liberal scholarship (a digression)
The other night, some history grad students were at a local bar socializing and sharing our gripes and joys, when we got into a discussion of which academic projects we’ve heard of that seemed the most misguided, bizarre, or intellectually weak. The winner, pretty much hands down, was a graduate student who applied for funding to track the movement of Ethiopian women via ankle bracelets. A second runner up was a woman in American Studies who is working on “European conceptions of Native Americans from 500 B.C.E. until the present”. In response to the obvious question, “Wait, exactly what sort of sources would you use from 500 B.C.E.?” the response was, “I use texts”.
Okay, so a few people have suggested already (in response to parts one and two of my series) that another mechanism by which conservatives might be alienated from academia is the sort of scholarship that the profession is producing. Certain topics, which are held to be of particular interest to the left (gender, race, and class, for example), are well-represented in academic scholarship, while certain topics that are held to be of interest to conservatives (faith, family, national greatness, cultural/moral decline, the ill-effects of social programs, crime, and so forth) are underrepresented in scholarship. And, as I said before, certain ideas go unquestioned, while others are axiomatically accepted in the scholarship. This could give a conservative-leaning junior scholar the sense that their interests have no place in contemporary academia, and probably often does, which could account for a certain amount of self-selection. And, many conservatives argue, the trendiness or flimsiness of much academic scholarship further weakens the prestige of the humanities in the public eye.
To the extent that I agree with the argument, it’s because I seem to share certain aesthetic and intellectual interests with people who call themselves conservatives- much of my current scholarship deals with how people of faith responded to the secular aspect of modernity and how their responses shaped the pilgrimage tradition, while laying the groundwork for tourism. In addition, I teach military history, am working on a great books core class, and tend to focus quite a bit on topics like the social order, individual and national greatness, and cultural authority in my courses. The conservative students seem to enjoy my classes, although I would certainly hope that all of the students like them. Conversely, I’m little interested in topics like Foucaultian surveillance, the gendered body, how knowledge is culturally constructed, and really cultural history as such. Much of it I find thin and, since there is quite a bit of this scholarship being done right now, I suppose I ignore many of the same books as conservatives.
Those books do not, however, seem to bother me like they do conservatives, and I wonder if this has to do with my vantage point. The argument itself seems plausible- it’s entirely likely that current scholarly trends are alienating conservatives who, otherwise, might be attracted to academia. If nothing else, academics might want to consider how particularly flimsy or trivial studies, which are of course available to the public, can be used to build an argument against the profession- or maybe just give them less salacious titles, since the critics only ever seem to cite the titles.
It’s difficult to get worked up about this though; in the first place, because it seems more a matter of taste than politics. When people point to studies on race or the transgendered as proof of “liberal bias”, it’s unclear to me why conservatism as a political philosophy should be opposed to studying those topics. When they say, conversely, that “the classics” or “the Enlightenment” are no longer studied in academia, I read enough books and journals to know that they’re basically lying. When they cite a title like “Jane Austen and the Masturbating Girl” as proof positive of what’s gone wrong with the profession, I wonder why they never read the whole article. There’s a bit of an anti-intellectual parlor game to it all. Pick a title and scoff. Certainly there are, as ever, some silly books written by academics. But I do think we need to avoid the common mistake of confusing the self-interested, cultural/aesthetic spites of the Babbitt class for a defense of culture.
Secondly, I have a feeling that conservatives think there are so many studies about how gender is constructed, for example, because the profession only legitimizes those studies, or blocks scholarship on more traditional topics. But, of course, it’s pretty hard to actually prevent someone in academia from working on any topic they want. Most academics will give each other leeway in terms of scholarship because they don’t want a situation in which someone else is dictating to them what they can study; but the other part of it is just that, if you have enough initiative and energy, you can always establish a conference, journal, or interdisciplinary program in academia. Scholarly work is very much self-directed, and often very lonely; more than it’s ever intensely regulated. Perhaps “conservative” subjects lack some sort of prestige, but, seriously, if you’re looking for prestige in academia, you might want to consider another profession.
To my mind, the problem isn’t that there are studies on topics I find uninteresting, and anyway, I can’t see a solution that doesn’t involve greatly curtailing academic freedom. Instead, the problem is that there are not enough studies that appeal a larger audience than 200 academics internationally. If that’s an especially “liberal” problem, it would be an obvious result of having more liberals than conservatives in academia and, again, the solution would be to bring more conservatives into the profession. One might have noticed by now that I am, in these posts, doing a bit of goading in that direction. But, there’s also a noticeable irony that the people in America who are most loudly discouraging conservatives from entering academia are other conservatives.