Whether or not the humanities are truly in crisis, the current debates around them have a certain gun-to-the-head quality. “This is why you -- student, parent, Republican senator -- shouldn’t pull the trigger,” their promoters plead. “We deserve to live; we’re good productive citizens; we, too, contribute to the economy, national security, democracy, etc.” Most of these reasons are perfectly accurate. But it is nonetheless surprising that, in the face of what is depicted as an existential crisis, most believers shy away from existential claims (with someexceptions). And by not defending the humanities on their own turf, we risk alienating the very people on whose support the long-term survival of our disciplines depend: students.
One reason why our defenses can have a desperate ring to them is that we’re not used to justifying ourselves. Most humanists hold the value of the objects they study to be self-evident. The student who falls in love with Kant, Flaubert, or ancient Egypt does not need to provide an explanation for why she would like to devote years of her life to such studies. To paraphrase Max Weber, scholarship in the humanities is a vocation, a “calling” in the clerical sense. It chooses you, you don’t choose it. The problem with this kind of spiritual passion is that it is difficult to describe. To paraphrase another 20th-century giant, Jimi Hendrix, it’s more about the experience.
It’s not surprising, then, that when we humanists feel (or imagine) the budget axe tickling the hairs on the backs of our necks, we don’t have ready-made apologia with which to woo or wow our would-be executioners. And because a calling is hard to explain, we turn instead to more straightforward, utilitarian defenses -- “but employers say they like English majors!” -- which, while true, don’t capture the authentic spirit that moves the humanities student.
There is of course sound logic to this approach. Government and state funding is a zero-sum game, and politicians are more likely to be receptive to practical arguments than to existential propositions. But in the long run, it takes more than state and university budgets to maintain the health of the humanities. It also takes students. And by constantly putting our most productive foot forward, we may unintentionally end up selling ourselves short (disclosure: I, too, have sinned). The fundamental reason why students should devote hours of their weeks to novels, philosophy, art, music, or history is not so that they can hone their communication skills or refine their critical thinking. It is because the humanities offer students a profound sense of existential purpose.
The real challenge that we face today, then, lies in explaining to a perplexed, but not necessarily hostile audience -- and perhaps even to ourselves -- why it is that the study of literature, anthropology, art history, or classics can be so meaningful, and why this existential rationale is equally important as other, more utilitarian ones. This line of argument stands in opposition to proclamations of the humanities’ uselessness: to declare that the humanities are of existential value is to affirm that they are very useful indeed.
So how might we go about defining this existential value? A good place to start would be with existentialism itself. A premise of existentialist philosophy is that we live in a world without inherent meaning. For atheists, this is often understood as the human condition following the death of God. But as Jean-Paul Sartre pointed out in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” even believers must recognize that they ultimately are the ones responsible for the production of meaning (in fact, many early existentialists were Christians). Abraham had to decide for himself whether the angel who commanded him to halt his sacrifice was genuinely a divine messenger. In Sartre's memorable formulation, man is “condemned to be free”; we have no choice but to choose. While it may feel as though a humanities vocation is a calling, you still have to decide to answer the call.
The realization that meaning isn’t something we receive from the outside, from others, but that it always must come from within us, from our conscious, deliberative choices, does not make us crave it any less. We are, existentialists insist, creatures of purpose, a thesis that psychological research has also confirmed.
Now what does this have to do with the humanities? It’s not that obvious, after all, how reading Madame Bovary, the Critique of Pure Reason, or The Book of the Dead can fill your life with purpose. At the same time, we also know that some people do find it deeply meaningful to peruse these works, and even to dedicate their careers to studying them.
What is it, then, that lovers of literature -- to consider but them for the moment -- find so existentially rewarding about reading? In a recent book, my colleague Joshua Landy argues that one of the more satisfying features of literature is that it creates the illusion of a meaningful world. “The poem forms a magic circle from within which all contingency is banished,” he writes apropos of Mallarmé’s celebrated sonnet en -yx. The order we discover in literary works may be magical, but it isn’t metaphysical; it comes from the sense that “everything is exactly what and where it has to be.” Art offers a reprieve from a universe governed by chance; what were merely sordid newspaper clippings can become, when transported into artful narratives, The Red and the Black or Madame Bovary. Landy suggests that fictions produce these illusions through a process of “overdetermination:” the ending of Anna Karenina, for instance, is foreshadowed by its beginning, when Anna witnesses a woman throwing herself under a train.
If art offered only illusions of necessity, it would hardly satisfy existential longing. Pretending that everything happens for a reason is precisely what the existentialists castigated as “bad faith.” Yet there’s an obvious difference between enjoying a novel and, say, believing in Providence. We don’t inhabit fictional worlds, we only pay them visits. No lover of literature actually believes her life is as determined as that of a literary heroine (even Emma Bovary wasn’t psychotic). So why does the semblance of an orderly universe enchant us so?
Well-ordered, fictional worlds attract us, it seems, because we, too, aspire to live lives from which contingency is kept at bay. Beauty, wrote Stendhal, is “only a promise of happiness.” As Alexander Nehamas suggested, in his book of this title, the beautiful work of art provides us with a tantalizing pleasure; beauty engages us in its pursuit. But what do we pursue? “To find something beautiful is inseparable from the need to understand what makes it so,” he writes. Behind the beautiful object -- sonnet, style, or sculpture -- we reach for the idea of order itself. The promise of happiness made by art is a promise of purpose.
But a promise of purpose is still a bird in the bush: it can disappear when you put down the book, or leave the concert hall. For the philosopher Immanuel Kant, art only provides us with an empty sense of purpose; or as he put it, in his distinctively Kantian way, "purposiveness without purpose" (it’s even better in German).
It’s true that few existential crises have been resolved by a trip to the museum or the download of a new album. But Kant may have underestimated how the sense of artistic purpose can also seep into our own lives. For instance, as Plato and every teenager know well, instrumental music can give voice to inexpressible feelings without the help of language. These emotional frameworks can convey a potent sense of purpose. When my youngest daughter spent six weeks in the neonatal ICU with a life-threatening condition, my mind kept replaying the second movement of Beethoven’s seventh symphony to tame my fears. Its somber, resolute progress, punctuated by brief moments of respite, helped to keep my vacillating emotions under control. As in films, sometimes it is the soundtrack that gives meaning to our actions.
The promise of order found in beautiful works of art, then, can inspire us to find purpose in our own lives. The illusion of a world where everything is in its place helps us view reality in a different light. This process is particularly clear -- indeed, almost trivial -- in those humanistic disciplines that do not deal primarily with aesthetic objects, such as philosophy. We aren't attracted to the worldviews of Plato, Kant, or Sartre, purely for the elegance of their formal structure. If we’re swayed by their philosophies, it’s because they allow us to discover hitherto unnoticed patterns in our lives. Sometimes, when you read philosophy, it seems as though the whole world has snapped into place. This is not an experience reserved for professional philosophers, either: at the conclusion of a philosophy course that my colleagues Debra Satz and Rob Reich offer to recovering female addicts, one student declared, “I feel like a butterfly drawn from a cocoon.”
So where art initially appeals to us through intimations of otherworldly beauty, a more prolonged engagement with the humanities can produce a sense of order in the here and now. One could even say that Plato got things the wrong way around: first we’re attracted by an ideal universe, and then we’re led to discover that our own reality is not as absurd as it once seemed. And while particularly evident with philosophy, this sensation of finally making sense of the world, and of your own place in it, can come from many quarters of the humanities. In a delightful interview (originally conducted in French), Justice Stephen Breyer recently exclaimed, “It’s all there in Proust — all mankind!” Other readers have had similar responses to Dante, Shakespeare, Tolstoy, and many more.
But exploring the humanities is not like a trip to the mall: you don't set off to find an off-the-rack outfit to wear. Proust can change your life, but if you only saw the world through his novel, it would be a rather impoverished life. Worse, it would be inauthentic: no author, no matter how great, can tell you what the meaning of your life is. That is something we must cobble together for ourselves, from the bits and pieces of literature, philosophy, religion, history, and art that particularly resonate in us. “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” T.S. Eliot wrote at the end of The Waste Land. No poem offers a better illustration of this cultural bricolage: Shakespeare answers Dante, and the Upanishads disclose what the Book of Revelation had suppressed.
So here we find an existential rationale for a liberal education. To be sure, the humanities do not figure alone in this endeavor: psychology, biology, and physics can contribute to our perception of ourselves in relation to the world, as can economics, sociology, and political science. But the more a discipline tends toward scientific precision, the more it privileges a small number of accepted, canonical explanations of those aspects of reality it aims to describe. If 20 biology professors lectured on Darwin’s theory of evolution, chances are they’d have a lot in common. But if 20 French professors lectured on Proust’s Recherche, chances are they’d be quite different. The same could be said, perhaps to a lesser extent, for 20 lectures on Plato’s Republic. The kinds of objects that the humanities focus on are generally irreducible to a single explanation. This is why they provide such good fodder for hungry minds: there are so many ways a poem, a painting, or a philosophy book can stick with you.
In his diatribe against the way the humanities have been taught since the '60s, Allan Bloom harrumphed, “On the portal of the humanities is written in many ways and many tongues, ‘There is no truth -- at least here.’ ” But the point of a liberal education is not to read great works in order to discover The Truth. Its point is to give students the chance to fashion purposeful lives for themselves. This is why authors such as Freud, whose truth-value is doubted by many, can still be a source of meaning for others. Conversely, this is also why humanities professors, many of whom are rightfully concerned about the truth-value of certain questions or interpretations, do not always teach the kinds of classes where students can serendipitously discover existential purpose.
There are more than existential reasons to study the humanities. Some are intellectual: history, for instance, responds to our profound curiosity about the past. Some are practical. To celebrate one is not to deny others. The biggest difficulty with defending the humanities is the embarrassment of riches: because humanists are like foxes and learn many different things, it is hard to explain them to the hedgehogs of the world, who want to know what One Big Thing we do well. The danger is that, in compressing our message so it gets heard, we leave out precisely the part that naturally appeals to our future students. Yes, students and parents are worried about employment prospects. But what parents don’t also want their child to lead a meaningful life? We are betraying our students if, as a society, we do not tell them that purpose is what ultimately makes a life well-lived.
Dan Edelstein is a professor of French and (by courtesy) history at Stanford University. He directs the Stanford Summer Humanities Institute.
“It ain’t what I say, it’s the way that I say it.
That’s all, brother, that’s all.”
Let us say there is a well-meaning administrator – in particular, a college president – who wants to be sure that students at her institution are benefiting as much as possible from their undergraduate educations. Clearly, this is a central concern for any college president, since that is presumably a major reason for taking the job.
The president assumes that this is a goal shared by the faculty, since it is at the heart of their own vocation. Moreover, she has heard them speak of how their various disciplines teach not only specific subject matter, but important intellectual skills and habits of mind as well. The president also assumes that, since her faculty colleagues are themselves scholars and scientists, they will have an interest in discovering whether or not their teaching is having the desired effects. And is it not the case that true professionals wish to become better and better at their chosen work?
So, the president makes a carefully prepared presentation at a faculty meeting about “competencies” and “assessment.”
What result can be expected?
The outcome may be a positive one if the faculty community in question is already comfortable with these terms and their meanings; they may be willing, perhaps even eager, to consider how best to go about such a project or to improve an initiative already undertaken.
If, on the other hand, the faculty members have not been enculturated into the world of professional higher ed jargon, which is not the same as disciplinary jargon – or, if, for that matter, they have taken issue with some of it for well-considered reasons that require serious discussion – they will be sufficiently put off by the lingo not to bother attending to the message.
To be sure, there may be other reasons for opposition. Reports have surfaced from the higher education community about faculty members who are resistant to change and wish to go on doing things in the manner to which they have become accustomed. Nonetheless, it is worth attending to the Mae West principle: it is not just the content of the message that is important, but also how that content is being communicated.
Which bring us to “competency” and “assessment.”
“Assessment” has actually been faring better among faculty members in recent years insofar as it avoids what we might call nudnik positivism (i.e., forgetting Einstein’s famous observation that “not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that can be counted counts”) and as long as it is clear that the main goal is to make teachers better at their work, as opposed to fulfilling some misconceived external rankings system obligation. The term has thus been developing a more familiar, relatively congenial specific content, perhaps making it less necessary to use more elegant and traditional alternatives like “evaluation.” Though one should never assume.
What about the neologism “competency,” which some of us (this writer included) have avoided up to this very day? There is, to be sure, a persuasive grammatical justification for preferring “competency” to good old “competence”; this has to do with the distinction between mass nouns and count nouns. “Competence” -- like “water”, “butter”, or “common sense” -- is a mass noun, something you can have more or less of (or, in fact, none at all). “Competency,” on the other hand, operates as a count noun and is thus applicable to items you can have a specific number of – say, two, five, or 16, depending on how many you wish to list. Moreover, “competency” may be preferred over such traditional count nouns as “skill” (which may sound too narrowly technical) or “capacity” (often used of qualities that are innate).
And yet, there are reasons to distrust this term. Some have to do with the meanings it has been acquiring among change enthusiasts who seem to believe that the benefits of higher education can be achieved without significant interaction with actual, human, salaried teachers.
But, even leaving these issues aside and returning to the well-meaning among us who seek to incorporate the benefits of online resources into the essential student/teacher relationship: the very use of the term “competency” may shut down the channel because of what it seems to say about the speaker. Many inhabitants of the world of higher education – especially faculty members – are put off by professional higher ed jargon. If they find such jargon rebarbative (now, that’s a word to conjure with), they may view those who utter it as Aliens from Planet Administration.
Which brings us to a distinction made by sociolinguists and philosophers of language (who prefer greater precision in their analyses than Ms. West found sufficient) -- namely, the distinction between “illocutionary force” and “perlocutionary effect.” “Illocutionary force” refers to what a speaker intends in a communication. So, for example, when someone asks “Do you know what time it is?”, the speaker intends this as a request to be told the time. Should the addressee answer “Yes” and leave it there, that would be a failure of communication. Or, to put it another way, the perlocutionary effect (that is, the effect upon the addressee) will not have been the one hoped for.
So, returning to in the faculty meeting at issue here, the speaker president may strongly believe in the illocutionary force of terms like “competency” and “assessment,” while the perlocutionary effect on the faculty addressees may be roughly equivalent to “yadda yadda yadda.” In brief, if we want the illocutionary force to be with us, we must be ever mindful of the perlocutionary effect.
Given the increasing acceptance of the term “assessment," can we expect the same for “competency”? The very distinguished Derek Bok uses it – more often in Higher Education in America than in an earlier work, Our Underachieving Colleges. Faculty members in a number of institutions are using it – especially in reports submitted to foundations. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has recently been testing the usefulness of the term in identifying the desiderata of a high-quality liberal education.
As it happens, though, AAC&U’s president, Carol Geary Schneider, told me recently that she and others are finding the term “competency” too modest for the true goals of a mind- and horizon-expanding education. The AAC&U is planning to move to the term “proficiency.” an improvement in both substance and style that also serves better to engage the high standards of faculty members. Needless to say, Mae West would have her own reasons for preferring it.
Judith Shapiro is president of the Teagle Foundation. She is also president emerita and professor of anthropology emerita of Barnard College.
The nine muses are a motley bunch. We’ve boiled them down into a generic symbol for inspiration: a toga-clad young woman, possibly plucking a string instrument. But in mythology they oversaw an odd combination of arts and sciences. They were sisters, which allegorically implies a kinship among their fields of expertise. If so, the connections are hard to see.
Six of them divvied up the classical literary, dramatic, and musical genres – working multimedia in the cases of Erato (inventor of the lyre and of love poetry) and Euterpe (who played the flute and inspired elegaic songs and poems). The other three muses handled choreography, astronomy, and history. That leaves and awful lot of creative and intellectual endeavor completely unsupervised. Then again it’s possible that Calliope has become a sort of roaming interdisciplinary adjunct muse, since there are so few epic poets around for her to inspire these days.
An updated pantheon is certainly implied by Peter Charles Hoffer’s Clio Among the Muses: Essays on History and the Humanities (New York University Press). Clio, the demi-goddess in charge of history, is traditionally depicted with a scroll or a book. But as portrayed by Hoffer -- a professor of history at the University of Georgia – she is in regular communication with her peers in philosophy, law, the social sciences, and policy studies. I picture her juggling tablet, laptop and cellphone, in the contemporary manner.
Ten years ago Hoffer published Past Imperfect, a volume assessing professional misconduct by American historians. The book was all too timely, appearing as it did in the wake of some highly publicized cases of plagiarism and fraud. But Hoffer went beyond expose and denunciation. He discussed the biases and sometimes shady practices of several well-respected American historians over the previous 200 years. By putting the recent cases of malfeasance into a broader context, Hoffer was not excusing them; on the contrary, he was clearly frustrated with colleagues who minimized the importance of dealing with the case of someone like Michael Bellesiles, a historian who fabricated evidence. But he also recognized that history itself, as a discipline, had a history. Even work that seemed perfectly sound might be shot through with problems only visible with the passing of time.
While by no means a sequel, Clio Among the Muses continues the earlier book’s effort to explain that revisionism is not a challenge to historical knowledge, but rather intrinsic to the whole effort to establish that knowledge in the first place. “If historians are fallible,” Hoffer writes, “there is no dogma in history itself, no hidden agenda, no sacred forms – not any that really matter – that are proof against revision… Worthwhile historical scholarship is based on a gentle gradualism, a piling up of factual knowledge, a sifting and reframing of analytical models, an ongoing collective enterprise that unites generation after generation of scholars to their readers and listeners.”
Hoffer’s strategy is to improve the public’s appreciation of history by introducing it to the elements of historiography. (That being the all-too-technical term for the history of what historians do, in all its methodological knottiness.) One way to do so would be through a comprehensive narrative, such as Harry Elmer Barnes offered in A History of Historical Writing (1937), a work of terrific erudition and no little tedium. Fortunately Hoffer took a different route.
Clio Among the Muses instead sketches the back-and-forth exchanges between history and other institutions and fields of study: religion, philosophy, law, literature, and public policy, among others. Historians explore the topics, and use the tools, created in these other domains. At the same time, historical research can exert pressure on, say, how a religious scripture is interpreted or a law is applied.
Clio’s dealings with her sisters are not always happy. One clear example is a passage Hoffer quotes from Charles Beard, addressing his colleagues at a meeting of the American Historical Association in 1933: “The philosopher, possessing little or no acquaintance with history, sometimes pretends to expound the inner secret of history, but the historian turns upon him and expounds the secret of the philosopher, as far as it may be expounded at all, by placing him in relation to the movement of ideas and interests in which he stands or floats, by giving to his scheme of thought its appropriate relativity.”
Sibling rivalry? The relationships are complicated, anyway, and Hoffer has his hands full trying to portray them. The essays are learned but fairly genial, and somehow not bogged down by the fundamental impossibility of what the author is trying to do. He covers the relationship between history and the social sciences – all of them -- in just under two dozen pages. Like Evel Knievel jumping a canyon, you have to respect the fact that, knowing the odds, he just went ahead with it.
But then, one of Hoffer’s remarks suggests that keeping one’s nerve is what his profession ultimately requires:
“Historical writing is not an exercise in logical argument so much as an exercise in creative imagination. Historians try to do the impossible: retrieve an ever-receding and thus never reachable past. Given that the task is impossible, one cannot be surprised that historians must occasionally use fallacy – hasty generalization, weak analogy, counterfactual hypotheticals, incomplete comparisons, and even jumping around in past time and space to glimpse the otherwise invisible yesteryear.”
And if they did not do so, we’d see very little of it at all.
In recent weeks a number of Modern Language Association members have talked with me about MLA Resolution 2014-1 to be voted on in Chicago on Saturday by the organization’s Delegate Assembly at the MLA’s annual meeting. The resolution "urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Several people expressed doubt that any counter-evidence could be presented to question the conclusions advanced by the background paper distributed by the resolution’s proponents. They then typically advanced to the next stage of the discussion, wondering what arguments could possibly be raised to defeat the resolution. The background paper sounds reasonable, even factual, if you aren’t well informed or up-to-date about conditions in Israel and the occupied territories. The people I talked with concluded it was an open-and-shut case.
Until now, MLA members have been in the same situation as the American Studies Association members who voted on a boycott resolution in December: They have only been presented with one side of the case. But a group of MLA members have now put together a detailed document exposing factual errors, contested claims, and misleading conclusions in the background paper available to MLA members on the association’s website. Like the resolution’s proponents, they have drawn on material gathered by non-government organizations with an interest in the subject. Rather than an objective report, the pro-resolution background paper is now revealed to be essentially the prosecution’s case. The document prepared by the resolution’s opponents amounts to the case for the defense.
The case for the defense rebuts both arguments and examples put forward by proponents of the resolution. It shows that many international scholars work and teach in the West Bank. It demonstrates why visa denials may not be “arbitrary.” It shows how the documents supporting the resolution are flawed and unreliable, including some that are now out of date. And it shows how Israeli visa policies are comparable to visa policies elsewhere. There are fundamental disagreements of fact between the two sides.
The members of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly have thus become triers of the facts, acting to evaluate what are fundamentally a set of evidence-based issues: what are the conditions at Palestinian universities? Are faculty members from other countries who wish to do so able to teach there? Are Palestinian faculty members able to engage in professional travel? What Israeli security concerns that affect access are or are not valid? What travel rules should an existentially threatened country in a state of perpetual war feel justified in enforcing? Does Israel have the right to exclude foreign faculty who advocate violence?
It is fair to say that MLA members are not necessarily well-informed about the first questions and are not professionally equipped to answer the last three. They would ideally have to listen to weeks of expert testimony and questioning before voting on the resolution. Instead they will hear an afternoon’s debate by English and foreign language professors. If the resolution passes, it will then be subjected to a vote by the association’s 30,000 members.
The MLA is to be applauded for requiring a democratic vote by its members before a resolution is formally adopted by the organization as a whole. Unfortunately, neither the Delegate Assembly nor the MLA’s 30,000 members have been equipped to be triers of the facts. Indeed MLA’s members are not required to read the documents supporting or contesting the resolution. Nor will they even be able to sit in judgment and hear arguments. They would be free to vote on the basis of their prior convictions, much as many of the ASA’s members surely did. Many ASA members no doubt voted approval simply because they were angry at Israel. They took the only organizational opportunity they had to express their disapproval of Israeli policy. The efficacy or advisability of academic boycotts aside, they registered their general convictions. Indeed there is no guarantee that members of the Delegate Assembly will read the two sets of background documents before voting.
Unfortunately, the context and basis for voting on the MLA resolution are worse still. Whether or not you support academic boycotts is fundamentally a matter of principle. Principle alone can guide a vote. But the MLA resolution is fundamentally fact-based. The process the MLA uses is not adequate to the task of establishing the facts. It is fatally flawed, or at least it will be if the Delegate Assembly approves the resolution.
Before the American Association of University Professors censures a college or university administration, it reviews documents submitted by both faculty members and administrators, tasks staff to prepare a review of relevant issues and key questions needing answers, and selects a team of faculty knowledgeable about academic freedom and shared governance to visit the campus in question to interview interested parties. The AAUP then drafts a full report reaching consensus on the facts. The AAUP also shares the draft report with administrators and faculty members on the campus and requests comments. The revised report is published for comment. The organization’s 39-member National Council reviews the report and votes on whether to recommend a vote for censure to the annual meeting. This is the kind of process required to decide a fact-based case in a responsible and professional manner.
But the MLA is not merely contemplating censuring a university. It is basically censuring a country for its policies. When did MLA conduct site visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank? When did the MLA give Israelis an opportunity to respond, a procedure the MLA’s rules would seem to require? Where is the consensus report evaluating arguments pro and con and giving MLA members a disinterested basis on which to vote? If the Delegate Assembly votes to approve the resolution after this flawed process proceeds, it will have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one. It does not augur well for the group’s future as a widely endorsed advocacy vehicle for the humanities.
On the other hand, the Delegate Assembly has an opportunity to reject the resolution. Set beside one another, the two sets of documents make it clear that a good deal more objective evidence would be needed to prove the prosecution case. To follow through on the jury trial analogy: when the documents for and against the resolution are compared, the DA at the very least must conclude there is “reasonable doubt” the resolution is justified.
That is not to say that Israel should not take the risk of loosening the security restrictions under which Palestinian universities operate. That would be one component of a plan for jettisoning control of the West Bank, something Israel may have to do unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. But it is to say that MLA’s ill-informed resolution and inadequate procedures have no role to play in the process. In an era of continuing adjunct abuse and politicians declaring the humanities of no economic use, the MLA should concentrate instead on saving a profession endangered in its own country.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Supporters of the American Studies Association’s call for a boycott of Israel universities are distorting what the boycott is – and how it will affect academe. The "institutional boycott" is likely to function as a political test in a hidden form. It violates principles of academic freedom. And in practice, it has been, and is likely to continue to be, a campaign for the exclusion of individual scholars who work in Israel, from the global academic community. It’s time to look with more care at the boycott and what it’s really about.
What the ASA Resolution Says
The ASA resolution reaffirms, in a general and abstract way, its support for the principle of academic freedom. It then says that it will “honor the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” It goes on to offer guarantees that it will support the academic freedom of scholars who speak about Israel and who support the boycott; the implication here is that this refers to scholars who are opponents of Israel or of Israeli policy. The resolution does not specifically mention the academic freedom of individual Israeli scholars or students, nor does it mention protection for people to speak out against the boycott, nor does it say anything about the academic freedom of people to collaborate with Israeli colleagues.
What the ASA names "the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott" is the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) "Call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel." The PACBI call explicitly says that the "vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics," that is to say individuals, have contributed to, or have been "complicit in through their silence," the Israeli human rights abuses which are the reasons given for boycott. There would be no sense in making this claim if no sanctions against individuals were envisaged. The PACBI guidelines state that "virtually all" Israeli academic institutions are guilty in the same way.
These claims, about the collective guilt of Israeli academics and institutions are strongly contested empirically. Opponents of the boycott argue that Israeli academe is pluralistic and diverse and contains many individuals who explicitly oppose anti-Arab racism, Islamophobia and the military and the civilian occupations of the West Bank. These claims about the guilt of Israeli academe are also contested by those who hold that the principle of collective guilt is a violation of the norms of the global academic community and of natural justice. Opponents of the boycott argue that academics and institutions should be judged by the content of their work and by the nature of their academic norms and practices, not by the state in which they are employed.
The PACBI guidelines go on to specify what is meant by the "institutional" boycott. "[T]hese institutions, all their activities, and all the events they sponsor or support must be boycotted." And "[e] and projects involving individuals explicitly representing these complicit institutions should be boycotted." The guidelines then offer an exemption for some other classes of individual as follows: "Mere institutional affiliation to the Israeli academy is therefore not a sufficient condition for applying the boycott."
A Political Test by Another Name
Refusing to collaborate with academics on the basis of their nationality is, prima facie, a violation of the norms of academic freedom and of the principle of the universality of science. It seems to punish scholars not for something related to their work, nor for something that they have done wrong, but because of who they are.
In 2002 Mona Baker, an academic in Britain, fired two Israelis from the editorial boards of academic journals that she owned and edited. Gideon Toury and Miriam Shlesinger are both well-respected internationally as scholars and also as public opponents of Israeli human rights abuses, but nevertheless they were "boycotted." The boycott campaign sought a more sophisticated formulation which did not appear to target individuals just for being Israeli.
In 2003, the formulation of the "institutional boycott" was put into action with a resolution to the Association of University Teachers (AUT), an academic trade union in Britain, that members should "sever any academic links they may have with official Israeli institutions, including universities." Yet in the same year, Andrew Wilkie, an Oxford academic, rejected an Israeli who applied to do a Ph.D. with him, giving as a reason that he had served in the Israeli armed forces. The boycott campaign in the UK supported Andrew Wilkie against criticism which focused on his boycott of an individual who had no affiliation of any kind to an Israeli academic institution. If the principle was accepted that anybody who had been in the Israeli armed forces was to be boycotted, then virtually every Israeli Jew would be thus targeted.
In 2006 the boycott campaign took a new tack, offering an exemption from the boycott to Israelis who could demonstrate their political cleanliness. The other British academic union, NATFHE, called for a boycott of Israeli scholars who failed to "publicly dissociate themselves" from ‘Israel’s apartheid policies." The political test opened the campaign up to a charge of McCarthyism: the implementation of a boycott on this basis would require some kind of machinery to be set up to judge who was allowed an exemption and who was not. The assertion that Israel is "apartheid" is emotionally charged and strongly contested. While it is possible for such analogies to be employed carefully and legitimately, it is also possible for such analogies to function as statements of loyalty to the Palestinians. They sometimes function as short cuts to the boycott conclusion, and as ways of demonizing Israel, Israelis, and those who are accused of speaking on their behalf. In practice, the boycott campaign attempts to construct supporters of the boycott as friends of Palestine and opponents of the boycott as enemies of Palestine.
It is reasonable to assume that under the influence of the campaign for an "institutional boycott," much boycotting of individuals goes on silently and privately. It is also reasonable to assume that Israeli scholars may come to fear submitting papers to journals or conferences if they think they may be boycotted, explicitly or not; this would lead to a "self-boycott" effect. There are anecdotal examples of the kinds of things which are likely to happen under the surface even of an institutional boycott. An Israeli colleague contacted a British academic in 2008, saying that he was in town and would like to meet for a coffee to discuss common research interests. The Israeli was told that the British colleague would be happy to meet, but he would first have to disavow Israeli apartheid.
The PACBI call, endorsed by ASA, says that Israeli institutions are guilty, Israeli intellectuals are guilty, Israeli academics who explicitly represent their institutions should be boycotted, but an affiliation in itself, is not grounds for boycott. The danger is that Israelis will be asked not to disavow Israel politically, but to disavow their university ‘institutionally’, as a pre-condition for recognition as legitimate members of the academic community. Israelis may be told that they are welcome to submit an article to a journal or to attend a seminar or a conference as an individual: EG David Hirsh is acceptable, David Hirsh, Tel Aviv University is not. Some Israelis will, as a matter of principle, refuse to appear only as an individual; others may be required by the institution which pays their salary, or by the institution which funds their research, not to disavow.
An ‘Institutional Boycott’ Still Violates Principles of Academic Freedom
Academic institutions themselves, in Israel as anywhere else, are fundamentally communities of scholars; they protect scholars, they make it possible for scholars to research and to teach, and they defend the academic freedom of scholars. The premise of the "institutional boycott" is that in Israel, universities are bad but scholars are (possibly, exceptionally) good, that universities are organs of the state while individual scholars are employees who may be (possibly, exceptionally) not guilty of supporting Israeli "apartheid" or some similar formulation.
There are two fundamental elements that are contested by opponents of the boycott in the "institutional boycott" rhetoric. First, it is argued, academic institutions are a necessary part of the structure of academic freedom. If there were no universities, scholars would band together and invent them, in order to create a framework within which they could function as professional researchers and teachers, and within which they could collectively defend their academic freedom.
Second, opponents of the boycott argue that Israeli academic institutions are not materially different from academic institutions in other free countries: they are not segregated by race, religion or gender, they have relative autonomy from the state, they defend academic freedom and freedom of criticism, not least against government and political pressure. There are of course threats to academic freedom in Israel, as there are in the U.S. and elsewhere, but the record of Israeli institutions is a good one in defending their scholars from political interference. Neve Gordon, for example, still has tenure at Ben Gurion University, in spite of calling for a boycott of his own institution; Ilan Pappe left Haifa voluntarily after having been protected by his institution even after traveling the world denouncing his institution and Israel in general as genocidal, Nazi and worthy of boycott.
Jon Pike argued that the very business of academia does not open itself up to a clear distinction between individuals and institutions. For example the boycott campaign has proposed that while Israelis may submit papers as individuals, they would be boycotted if they submitted it from their institutions. He points out that "papers that ‘issue from Israeli institutions' or are 'submitted from Israeli institutions' are worried over, written by, formatted by, referenced by, checked by, posted off by individual Israeli academics. Scientists, theorists, and researchers do their thinking, write it up and send it off to journals. It seems to me that Israeli academics can’t plausibly be so different from the rest of us that they have discovered some wonderful way of writing papers without the intervention of a human, individual, writer."
Boycotting academic institutions means refusing to collaborate with Israeli academics, at least under some circumstances if not others; and then we are likely to see the reintroduction of some form of "disavowal" test.
The Boycott Is an Exclusion of Jewish Scholars Who Work in Israel
In 2011 the University of Johannesburg decided, under pressure from the boycott campaign, to cut the institutional links it had with Ben Gurion University for the study of irrigation techniques in arid agriculture. Logically the cutting of links should have meant the end of the research with the Israeli scholars being boycotted as explicit representatives of their university. What in fact happened was that the boycotters had their public political victory and then the two universities quietly renegotiated their links under the radar, with the knowledge of the boycott campaign, and the research into agriculture continued. The boycott campaign portrayed this as an institutional boycott that didn’t harm scientific co-operation or Israeli individuals. The risks are that such pragmatism (and hypocrisy) will not always be the outcome and that the official position of "cutting links" will actually be implemented; in any case, the University of Johannesburg solution encourages a rhetoric of stigmatization against Israeli academics, even if it quietly neglects to act on it.
Another risk is that the targeting of Israelis by the "institutional boycott," or the targeting of the ones who are likely to refuse to disavow their institutional affiliations, is likely to impact disproportionately Jews. The risk here is that the institutional boycott has the potential to become, in its actual implementation, an exclusion of Jewish Israelis, although there will of course be exemption for some "good Jews": anti-Zionist Jewish Israelis or Israeli Jewish supporters of the boycott campaign. The result would be a policy which harms Israeli Jews more than anybody else. Further, among scholars who insist on "breaking the institutional boycott" or on arguing against it in America, Jews are likely to be disproportionately represented. If there are consequences which follow these activities, which some boycotters will regard as scabbing, the consequences will impact most heavily on American Jewish academics. Under any accepted practice of equal opportunities impact assessment, the policy of "institutional boycott" would cross the red lines which would normally constitute warnings of institutional racism.
The reality of the "institutional boycott" is that somebody will be in charge of judging who should be boycotted and who should be exempt. Even the official positions of ASA and PACBI are confusing and contradictory; they say there will be no boycott of individuals but they nevertheless make claims which offer justification for a boycott of individuals. But there is the added danger that some people implementing the boycott locally are likely not to have even the political sophistication of the official boycott campaign. There is a risk that there will still be boycotts of individuals (Mona Baker), political tests (NATFHE), breaking of scientific links (University of Johannesburg) and silent individual boycotts.
Even if nobody intends this, it is foreseeable that in practice the effects of a boycott may include exclusions, opprobrium, and stigma against Jewish Israeli academics who do not pass, or who refuse to submit to, one version or another of a test of their ideological purity; similar treatment may be visited upon those non-Israeli academics who insist on working with Israeli colleagues. There is a clear risk that an ‘institutional boycott’, if actually implemented, would function as such a test.
PACBI is the "Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel." What it hopes to achieve is stated in its name. It hopes to institute an "academic boycott of Israel." The small print concerning the distinction between institutions and individuals is contradictory, unclear and small. It is likely that some people will continue to understand the term "academic boycott of Israel," in a common sense way, to mean a boycott of Israeli academics.
David Hirsh is lecturer in sociology at Goldsmiths, the University of London. He is founding editor of Engage, a network and website that opposes boycotts of Israel and anti-Semitism.
What the social-democratic left has always objected to is not the liberal aspiration to universal rights and freedoms, but rather the way that classical liberalism generally ignored the unequal economic and social conditions of access to those freedoms. The liberal’s abstract universalism affirmed everyone’s equal rights without giving everyone the real means of realizing these formally universal rights. The rich and the poor may have an equal formal right to be elected to political office, for instance, but the poor were effectively excluded from office when it did not pay a full-time salary.
For this reason generations of social democrats have insisted that all citizens must be guaranteed access to the institutional resources they need to make effective use of their civil and political rights. The British sociologist T. H. Marshall referred to those guarantees as the social component of citizenship, and he argued that only when this social component began to be incorporated into citizenship did equal citizenship start to impose modifications on the substantive inequalities of the capitalist class system. Today, when neoliberalism is ascendant and the welfare state is in tatters, it is more important than ever to remember the social-democratic critique of formal equality and abstract universalism.
Like other freedoms, academic freedom cannot be practiced effectively without the means of realizing it. At one time, those means were largely in the hands of academics themselves. As the German sociologist Max Weber put it, “The old-time lecturer and university professor worked with the books and the technical resources which they procured or made for themselves.” Like the artisan, the peasant smallholder, or the member of a liberal profession, the scholar was not separated from his means of production. But that time is long past. As Weber understood well, this “pre-capitalist” mode of scholarship had already disappeared a century ago, when he wrote those words.
The modern academic, he pointed out, did not own the means to conduct scientific or humanistic research or to communicate his or her findings any more than the modern proletarian owns the means of production, the modern soldier owns the means of warfare, or the modern civil servant owns the means of administration. Like those other figures in a capitalistic and bureaucratized society, the individual academic depends on means that are not his or her own. Specifically, she relies on academic institutions and the resources they provide — access to books, journals, laboratories, equipment, materials, research and travel funds, etc. — to participate in the intellectual and communicative exchanges that are the lifeblood of her profession. Unless she is independently wealthy, she depends on an academic institution for her very livelihood.
What, then, is an academic boycott of Israel in relation to these facts? The boycott recently endorsed by the American Studies Association, its supporters emphasize, is aimed only at Israeli academic institutions and not at individual scholars. Consequently, Judith Butler explained in the pages of The Nation in December 2013, “any Israeli, Jewish or not, is free to come to a conference, to submit his or her work to a journal and to enter into any form of scholarly exchange. The only request that is being made is that no institutional funding from Israeli institutions be used for the purposes of those activities.”
Butler argues that such a request does not infringe upon the Israeli scholar’s academic freedom because that scholar can pay from her “own personal funds” or ask others to pay for her. Personal funds presumably come from the salary paid to the Israeli scholar by her institution, but for Butler money apparently ceases to be institutional once it changes hands. One wonders why this same reasoning doesn’t apply to conference or travel funds furnished by an Israeli university.
One also wonders how many ASA members are willing to raise their own dues or earmark a portion of their current dues to pay for the participation of Israeli colleagues in the activities of their organization. Furthermore, one wonders why Butler, who has raised concerns about new forms of effective censorship exercised by private donors, does not have similar concerns about the donors who might pay for Israeli colleagues. But the most serious problem with Butler’s proposal is that it imposes special costs and burdens on Israeli scholars, creating substantive inequalities that undermine the formally equal and universal freedoms that she is eager to affirm for everyone in the abstract.
While scholars of other nationalities may use the resources of their institutions, Israeli scholars must make do with their own private means or rely upon charity; they enjoy equal academic freedom in the same way that the rich and the poor are equally free to hold an unpaid office. For the generously paid academic aristocracy at elite institutions, using one’s own personal funds may only be an “inconvenience” (Butler’s word) rather than a hardship. However, not all academics have personal resources in such abundance, and those with fewer personal resources are more dependent on institutional funding.
Because “academic freedom can only be exercised when the material conditions for exercising those rights are secured,” Butler has argued, the academic freedom of Palestinians is vitiated by the conditions of Israeli military occupation. She is indeed right, but the remedy for military occupation is a negotiated peace, not an effort to deprive Israelis of the material conditions for their academic freedom. Butler seems not to understand how her point militates against her own demand that Israeli scholars become luftmenschen. The distinction between an institutional and an individual boycott only makes sense in a world of abstract universalism, where Israeli scholars are entitled to academic freedom in a formal sense without equal access to the institutional means and resources they need to realize it in practice. The great irony of the campaign to boycott Israeli academics is that its proponents consider it a litmus test of left-wing politics when in fact they fail to apply consistently one of the left’s most important insights.
Chad Alan Goldberg is professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He is a member of the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors and the Jewish Labor Committee.