You have /5 articles left.
Sign up for a free account or log in.

My first academic job, a one-year replacement position, meant that my office’s bookshelves were already lined with books and journals before I moved in. One stood out: A 1974 issue of Daedalus, the journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, entitled 20th Century Classics Revisited.

I found it fascinating, even though the essays were a bit of a mishmash. One essay featured a book, Thorsten Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, published in 1899. The Education of Henry Adams is interesting, but a 20th-century classic? I don’t think so.

Some choices make perfect sense: Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams, Mannheim’s Ideology and Utopia and Polanyi’s Great Transformation. But others, not so much. Spengler’s Decline of the West? Michael Ivanovich Rostovtzeff’s Social and Economic History of the Roman EmpireThe Flexner Report? Santayana’s Three Philosophical Poets?  

History is overrepresented: there’s Henri Pirenne’s study of the impact of the Muslim world on early Europe, Mohammad and Charlemagne; Johan Huizinga’s Waning of the Middle Ages, a portrait of the exhaustion of European thought and culture during 14th and 15th centuries; and Mary Beard’s Woman as a Force in History, her call for a social history that takes family and gender seriously. But curiously, there’s no mention of Isaiah Berlin, Marc Bloch, Fernand Braudel, Lucien Febvre or Quinten Skinner.

Revolt of the Masses by José Ortega y Gassett is there, as is Jerome Frank’s Law and the Modern Mind, but not a single rigorous work of economics, international relations, literary criticism or philosophy or, apart from Freud, a work of psychology or, apart from Niebuhr’s Nature and Destiny of Man, a work of theology.

The omissions are glaring. There’s no Weber, Wittgenstein, Dewey or Keynes. No Chomsky, Habermas, Popper, Quine, Russell, Ryle, Saussure or Searle. No Lukács, Simmel, Tönnies or Troeltsch. No Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm, Horkheimer or Neumann.

I guess it’s not surprising, if regrettable, that there are no essays on books published after the Second World War or on non-Western thought. Still, it’s astonishing that in 1974 no one dealt with Arendt, Beauvoir or Sartre. Of course, no one today would omit Fanon, Achebe, Walter Rodney or Eric Williams—or Gramsci or Lenin. And many 20th-century classics were yet to come, including the works of Althusser, Berger, Derrida, Foucault, Lerner and Rawls, among others.

If one common theme can be said to run through the Daedalus texts, it is the challenge to the bourgeois or Victorian frame of mind—posed by Freud, with his stress on the role of the unconscious and the irrational in human thought and behavior—or Mannheim, with his insistence on the unattainability of objective knowledge, or Polanyi, with his emphasis on the triumph of market capitalism and commoditization, facilitated by the state and its consequences for society and social thought.

Two of the works, Abraham Flexner’s 1910 report on medical education and Jerome Frank’s 1930 treatise on legal realism, carried profound implications for the leading learned professions. Flexner’s advocacy for science-based medicine succeeded in raising prerequisite and admissions standards for American and Canadian medical schools, emphasized scientific training and clinical experience as the basis of physicians’ training, and called for the affiliation of medical schools with universities and hospitals, as well as more rigorous standards for licensure and oversight, which had the effect of closing many medical schools that had served women and African Americans and marginalizing other forms of medical practice, such as osteopathy.  

Meanwhile, Frank’s rejection of the notion of law as a fixed, logical system that judges apply in a mechanical way contributed to the view that legal decisions are inevitably influenced by social circumstances, economic considerations and political interests and that law can be a tool to advance social objectives.

Two recent books that I’d place squarely in the realm of moral and intellectual history—Wendy Brown’s Nihilistic Times and Susan Neiman’s Left Is Not Woke—prompted me to recall that issue of Daedalus. Much as the Daedalus editors chose works that spoke to the issues that preoccupied them—above all, the impact of Marx and Freudian psychoanalysis on 20th-century thought and of professionalization in law and medicine—Brown and Neiman have also written tracts for our time.

Brown, a leading political theorist and a professor in the School of Social Science at the Institute for Advanced Study, is interested in what constitutes ethical pedagogy in today’s highly polarized political climate. She focuses on Max Weber’s 1917 and 1919 lectures on science and politics as vocations, which, she believes, speak to the “nihilism”—the hyperpoliticization, demagoguery and techno-rationalism—that underpins our current social, economic and political crises.

In his lecture on “Science as a Vocation” (note that he is not simply referring to the physical or natural sciences, but to academics, wissenschaft, more broadly), Weber argues that academics must accept certain facts of life: that scholarship, no matter how deeply researched, is meant to be superseded; that hiring, promotion and professional recognition are rarely fair or just; and that students are more impressed by classroom performance than by effective teaching. Therefore, anyone who aspires to be an academic scholar must treat teaching and scholarship as a calling, not just as a job.

Weber is deeply concerned about the politicization of academic teaching and scholarship. He maintains that it is “irresponsible for a lecturer to exploit [his] situation … [by] imposing on [students] his personal political opinions.” Academics must, in Brown’s words, “make good” on their “commitment to critical thinking” by subjecting “all values to scrutiny in the classroom.”

An ideal politician must combine vision, pragmatism and charisma, but a model academic, in contrast, has a different role: to separate, as far as possible, facts and empirical observations from values and personal beliefs. As Brown makes clear, Weber was not calling for value-free scholarship or for academics to refrain from value judgments. Instead, “Weber argues for closely analyzing them as ethical and political constellations with entailments for action, power and violence.” His approach, Verstehen, interpretive understanding, seeks to uncover the subjective meanings that individuals attach to their actions. But he did not want scholars to subordinate teaching or research to a political agenda.

What makes Brown’s book especially well worth reading is her impressive ability to show how key themes in Weber’s scholarship—including his emphasis on the defining characteristics of modernity, including disenchantment, rationalization, bureaucracy, efficiency, predictability, calculability and control and on subjective meaning—speak to our own time.

Weber’s vision, in Brown’s view, was gloomily pessimistic. He had an:

“unrivaled appreciation of certain logics of modernity: its signature rationalities and forms of power; its generation of ‘human machineries’ with unprecedented capacities for domination; its simultaneous proliferation and depreciation of value and values (its reduction of morality to matters of taste); the incapacity of democracy to resist or transform these developments; and the great challenge of cultivating responsible teaching and political leadership amid them.”

She turns to Weber because “We need sober thinkers who refuse to submit to the lures of fatalism or apocalypticism, pipe dreams of total revolution or redemption by the progress of reason—yet aim to be more than Bartlebys or foot soldiers amid current orders of knowledge and politics.” Weber’s goal should be our goal: to subject all value claims to rigorous and unflinching analysis and critique, “to examine them through historical and comparative analysis or through consideration of their logics and entailments, not as matters of truth.”

Following Weber’s advice, we, as teachers, “can illuminate the stakes, implications and possible trajectories of values in practice; we can help students clarify the meaning and entailments of the positions they hold. We can stress the importance of values in crafting a meaningful life and crafting worlds according to intention rather than enormous yet faceless powers. But we cannot settle which values are right.”

Right on.

So how should we do this? Brown offers several pieces of advice. Don’t hesitate from teaching students “inconvenient facts” that challenge students’ preconceptions, “received narratives or deep convictions.” Teach facticity—“how facts are constituted and interpreted, their historical, social, discursive and hermeneutic dimensions, their nonisolability from one another and their lack of intrinsic meaning.”

Above all, examine the values that people hold and why they embrace these values so strongly—even as you should strive to avoid politicizing the classroom. Respect the difference between the political and the academic spheres: “Intellectual analysis, discovery, critique and reflection are fundamentally different from political action, legislation and dicta.” I couldn’t put this idea better myself.

Far from calling for value neutrality, Brown thinks that the academy should do more to address questions of value head-on: for example, what values should organize society—sustainability, freedom, tolerance, equity, community, work, family, openness or something else?

To that end, we might turn to Susan Neiman’s latest book. A philosopher and cultural commentator who has sought to bring moral clarity to a host of pressing contemporary social and political issues, including the ways the U.S. might address its history of slavery, racism and racialized inequalities, Neiman looks at the roots, implications and limitations of an outlook that is (often pejoratively) termed wokeism, identity politics, the cultural left or social justice ideology.

In this brief, at times polemical, work, just 160 pages long, Neiman examines what she considers the malign influence of Michel Foucault and Carl Schmidt and evolutionary biology on contemporary leftist thought.

Neiman shares the progressive “empathy for the marginalized, indignation at the plight of the oppressed, [and] determination that historical wrongs should be righted.” But she fears that these emotions are “derailed by a range of theoretical assumptions that ultimately undermine them.” The problem, in her view, is that the social justice ideology tends to:

  • Reduce individuals to their gender, racial, sexual and other intersectional identities, which has the effect of compartmentalizing groups, disconnecting one from another and arraying “tribes” in a hierarchy of oppression and victimization, discouraging any sense of shared interests.
  • Treat politics as a power struggle in which competing groups jockey over status, special treatment and compensation for past injuries rather than as a collective effort to advance human dignity, equality, empowerment and justice for all.
  • Reject the Enlightenment ideas of universalism, progress, rights and truth as a Eurocentric project, instead of considering these as requirements for a just and sustainable society.
  • Regard forms of cultural blending or syncretism as cultural appropriation or exploitation rather than clearly distinguishing between forms of theft and modes of creativity and innovation.
  • View modern history in terms of colonial exploitation and other injustices, undercutting any sense of moral progress, social improvement or hopefulness.
  • Emphasize suffering, trauma and victimization as opposed to agency, resilience, resistance and resourcefulness and, consequently, focuses on past wrongs as opposed to future possibilities.

Those claims, no doubt, sound familiar. Somewhat similar arguments can be found in John McWhorter’s Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America, Helen Pluckrose and James A. Lindsay’s Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything About Race, Gender and Identity—and Why This Harms Everybody and 1990s-era attacks on postmodernist discourse.

What distinguishes Neiman’s argument from other conservative or heterodox critiques of woke ideology is not only the author’s political pedigree but her detailed discussion of the ways that Enlightenment thought has been debated and contested over the past two centuries.

If we truly want to engage our students, especially at the lower-division level, we need to address a host of issues that are all too often left outside the curriculum precisely because they are regarded as too provocative, inflammatory or value-laden. These include:

  • Culture war issues, including abortion, animal rights, sexuality and, yes, social justice ideology.
  • Existential issues, such as evil, pain and illness, pointless suffering and tragedy.
  • Developmental issues, like friendship and love.
  • Policy controversies, involving immigration or incarceration.

Weber was right: it’s not our job, as academics, to preach, proselytize, propagandize or persuade. But if we want our students to think critically and analytically, argue rationally and compellingly and render nuanced and informed judgments, we need to bring the hottest topics into our classroom and subject them to academic analysis.

Don’t avoid controversies in the hopes of averting arguments. Conflict avoidance won’t do you or your students any favors. Evasion doesn’t work in our personal lives, nor will it help your students grow intellectually.

Instead of avoiding controversies, consider introducing your students to the following conflict management techniques:

  1. Accept conflict as natural. Since priorities and values differ, conflict is omnipresent and inevitable. Acknowledging opposing points of view isn’t the same thing as endorsing those perspectives.
  2. Establish appropriate discussion limits. That means treating classmates civilly and with dignity and respect.
  3. Distinguish analysis from advocacy. Remember: there’s a profound difference between explaining and interpreting a perspective than promoting an idea.
  4. Assume good faith. Rather than dismissing a position out of hand as odious or offensive, strive to understand why someone might hold such a point of view.
  5. Agree to disagree. The goal isn’t to persuade or provoke but to probe. Values aren’t negotiable. But every class member can clarify and analyze various positions in a controversy.
  6. Ideate collectively. Brainstorm as a group. It’s a way to get your students to think freely and critically, without fear of judgment and to share ideas with their classmates.
  7. Focus on ideas, not those who hold them. Keep the following adage in mind: “Great minds focus on ideas. Small minds focus on people.” We can be more dispassionate and detached when we analyze and interpret ideas.
  8. Respond to ideas intellectually, not emotionally. Analyze conflicts in values academically. Contextualize, decode, deconstruct, historicize, interrogate, pluralize and reframe the arguments that are advanced.
  9. Pose questions. Actively listen as classmates spell out arguments and get them to elaborate in response to follow-up questions.

Embrace controversy. Nothing energizes a class more than a timely debate or dispute. Leverage that energy to complicate an issue in dispute and develop your students’ critical reasoning skills. I think you’ll discover that this is among the very best ways to unlock your students’ potential and help them grow intellectually.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Next Story

Written By

More from Higher Ed Gamma