twitter, suggesting he might like to read a bit more classical history – and then went out to lunch with him.

Trying to calm the fury and aggression of public speech is, quite possibly, a futile endeavour. Friends worry about the toll such a publicly exposed existence takes on her. The time she devotes to email alone is daunting; she tries to respond to everything. Withstanding appalling online abuse is draining. Still she keeps going. She abhors a comfortable consensus. “She is very suspicious of received wisdoms, conventional views,” said Peter Stothard. “If everyone is saying X is Y, her instinct is to say, are we sure it isn’t P?” For Beard, the very point of being an academic in the public sphere is the ability to be a kind of intellectual awkward squad – unlike elected politicians, who inevitably seek popularity. “The right to be unpopular is important – that’s what academic freedom is about,” she said.

Read the entire piece here.

 

Have Conservative Intellectuals Gone Lowbrow?

new Crit

Ohio University historian Kevin Mattson thinks so.  He argues that conservative intellectuals are now in the business of attacking “educated elites.”  He calls this behavior “a grave danger to our democratic discourse.”

Here is a taste of his piece at Democracy:

Today, conservative intellectuals or thought leaders (or whatever you want to call writers and journalists and bloggers of this variety) no longer think. They no longer argue or pursue the playfulness of ideas as the intellectual vocation allows (for a fine argument about what makes an intellectual, see Richard Hofstadter’s book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life). Back in the 1940s, the literary (and liberal) critic Lionel Trilling described conservative thinking as little more than “irritable mental gestures.” He would likely consider the very concept of the “conservative intellectual” today a full-fledged oxymoron. Thinking is out; prejudiced assertions sans proof are in. Of course, as Trump’s presidency shows, this sort of thing can win you political campaigns. Attacking educated “elites” is red meat for conservative politicians.

But for intellectuals to go down that same road is a grave danger to our general public culture, and dare we say—as would the Kimball of old—“civilization.” Our public dialogue is threatened by the likes of Twitter thinking—more short spasms than developed reasoning. Conservative intellectuals have always struggled with their own tendency to instinctively distrust their own kind— i.e. other intellectuals, what the historian Christopher Lasch once labeled the “anti-intellectualism of the intellectuals.” Yet right now, they seem they seem to have moved beyond self-hate and toward willful self-sabotage. Their ideas have lost all intellectual rigor and warrant no respect. In killing off their own thinking, they kill off the possibility of democratic discourse, where thinkers with different principles can debate but engage in a productive conversation about our contemporary political situation. By turning the exchange of ideas into warfare and angry brawls, conservative “thought leaders” are killing off the very principle of democratic debate.

Read the entire piece here.

Scholars of Public Intellectuals Choose the Top Five Public Intellectuals in America

Elshtain

Daniel Drezner is the author of The Ideas Industry: How Pessimists, Partisans, and Plutocrats are Transforming the Marketplace of IdeasIn a recent piece at The Washington Post he picks the five most important public intellectuals at work today.  They are:

  1. Ta-Nehisi Coates
  2. Masha Gessen
  3. Francis Fukuyama
  4. Ron Chernow
  5. David Autor

Another scholar of public intellectuals, Alan Jacobs,  assembled a list of the most influential public intellectuals in this millennium.

  1. Richard John Neuhaus
  2. Cass Sunstein
  3. Samantha Power
  4. Ta-Nehisi Coates
  5. Clayton Christensen

 

Rod Dreher Interviews Alan Jacobs on *How to Think*

ThinkHere is a taste from Dreher’s blog:

I initially thought How To Think would be a basic primer of informal logic. It’s not that at all, but something more interesting. What’s the book about, and why did you write it? 

Last year, when the Presidential election campaign was ramping up here in the U.S., and my British friends were being roiled about by the Brexit debate, I was working on a different book (an academic one), but kept being distracted by all the noise. It seemed to me that everyone was lining up and shouting at everyone else, and no one seemed able to step back from the fray and think a bit about the issues at stake. More and more what attracted my attention was what seemed a complete absence of actual thinking. And then I asked myself: What is thinking, anyway? And what have I learned about it in my decades as a teacher and writer? I sat down to sketch out a few blog posts on the subject, and then realized that I had something a good bit bigger than some blog posts on my hands. So I set my other book aside and got to work.

You write, “The person who wants to think will have to practice patience and master fear.” What do you mean? 

Practicing patience because almost all of us live in a social-media environment that demands our instantaneous responses to whatever stimuli assault us in our feeds, and gives us the tools (reposts, likes, faves, retweets) to make those responses. Everything in our informational world militates against thinking it over. And mastering fear because one of the consequences of thinking is that you can find yourself at odds with groups you want to belong to, and social belonging is a human need almost as important as food and shelter. I’ve come to believe that our need — a very legitimate need! — for social belonging is the single greatest impediment to thinking.

Read the entire interview here. Learn more about How to Think here.

 

Leon Wieseltier is the Latest Victim of the “Harvey Effect”

Wieseltier

One of the nation’s leading public intellectuals is the latest.  Here is a taste of Adrienne LaFrance’s piece at The Atlantic:

The spell of sexual harassment accusations against powerful men in Hollywood and media intensified on Tuesday with allegations of “workplace misconduct” against Leon Wieseltier, the legendary former literary editor of The New Republic, a contributing editor to The Atlantic, and a long-time fixture in Washington and New York City social circles.

“For my offenses against some of my colleagues in the past I offer a shaken apology and ask for their forgiveness,” Wieseltier said in a statement, first reported by Politico. “The women with whom I worked are smart and good people. I am ashamed to know that I made any of them feel demeaned and disrespected. I assure them that I will not waste this reckoning.” Wieseltier has not yet responded to my request for an interview.

The episode swiftly halted the publication of Wieseltier’s previously forthcoming culture magazine, which was set to launch at the end of the month, the publication’s financial backer said in a statement. “Upon receiving information related to past inappropriate workplace conduct, Emerson Collective ended its business relationship with Leon Wieseltier, including a journal planned for publication under his editorial direction. The production and distribution of the journal has been suspended,” a spokesperson for the group told The Atlantic.

Read the rest here,  I am sure there are many public figures–intellectuals or otherwise–who are shaking in their boots right now.

How Do We Fix American Democracy?

The Washington Post has collected thirty-eight thinkers to answer this question.  They are: Nancy Isenberg and Andrew Burstein, Gish Jen, Yuval Levin, Katherine Mangu-Ward, Jessica Hische, Ann Patchett, R.R. Reno, Kristen Henderson, Alec MacGillis, Milton Glaser,  Amy Sullivan, Ibram X Kendi, Lanhee Chen, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Steve Penley, Avik Roy, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, Francis Collins, Rita Dove, Nate Powell, Cathy Young, Dani Rodrik, Arlie Russell Hochschild, John McWhorter, Gail Anderson, Joan Williams, Elaine Kamarck, Farah Pandith, Eric Posner, George Lois, George Takei, Domingo Martinez, Suzy Hansen, Suzanne Nossel, Johnalynn Holland, Julian Krein, Moises Naim, and Carl Gershman.

Some of the suggestions include:

“Cultivate National Gratefulness”

“Revive Human Decency”

“A Grass-Roots Revolt Against Fake News”

“End American Arrogance”

“Require Everyone to Vote”

“Stop Obsessing About White Privilege”

“Redefine the Flag”

“Push for Civil Rights Education”

“Teach Critical Thinking”

“A Constitutional Amendment on Equality”

“Ignore the Cultural Elite”

“One Month Without Social Media”

Read the entire piece here.

A Call for Historians to “Use Their Power”

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As one who has been in trenches of public scholarship for years, I cheered when I read historian Karen Cox‘s piece at CNN: “Historians need to use their power now.”

A taste:

Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.

Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as “useless.” But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that’s through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.

Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as “Twitterstorians,” share and engage with the public and are on many journalists’ radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country’s racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.

As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that’s via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens’ groups.

Read the entire piece here.

The Difference Between “The Intellectual” and the “Person of Intellectual Achievement”

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This comes from the writer Tom Wolfe‘s 2000 commencement address at Boston University:

We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early twentieth century, for the first time an ordinary storyteller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely — this fascinates me — conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual.

The Declining Vocation of the Social Critic

BafflerTom Whyman explores the decline of the social critic in the recent issue of The Baffler. He starts his piece by decrying much of what today passes for social criticism.  Warning: Whyman pulls no punches:

AS THE INTERNET AGE OF AUSTERITY continues to accelerate, few of us could be blamed for barely holding on, living paycheck-to-paycheck at our humiliating, precarious gig-jobs. Still, if there’s one group of people who really need to tug hard on their bootstraps—if only to find an anchor as the shitstorm of Progress rages from the heavens—it’s people like me, and a lot of the rest of us who write for this magazine: “cultural critics,” if that label doesn’t sound too grand—book-learned nonconformists who have made it our business to understand, see through, and perhaps even transform society and culture. As Theodor Adorno puts it in his essay “Cultural Criticism and Society,” our unsolicited charge is to help the mind identify and “tear at its bonds.” If this is indeed our vocation, just look at how badly we’re failing to honor it. In the face of historical cataclysms like Brexit and Trump, our positive contribution is pathetically marginal, our insight vanishingly small.

Maybe it’s just that the pool of ideas has become supersaturated, a dank swamp. Our public discourse is dominated by peppy TED talkers, cheerleading for the Three Horsemen of technological barbarity: AI, Automation, and Neuroscience. Dull-as-dishwater professional atheists like Sam Harris and Daniel Dennett pose as swashbuckling freethinkers as they pedantically reduce everything that matters about human experience to dead, grey matter. Our most prominent political commentators are greasy petty-fascists and dogmatic party hacks; the left’s loudest voices in the media contribute little more than morale-boosting for causes that we know to be already lost. Our best known “public philosophers” seem determined to conceal whatever wisdom they might conceivably possess behind blithering idiocy, from the empty platitudes of Alain de Botton, to the edgy nonsense of Slavoj Žižek.

Who knows? Perhaps this only seems like a problem because of my epistemological position. Perhaps there are effective cultural critics working today—it’s just hard for me to see what impact their work is making because, you know, ideas work slowly and I’m living through their development, day-to-day. Perhaps if I were living in the 1830s, reading The Edinburgh Review, I’d be lamenting the crassness of Carlyle and wondering why he couldn’t be more like Coleridge. Perhaps come 2117, when all news is filtered through Snapchat, my future-equivalent will be looking back on the early days of the internet as some sort of hallowed golden age. Perhaps all of this is just projected self-loathing: a sign that I need to stop writing, get off my computer, and take to the barricades (although frankly, even our most industrious activists seem unlikely to achieve anything beyond the physical expression of their own defiance). But I’m not so sure about that. Rather, it strikes me that today there are identifiable reasons that cultural criticism might find itself in crisis.

Read the rest here.

Zelizer and Keller Respond to Moshik Temkin

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Earlier today we posted on Moshik Temkin’s New York Times piece “Historians Shouldn’t Be Pundits.”  Over at The Atlantic, historians Julian Zelizer and Morton Keller have also responded to Temkin’s piece.  Here is a taste of Zelizer’s response:

As he suggests toward the end of his piece, historians are particularly well positioned to place current events in longer time frames and to offer more perspective on the origins of a certain situation (another point that May and Neustadt made in their classic work). For my own part, I have spent much of my time on CNN and here in The Atlantic trying to explain how the Donald Trump presidency can only be understood within the context of the strengthened role of partisanship in Washington since the 1970s and the transformation of the news media. In other words, I have tried to show that President Trump is not a cause of our current political environment but a product of changes that have been building for years.Sometimes comparisons with the past, even if imperfect, are very useful. Most of the good historical work in the media does not claim that Trump is President Nixon. Rather, the point is that the institution of the presidency creates certain incentives and opportunities for abusing power and that some people who have held these positions have done just that. That is crucial to remember, just like the ways that the institutional fragmentation of our political system perpetually creates huge amounts of friction between the president and Congress, as well as between the parties, despite the endless nostalgia about how things worked better in the past.

Historians have an important role in unpacking key elements of the ways that institutions operate over time to make sense of big trends and broader forces that move beyond the particular moment within which we live. We can’t become so blinded by our concern for particularity and specificity and nuance that we lose site of the big picture—something my friends in political science always remind me of. Claiming that we can’t look at these kind of continuities and similarities is in many ways moving in the opposite direction of what historians do. Some of the best books in American history, such as J.G.A. Pocock’s classic book on the history of Republican ideology, look over decades and even across national-lines to explain how history unfolds. It is possible for historians to take the long view and provide this kind of useful analysis in 800 words or even a five-minute television discussion. It has to be short, it has be to the point, but it can be as insightful and on point as anything said in the classroom.

Read the entire piece here.