In 1963, when I was graduating from college, a book was published entitled Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by the noted historian Richard Hofstadter.
In exploring anti-intellectualism as a major current of American culture, Hofstadter examined various facets of our nation’s history over time. He described how those living in rural areas grew suspicious of urban life. He analyzed how utilitarianism and practicality, associated with the world of business, were accompanied by a certain contempt for the life of the mind. He devoted special attention to evangelicalism, although we should perhaps more specifically define his target as fundamentalism, a literal-minded approach to the Bible that involved hostility to all forms of knowledge that contradicted scripture or sought to interpret it as a set of historical documents reflecting the context of its production. He noted how all of this combined to make the term “elite” a dirty word.
This exploration of American national character, which was very much a product of his times, notably the atmosphere of fear and distrust that characterized the Cold War, is still quite timely today. Which is why I felt compelled to re-read Hofstadter’s book last summer. And why I was particularly interested in reading an update and homage to Hofstadter by Susan Jacoby, whose book The Age of American Unreason was published just this year.
Jacoby brings Hofstadter’s arguments into the present, illustrating them with examples from the times in which we live today. She talks about the powerful role played by fundamentalist forms of religion in current America; about the abysmal level of public education; about the widespread inability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience; about the dumbing-down of the media and politics; about the consequences of a culture of serious reading being replaced by a rapid-fire, short-attention-span-provoking, over-stimulating, largely visual, information-spewing environment.
She, like Hofstadter, invites us to consider how all of this has affected the great venture that is American democracy? So, let us do so.
Once upon a time, the leaders of our country were the kind of men -- and, let’s face it, it was a men’s club at the time -- who were learned, who valued scholarship and science. The American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 at the instigation of Benjamin Franklin, counted also among its early members presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.
In adopting as its mission the promotion of “useful knowledge”, the American Philosophical Society reflected a time in which the sciences and the humanities were not divided from one another, and in which there was no opposition between what we might now call pure and applied science. What it did reflect was an opposition between Enlightenment values of reason and empirical research, on the one hand, and what we might call “faith based” beliefs, on the other. There were clergymen among the early members of the APS, but they were those who felt that their religious convictions did not stand in their way of their desire to be among the most educated members of their society.
That was then. This is now: We have a president who believes that “creation science” should be taught in our schools. As Jacoby points out, we should understand “how truly extraordinary it [is] that any American president would place himself in direct opposition to contemporary scientific thinking."
But let’s not just pin the tail on the elephant here and pick only on the Republicans -- or, to be more precise, on the extreme right wing of the Republican party, since there are, after all (though they may be increasingly hard to locate), moderate, thoughtful -- one might even say, liberal -- Republicans.
Let’s look at the Democrats, at the nomination fight we all followed – followed, it seems, since the early Pleistocene. Here we had two candidates vying to run for President who had been educated at institutions that are among the most distinguished in our country: Wellesley, Yale, Columbia and Harvard. Both candidates were obviously highly intelligent and knowledgeable. Yet both felt the need to play down their claims to intellectuality -- and the winner may still feel that need in the general election. Hillary Clinton chugalugged beer and sought to attach the dread label of “elitist” to her rival. And Barack Obama felt compelled to follow one of the most honest and sophisticated political speeches in recent memory with strenuous displays of folksiness.
And who are we to blame them? If anyone is going to serve as president, the first step is to get elected. What level of intellectual interest and background can political candidates presuppose on the part of our nation’s citizenry? What level of interest in the most important challenges facing us in the years ahead? What level of public demand that assertions be backed up with sound reasoning and actual facts?
To take just one example: citing data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, released in 2005, Jacoby notes that two-thirds of Americans believe that both evolution and creationism should be taught in our public schools. Who would have thought that, all these years after the United States became the laughing stock of the civilized world through international newspaper coverage of the Scopes trial, we would still see the fight we have recently seen in the state of Pennsylvania over teaching creationism in our public schools?
Nor is this simply a matter of religious belief. Many who advocate teaching creationism do so in the name of providing a “fair and balanced” curriculum. This misplaced pluralism, which draws no distinction between the results of scientific inquiry and the content of folk beliefs, is in line with the loose way in which the word “theory” is used, such that Einstein’s “theory” of relativity or Darwin’s “theory” of evolution is on a par with the loose way we use “theory” to describe any kind of wild guess. In this latter sense, “theory” is used as the opposite of “fact”, rather than as a systematic set of hypotheses to explain a variety of facts. Moreover, simply changing the label from “creationism” to “creation science” or “intelligent design” gives this set of untestable and unfalsifiable assertions the veneer of science, which is quite enough for a lot of people who have little or no sense of what real science is.
But let us not let the scientists and scholars themselves off the hook. Jacoby devotes some interesting passages in her book to forms of pseudo-science that were at various times in our history embraced by members of the most educated classes. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we had social Darwinism, which sought to justify differences between rich and poor as a reflection of “survival of the fittest” (which, by the way, was not an expression coined by Darwin). And lest we look upon those benighted forebears too complacently, let us keep in mind that, much more recently, we have had sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which share many of the same faults, though in more sophisticated trappings, as befits the trajectory of the natural and social sciences since the 19th century unilinear evolutionism of Herbert Spencer and others.
Returning to the world of politics, the first presidential candidate I campaigned for myself -- I was 10 years old at the time and we were having a mock convention in my elementary school (those were the days when candidates actually got chosen at the party’s national convention) -- that first presidential candidate was the quintessential, unelectable intellectual Adlai Stevenson, who ran against Dwight Eisenhower. One of the well-known anecdotes about him is the time a woman went up to him after a speech and said, “Mr. Stevenson, every thinking American will be voting for you.” To which he replied, “Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority.”
In her chapter on “Public Life”, which is subtitled “Defining Dumbness Downward”, Jacoby opens by talking about the extemporaneous speech given by Robert Kennedy on April 4th, 1968, when he had just learned, before taking the stage in Indianapolis, that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. Kennedy began by invoking from memory the following lines from Aeschylus:
Even in our sleep, pain which we cannot forget Falls drop by drop upon the heart, Until, in our own despair, Against our will, Comes wisdom Through the awful grace of God.
Jacoby notes how inconceivable it is today that a major political figure, an aspirant to the highest office in the land, would use such a quote, given the pervasive fear nowadays of seeming to be an “elitist." Yet Robert Kennedy was not showing off to his audience or condescending to them. He just assumed that he could address them in this way, whether or not they themselves were familiar with these lines, much less could quote them from memory.
Jacoby’s discussion of the dumbing down of our public, political culture follows a chapter on what she calls “The Culture of Distraction”. She worries over the consequences of our being constantly bombarded by noisy stimuli, by invitations to multitask in a way that fosters superficiality as opposed to depth. The major casualties of our current media-saturated life are three things essential to the vocation of an intellectual: silence, solitary thinking, and social conversation.
She delves into a problem I have recurrently nagged Barnard students about: the isolating effects of new technologies. Many a time and oft, I have urged students to get off their cellphones so that, as they walk along, they can engage in reflection, contemplate surroundings, and talk to those with whom they are actually sharing your physical space.
I also share with Jacoby great concern about the fact that more information is not at all the same thing as more knowledge. We are living in an age when we have GPS and Google maps at our fingertips, but most Americans are unable to locate Iraq on a map, even though we have been at war there for years. Nor do most people feel any interest in doing so. On the other hand, when President Franklin Roosevelt was needing to reassure citizens in the early days of World War II, when things were going very badly in the Pacific, he asked people to go out and buy maps so that they could follow his fireside chat on the radio and understand the geographical challenges facing the military.
Can we ever get back to something like that? To a more educated citizenry, since there can be no true democracy without it?
If there is any chance of achieving such a goal, those of us who have chosen the academic vocation must do our part. In addition to addressing one another, we must address wider publics. And we must make use of new modes of communication as they become available. That means, for example, using cyber channels not just for blogging the like-minded (the Internet fails to achieve its liberating potential insofar as it is composed of myriad gated communities), but for opening new doors. It means learning from and working with journalists who are seeking to achieve the highest ideals of their own profession. And being active citizens ourselves, so that we can help elect the women and men who share our goals.
Judith Shapiro this month ends a 14-year tenure as president of Barnard College. This essay is adapted from her keynote address at this year's Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at the college.
Among the most striking phenomena associated with Barack Obama’s successful bid for the Democratic nomination has been his ability to attract young people to the political process. Youthful volunteers have staffed his campaign. They have used Internet skills to advance his candidacy and build his organization. They have even been among the thousands of small donors who have contributed to his record-breaking fund-raising efforts. In state after state, their support for Obama during the primaries significantly exceeded his margins among voters from other age groups.
The success of the Obama campaign refutes the oft-repeated notion that young people today are uninterested in national politics and are less ready than older generations of Americans to become responsible stewards of our democratic institutions. This resurgence of youthful activism delivers an important message for our colleges and universities.
The disengagement of young people from our country’s political processes after the 1960s has been well documented. Many studies have shown that during the last three decades of the 20th century, young Americans demonstrated less interest in public affairs than had previous generations, and also were less well informed about political and public policy matters, and less likely to vote.
The withdrawal of young people from active interest in public affairs paralleled reduced attention to citizenship by our colleges and universities. While higher education has long claimed as a core mission preparing students for democratic participation, it is a mission honored in recent years mainly in the rhetoric of college catalogs. Few campuses today provide organized or explicit programming with this focus, either inside or outside the curriculum. Most of our academic institutions address this matter only indirectly, by fostering the intellectual skills and qualities -- critical thinking, habits of reading and information gathering, broad interest in the social world -- that studies have shown relate to heightened levels of political participation.
It was not always this way. In the years after World War II, when patriotic sentiment was strong, academics paid extensive attention to the ways in which the undergraduate curriculum could promote appreciation of the ideas, values and experiences that constituted the shared cultural heritage of the country, a movement symbolized by Harvard’s famous report, "General Education in a Free Society." Many institutions established requirements in American history and Western political and social thought. A new emphasis on international studies reflected the country’s emergence as a global power. Outside the curriculum, there was a heightened focus on the ways in which student government could be a vehicle for teaching undergraduates the ways of democratic decision making.
During the 1960s, however, attention to active citizenship fell victim to the anti-governmental impulses inspired by the war in Vietnam. By the end of that decade, academe was far more concerned with promoting the kind of intellectual independence associated with dissent than with helping students understand the workings of democracy. In curricular terms, not much has changed since the 1960s. Indeed, the emphases of recent years on multiculturalism and world history have rendered special attention to a shared American culture or to American history passé or even objectionable from the perspective of many academics.
It would be unfair to blame academe entirely for the disengagement of young people from our political life. Many factors have been involved, not least the many unappealing qualities of contemporary political practice. But higher education, by abandoning attention to preparation for citizenship, has been an enabler of this pattern. In recent years, however, a growing number of educators have expressed concern about our continuing inattention to this matter. Individuals such as Derek Bok, former president of Harvard, and academic organizations including the Association of American Colleges and Universities have argued that we need to revitalize our traditional concern for citizenship education. Organizations such as Campus Compact and indeed the whole service learning movement are promoting civic engagement among college students, although these efforts are typically focused on community service rather than electoral politics.
The students who have responded so enthusiastically to Senator Obama’s campaign are making it clear that they are ready for renewed attention to our democratic institutions by our colleges and universities. It is inevitable, whatever the final outcome of the election, that the heightened interest in politics shown by young people will translate into a heightened receptivity to programming by colleges and universities focused on these matters. Higher education should seize this opportunity.
Not everyone will welcome renewed efforts by colleges and universities to promote political participation. Some, mainly outside academe, worry that higher education’s tendency toward liberal politics is already turning many college classes into indoctrination sessions; those who harbor such worries will not readily trust our campuses to avoid partisanship. Others, mainly inside academe, worry that an explicit focus on strengthening democracy will quickly devolve into nationalistic boosterism.
But recent work by thoughtful academics, most notably through the Political Engagement Project, sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, have shown that collegiate programs focused on active citizenship can heighten political awareness and foster greater understanding and participation without greatly affecting the political inclinations of participating students or abandoning an appropriately critical perspective on our country’s policies. Boks’s study outlines a number of ways -- through required course work, extra curricular activities, sponsored events and speakers, and presidential leadership -- that colleges and universities can responsibly promote thoughtful political participation.
Individual institutions should craft their own responses to this moment of opportunity. Institutional characteristics such as scale, complexity, mission, location and educational philosophy will suggest the most fruitful approach to citizenship education in particular contexts. The first requirement of progress, therefore, must be engagement of the campus community -- faculty and staff -- in thinking about how citizenship education can most effectively be pursued. But local approaches will need to address some shared objectives.
The first of these is understanding. It is hard to imagine how an institution can claim to prepare its students for active citizenship if they are allowed to graduate with no knowledge of American history or of our political and economic institutions. The widespread absence of requirements in these areas is an embarrassment to higher education. A second challenge is motivation. Campus plans should seek ways to foster an abiding sense of the value and importance of civic engagement. In this area we have much to build on, given the inspiring surge in social activism among many young people. A final challenge is skill. We need to help students develop the capacity to use the vehicles available to citizens to influence the political process effectively. And we need to think about how to use the entire institution -- both the curriculum and the extra-curriculum -- to meet these challenges.
These will not be easy discussions. They will compel us to think about things we have found difficult, such as requiring students to study certain subjects and treating extra curricular life in a systemic way as part of the educational process. But if we can’t find ways to address these issues, we should perhaps abandon the pretense that our mission includes the preparation of citizens. I hope we will not do that. The country needs us to respond differently. It is time for academia to reassert our historic role in preserving and strengthening our democracy by helping our students appreciate what it is about and how it works. The young people turning out in droves to vote in the 2008 primaries are calling us to pay attention to this issue.
Richard M. Freeland
Richard Freeland is the Jane and William Mosakowski Distinguished Professor of Higher Education at Clark University and president emeritus of Northeastern University.
An auto worker in Detroit during the 1940s and ‘50s, Martin Glaberman later became a professor emeritus in interdisciplinary studies at Wayne State University, in part on the strength of his book Wartime Strikes: The Struggles Against the No-Strike Pledge in the UAW during World War Two. He had also gained some pedagogical experience teaching Das Kapital in small Marxist groups that crystallized around the Caribbean historian and political thinker C.L.R. James. It was through an interest in James that I first got to know Glaberman during the final dozen years of his life. (He died in late 2001.) But it did not take long to become very fond of Glaberman himself, who was a living embodiment of the phrase “gruff but lovable.”
One day, we were talking about C.L. R. James’s problems with American immigration officials during the 1950s. (Being even a staunchly anti-Stalinist radical was enough to make life difficult then. James ended up imprisoned on Ellis Island for a while, as if that were not laying the irony on a little thick.) As a digression, Marty told me about getting his own surveillance file from the local police. Detroit had a “red squad” until at least the 1970s, as did many other cities. In some cases, police departments spent more resources gathering political intelligence than keeping track of organized crime.
The portion of his red-squad file Glaberman saw mentioned that a group called the Third World Liberation Army met in his basement during the late 1960s to receive paramilitary training. Marty said he was surprised to read this. For one thing, it was the first he’d heard of the Third World Liberation Army. And, possibly more to the point, the house he lived in during the late 1960s did not have a basement.
Marty told the story with amusement, and I listened in the same spirit. When people in authority make themselves ridiculous, you can’t help responding accordingly. But the joking mood also had an element of retroactive nervousness to it. The delusions or fabrications of the undercover agent could well have led to real consequences. It was easy to picture Marty being beaten to a pulp by some overzealous SWAT team member who demanded to know where the (nonexistent) arms cache was kept.
That discussion came back to mind a couple of weeks ago when I read the 43 pages of documents that the American Civil Liberties Union recently obtained from the Maryland State Police concerning surveillance of pacifist and anti-death penalty activists between 2005 and 2006. The material is startling and disconcerting -- if not quite filled with the excitement of paramilitary maneuvers in an imaginary basement.
As it happens, two of the individuals named in those documents are people I know. The record shows that they did knowingly assemble with others to incite public opinion against the death penalty through such means as distributing leaflets, circulating petitions, and holding vigils and nonviolent protests. “The group discussed soliciting donations for signs, flyers, and other administrative expenses,” we learn from one top-secret report. “A table will be set up at the Sunday Takoma Park Farmer’s Market to promote the events and their cause. No other pertinent intelligence information was obtained.”
All this sensitive and alarming information was gathered by a woman in her early 20s who identified herself as “Lucy.” When not attending public meetings -- cleverly disguised as somebody who gave a damn -- the agent was busy monitoring the group’s listserv. Her reports mention that she "set up a covert email account" for this purpose.
I will say this much for her: Lucy took good notes. In fact, if you want to see what it looks like when a bunch of citizens take seriously “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances” (as it says somewhere) -- well, the surveillance logs of the Maryland State Police would be a good place to start.
Such activity was once regarded as evidence of a healthy constitutional democracy -- perhaps even its prerequisite. Thanks to the efforts of Lucy and her colleagues, we now know better. Democracy means you have nothing to complain about, so shut up already.
Actually, my two friends are not shutting up at all. Each wrote an excellent article in the wake of the revelations (available here and here). They, along with others named in the surveillance reports, will also be taking suitable steps. So far, they are being discreet about what that might entail, but one hopes it involves suing the hell out of everybody responsible.
Judged as anything but a symptom of Patriot Act sensibilities at their most deranged, the Maryland surveillance case seems puzzling. It involved using surreptitious means to gather information about activities that were as public as they could possibly be. The meetings were open to anyone who wanted to attend. You could read material about what the groups were doing online. Not one word in the reports suggests any potential for violence, vandalism, foul language, or the involuntary exposure of the public to works of performance art transgressing bourgeois norms. The Maryland State Police appear to have wasted quite a bit of the taxpayers' money.
But a classic article from The American Journal of Sociology -- first published in 1974, not so long after my friend Marty was being surveilled in Detroit -- suggests that there may be a method to the madness.
In “Thoughts on a Neglected Category of Social Movement Participant: The Agent Provocateur and the Informant,” Gary T. Marx (now professor emeritus of sociology at MIT) analyzed dozens of examples of police infiltration of dissident groups. A number of such operations had been revealed in the early 1970s, whether through raids on FBI offices by radicals who hauled off documents or testimony by former undercover agents who went public with their experiences. Marx could also draw on the record of earlier generations of surveillance of left-wing and labor organizations, whether by the government or by private agencies.
It is a rich paper, defying quick summary. But when I reread it last week, the yellow highlighter found some passages that seemed like comments on the news from Maryland.
For one thing, the sociologist may well describe “Lucy” -- no small trick, given that she hadn’t been born when the article was written.
“When regular police are used as agents,” writes Marx, “it is often those who have recently joined the force, sometimes having purposely not undergone academy training. Their youthfulness not only makes their access easier, but it also makes them less recognizable as police officers and eliminates the need for elaborate cover stories.... With increased emphasis on college-educated police and programs to facilitate going to school while serving on the force, this seems a natural arrangement.”
Earlier generations of activists had created tight, hierarchical organizations. A spy could penetrate such a group with a reasonable chance of learning things about it not available to outsiders. But by the 1960s, undercover agents were facing a new phenomenon. The protest organizations coming to the fore then consisted, writes Gary Marx, “not of highly centralized, formally organized, tightly knit groups of experienced revolutionaries;” they were instead “decentralized, with fluid leadership and task assignments, shifting memberships, and an emphasis on participation. Members were generally not carefully screened, and requirements for activism were minimal.”
On the one hand, they tended to be naive about infiltration and surveillance. On the other hand, Marx writes, “Most groups had nothing to hide.” More than 30 years later, the description and evaluation still seem apt. Certainly they apply to the groups infiltrated by the Maryland State Police. So why would agents monitor such groups? It is tempting to answer, “Because they can.” But sociological analysis suggests another reason. Gary Marx notes the principle that “the amount of deviance ‘found’ in a society bears some relationship to the number of officials whose job it is to find it. Thus, as facilities for dealing with the crime of ‘witchcraft’ in early America increased, so did the number of ‘witches’ discovered.” (See also Marty Glaberman’s basement.)
When surveillance becomes a field of professional competence, those so certified must find something to infiltrate -- even if it’s just a group handing out literature at the Farmers Market.
As David Horowitz would be quick to remind you, academics tend to skew to the left in their political outlook relative to the general population. I am no exception. Like so many of my colleagues, I have followed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign with interest and excitement. South Carolina had an early primary this year, and nearly all of the major candidates came to speak at Clemson University, where I teach. Obama spoke outdoors, on a chilly and gray afternoon, but the energy he shared with that crowd of teachers, staff, and students made the event the most compelling political spectacle I’ve witnessed personally. The sight of an integrated crowd cheering a black presidential candidate not far from a campus building named in honor of Benjamin Tillman, an ardent segregationist, made politics seem exciting again.
Remembering this sense of exhilaration I sensed in seeing a new field of political possibilities makes the sense of betrayal I feel today even more powerful. By choosing Joe Biden as his running mate, Barack Obama has insulted academics -- students and teachers alike -- a constituency that was significant in bringing him the nomination of his party. Especially in a year that has seen two prominent political careers hamstrung by sex scandals, and in an era where choosing vice presidential candidates seems to be foremost an exercise in avoiding skeletons in the closet, it’s surprising that Biden’s record of plagiarism did not disqualify him from Obama’s consideration.
Joe Biden, you will remember, ran for president in 1988. He delivered a speech that presented the thoughts of British Labour Party Leader Neil Kinnock is if they were his own, and was slow to explain or apologize for this transgression. The ensuing scrutiny of Biden’s record revealed that he had also plagiarized in law school, failing a course for doing so. Shortly after these revelations, he dropped out of the race.
The entire affair was a shabby and unfortunate business. Operatives from the competing Dukakis campaign secretly videotaped the offending speech, then leaked it to the press. When Dukakis found out, he fired his campaign manager, John Sasso, and replaced him with Susan Estrich, who turned out to be a much better legal scholar than campaign manager.
To a degree, appropriating Kinnock for a stump speech is an understandable offense. There is not the presumption of original and unique authorship in the words that come out of a politician’s mouth. Just ask Peggy Noonan. However, the phrasing of Biden’s speech, prefaced Kinnock’s sentiments with language that indicated that these were his thoughts. This incident suggests the same kind of troubling indifference to the truth that has been a hallmark of the current administration, but on its own, perhaps not worthy of ending a political career.
The incident in law school is more concerning, at least from the perspective of any educator. The kind of wholesale plagiarism Biden evidently committed, copying chunks of a law review article into a paper with his name on it, suggests an inclination toward the kind of malfeasance present in the Kinnock incident. In every class I teach, I spend time talking about citation, and why it is so important for scholarship. As part of this conversation, I emphasize that acknowledging sources is a condition of membership in the community of scholars: if scholars do not acknowledge sources, they do not belong in this community. By way of illustration, I have sometimes shared the Emory University report on the conduct of former history professor Michael Bellesiles, who undermined a provocative and compelling argument about gun ownership in early America with gross violations of scholarly norms for citation. The report demonstrated serious concerns about his scholarshop and led to his resignation. If Bellesiles had chosen a less contentious subject, he would not have had legions of NRA supporters going through his footnotes, and he might well still hold his tenured position at a prestigious university. However, he presented his research in sloppy and dishonest fashion, and he lost his job.
The point of sharing this report is to establish that citation is not a question of memorizing MLA, APA, or Chicago styles -- whimsical shibboleths involving italics and parentheses -- but that citation is the foundation of honest scholarship. In the sciences, an experiment’s repeatability is the benchmark of its truth; in the social sciences and the humanities, citations perform the same function by allowing a reader to recreate the steps through which a writer established his or her argument. If a professor violates these norms, as Bellesiles did, he can lose his job; if students violate the same norms, they can face expulsion (though it’s much harder to get kicked out of most universities for academic dishonesty than it perhaps should be).
Within the academy, plagiarism is a grievous offense, and one most scholars would agree ought to have consequences. I was sympathetic to Bellesiles’ argument, and actually sent him an e-mail message of support, before the extent of his malfeasance was evident. But I teach the Bellesiles case because it establishes that there are consequences that follow from academic dishonesty. Bellesiles cheated, and he lost his job because of it, and in spite of an argument that continues to make sense.
Joe Biden is not a historian. Joe Biden has several qualities that do make him a good pick for Obama’s VP. On Election Day, I will hold my nose and vote for Obama/Biden. I continue to believe Obama offers the United Sates the best chance of escaping from the disaster of the last eight years. A survey of third party candidates reveals that after the vainglorious spoilsport Ralph Nader, the choices get even more marginal at a quick pace. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will face enormous challenges over the next four years, and I don’t think I can afford to waste my vote on a gesture. But I wish Obama could have located someone with foreign policy experience who did not have Biden’s track record of intellectual dishonesty, because I’d hoped to be motivated to do more this fall than show up and pull a lever for Obama. After this VP choice, however, I feel that’s the most Obama can expect from a constituency he has indicated he takes for granted.
Biden’s dishonesty matters to me in two ways. It suggests something of Biden’s character, indeed, in a realm more relevant to doing his job than was John Edwards’s philandering to his. The other reason is selfish. Now that Barack Obama has deemed a plagiarist worthy of the vice-presidency, it becomes more difficult for me to make the case in the classroom that plagiarism matters. More broadly speaking, Obama’s choice has made it harder for me, and for my colleagues across the United States, to defend the principles that form the foundation of scholarship.
Jonathan Beecher Field
Jonathan Beecher Field is an assistant professor of English at Clemson University.
The news of late is perplexing -- enough so to knit your brows into a permanent knot. I find myself checking my wallet from time to time, just to make sure the cash has not vaporized. But at least one continuing story places no strain on anyone’s brain. All it takes is five minutes of exposure to the presidential campaign to begin feeling considerably dumber. Things might improve following the first debate, this Friday, but the damage has been done. The past month has been, not an insult to the public’s intelligence, so much as a case of assault and battery.
The candidates once seemed destined for something more serious. “Mr. Obama is intelligent, inspiring, and appears by instinct to be a consensus-seeking pragmatist,” notes a commentator in the latest issue of The Economist. “John McCain has always stood for limited, principled government, and has distanced himself throughout his career from the religious ideologues that [sic] have warped Republicanism. An intelligent debate about issues of utmost importance ... seemed an attainable proposition.”
Instead, we parse the implications of lipstick on a pig. It is hard to imagine a greater disconnect between campaign agonistics and the world outside the candidates’ strategy meetings.
Was this inevitable? Elvin T. Lim, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, makes only a few brief references to campaign speeches in his recent bookThe Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush (Oxford University Press). But his analysis suggests that long-developing tendencies within the presidency have had the effect of “hollowing out ... our public discursive sphere.”
Lim’s book is not, as one might reasonably guess, devoted to cataloging the W. malapropisms (a needless exercise at this late date). The stupefying dynamic of presidential rhetoric is scrupulously bipartisan. The speeches of Bill Clinton provide numerous examples of the process that Lim describes, in which factual explanation and rational deliberation have sunk beneath the tide of appeals to feeling, rambling personal anecdotes, and applause-generating punchlines.
“Americans need to be politically educated,” writes Lim, “so that they develop the intellectual and moral capacities that are necessary for competent citizenship, among them, a capacity to look beyond individual interests toward collective interests, and an ability to think through and adjudicate the various policy options that their leaders propose. While we do not expect democratic citizens to be policy experts, there is a threshold level of political knowledge below which their ability to make informed and competent civic judgments is impaired. Presidents are not doing much to elevate this ever-receding threshold.”
At one level, Lim’s argument is a response to Jeffrey K. Tulis’s seminal book The Rhetorical Presidency (Princeton University Press, 1987), which traced an important long-term shift in the balance of powers between the legislative and executive branches. Tulis (now an associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin) presents a nuanced analysis of how, in the early 20th century, the president acquired an increased role in defining the terms of public debate and policy.
After World War One, presidential speeches seemed less clearly defined as part of a dialog with other office holders. Instead, the president came to be regarded as speaking to, and for, the nation as a whole. Theodore Roosevelt’s description of the presidency as a “bully pulpit” was one phase of this shift; another was expressed in Woodrow Wilson’s confidence that his “Fourteen Points” articulated “the thoughts of the people of the United States” and allowed him to “speak the moral judgment of the United States and not my single judgment.”
One consequence was what Tulis calls “rhetorical proliferation” -- a matter of increased presidential leadership being exercised through the sheer abundance and variety of speechifying. This is where Lim steps in to challenge his predecessor, if only on a rather small point. Tulis maintains that “the surfeit of speech by politicians constitutes a decay of political discourse.” This statement Lim calls an “untenable assumption.”
The real problem, according to Lim, is not quantity but quality -- a reduction in the density and substance of presidential discourse. Using a database containing the entire public record of presidential speeches, Lim runs them through “computer-assisted quantitative content analysis” to show what he calls “the relentless semantic and syntactic simplification of presidential rhetoric.”
The primary metric he relies on during this phase of his analysis is an index called the Flesch score, which uses sentence length and number of syllables to determine the implied reading level of the audience able to follow it. The higher the score, the simpler the text. And Lim’s charts show the Flesch scores for presidential speeches tending to double over the past two centuries.
This is not, alas, so clearcut a proof of cognitive declension as it may first appear. Treating sentence length and frequency of polysyllables as evidence of sophistication is no doubt flattering to the social scientist’s amour propre -- but the trans-historical value of the Flesch scale will be much less credible to anyone familiar with the everyday prose of the 18th and 19th century. (The account of a picnic in a newspaper from 1850 would probably have a more impressive score than Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations.) The rush to quantification speeds right past problems of cultural context.
Fortunately this bout of abstracted empiricism soon passes, and Lim moves on to a more substantive analysis of how our Chief Executives have learned to exercise the power of persuasion by dumbing things way, way down.
“Aristotle,” notes Lim, “recognized that effective rhetoric combines elements of logos, or the weighing and judging of reasons for a particular course of action; ethos, the credibility of the speaker; and pathos, emotional appeal.” While ethos and pathos have their place, “we expect the language of democratic political leaders to prioritize logos, the weighing and judging of reasons for a particular course of action.” This entails presenting their guiding ideas “to citizens in a form that can be subjected to public rational disputation, so that only the best can pass legitimately into legislation or government action.”
But the long-term trend has been for presidential speech making to grow ever more “short on logos, disingenuous on ethos, and long on pathos.” The tendency is for presidents to signal ethos “not so much by cataloging in their rhetoric a lifetime of virtuous public service and hence their right to speak authoritatively, but by imitating the language of the people.... Their competence to speak authoritatively to citizens is not argued for; it is merely linguistically implied.” You can be foxy by being folksy.
Perhaps the most telling case is that good old standby, “common sense.” Everybody thinks he or she has it (in spite of doubts about certain relatives) and yet somehow it is also a remarkably rare qualification for high office. Lim points out that the phrase “common sense” or “commonsense” appear in the presidential papers a grand total of 11 times between George Washington and Woodrow Wilson. Since then, it has become far more, well, common -- showing up in presidential speeches some 1,600 times.
And while there was a gradual rise in the frequency of reference to common sense between Harding and Nixon, the expression really became a staple of presidential oratory over the past third of a century -- “even as (or perhaps because) the common sense has become increasingly divided in our polarized times,” writes Lim.
At the same time, appeals to emotion in presidential speech-making have become ever more blatant. Won’t someone please, please think of the children? “Well over half of all references to children in State of the Union addresses since 1790 were uttered by our last five presidents,” notes Lim. Bill Clinton managed to get in 19 references in his second State of the Union address alone. (That may be a record, but records are made to be broken.)
Thanks to a combination of just-us-folks diction, strong emotions, and the careful avoidance of complex words or involved syntax, the modern president can be assured of regular and stormy eruptions of applause from the audience. This, too, seems to be a legacy of the past third of a century. There are few indications of applause in transcripts of presidential speeches before FDR, and only a handful between FDR and Ford. From the Carter presidency onward (and with a huge spike under Clinton) applause became, says Lin, “a litmus test of presidential accomplishment that successive White House press offices have deemed important enough to record for posterity.”
What Lim is describing, in short, is the routinizing of what can only be called demagogic norms in presidential discourse. It has not resulted in a dictatorship, but given the right circumstances, it would. This was not a matter of anyone’s intention -- more like the product of an accumulation and consolidation of trends, with no strong counterforce to resist them.
In particular, Lim traces the effect of the gradual emergence of presidential speech writing as a distinct function. Until fairly recently, preparing speeches was done, if not by the president himself, then by important members of his inner circle involved in making policy. It later became an extremely low-visibility, low-prestige staff assignment. “At one point,” Lim notes, “speech writers were paid from the fund for the payment of chauffeurs and the upkeep of the White House garage.” Under Nixon, the job of presidential speech writing came into its own as a profession -- “more beautician than brain truster,” as one former practitioner described it. And the most reliable indicators of success were instant soundbites and outbursts of applause.
“Perhaps,” Lim muses, “an effective speech should be greeted on its conclusion by silence rather than applause as it invites contemplation and a consideration of matters hitherto unexamined among partisan audiences.” This may count as utopian thinking. The prospect is appealing yet hopeless. “We need,” he continues, “to interrogate the assumption that American democracy can continue apace with the hollowing out of its public sphere by its principal spokesperson.”
Well, yes, we certainly do -- but the question is whether anyone will pay any attention. Are there grounds for optimism? It would be good to know if any exist. But to tell the truth, I put down Lim's book with an awful sense that Sarah Palin maybe qualified for the job after all.
What would it take for the overwhelming majority of eligible U.S. college students to register, vote, and get actively involved in the November elections -- and in subsequent elections? For years, educators have bemoaned the political detachment of students -- the separation of so many from public issues that profoundly affect their lives. Too often, students have said their actions didn’t matter, or argued that the electoral sphere is so inevitably corrupt that it makes no sense to participate.
This election feels different, though. Young voters and volunteers are surging into the campaigns in numbers we haven't seen in decades. They're interested and concerned, and they want to make a difference. The question is whether we'll give them the tools they need to participate fully in a watershed election, as volunteers and voters. That means helping them register to vote, giving them opportunities to learn and exchange ideas about the issues, encouraging them to volunteer with one or more campaigns or with nonpartisan voter mobilization drives, and helping ensure that they turn out at the polls.
Young voters have been becoming more interested in electoral politics for a while. Between 2000 and 2004, turnout among 18- to 24-year-olds jumped 11 points, from 36 percent to 47 percent, and among the larger pool of 18- to 29-year olds, it rose from 40 percent to 49 percent. In 2006, youth turnout rose by another 3 percent, more than any other segment of the electorate, and young voters made the key difference in half the Senate seats that changed hands.
This election promises to involve our students far more, with even greater potential impact. When citizens start voting and volunteering at a young age, these habits tend to stick. So if we build on their newfound passion and concern, we could set them on a path of civic engagement for the rest of their lives. This includes finding policy solutions to the issues they address through their volunteer work -- which means, among other things, voting for candidates whose positions on these issues they approve.
A variety of organizations are working to support college student involvement in the election on a nonpartisan basis. Campus Compact -- a nonprofit higher education association that supports all forms of civic engagement on campus -- has established a nonpartisan initiative to boost voter registration and education among college students. As part of this effort, the organization has created a comprehensive website that brings together key resources, tools, and models from around the country, www.compact.org/vote. Another key site, www.YourVoteYourVoice.org, offers additional resources. And the student PIRGs have created a superb online registration tool, available at www.studentvote.org, which colleges can customize and post on their own Web sites.
Registration is the first challenge, of course, although in most states the cut-offs just hit. Students often don't realize they need to register until the peak of the fall campaign season, when in most states it's too late. And when they can't vote, we have to work harder to get them participating in other ways, like volunteering or talking about election issues with others.
For future rounds, we can remedy this situation most easily by registering students to vote when they register for fall classes or as part of orientation. Springfield College in Massachusetts registered students as they moved into the dorms and has set a goal of registering all eligible students on campus. Ohio’s John Carroll University has created a designated election Web page, set up locations to register students throughout campus, organized debate-watch parties, and established an election-related discussion series covering issues such as the importance of youth voting and civic engagement, the economy, abortion, immigration, and social justice.
If your state’s registration deadline has yet to hit, or if you have same-day registration, many more options are still open. Faculty can hand out registration forms in their classes. Student groups can set up tables at high-traffic areas like the student union. A residential campus could invite student government and student organizations to register people in the dorms -- the University of California Santa Barbara used this approach and registered 2,400 voters in a single night. Financial aid offices can distribute registration information in conjunction with student loan and work-study disbursements. Our technology departments can pass the word through voice mails, text messages, and e-mail reminders -- something they can also do for absentee ballot deadlines and for getting students out to vote on election day. The more we can recruit both students and faculty to register students in whatever creative ways they can, the more likely we’ll engage the vast bulk of our college students.
However many students we’ve helped register, our challenge now is to help them think critically about the choices they'll now be eligible to make. Given major issues that affect students -- from global climate change to the Iraq war, from the financial bailout and an uncertain economy to the escalating costs of higher education -- students need to understand where the candidates stand so they can decide who best reflects their own beliefs. Campuses can encourage professors to weave election-related themes into their courses throughout the fall, by scheduling discussions and debates (including on local races and initiatives) both in larger campus venues and within classes, and by working to get all students to recognize how profoundly this election could impact their individual and common futures. We need to do everything we can so that every student in our classes and on our campuses feels welcomed and feels their political beliefs are respected. That may even mean bending over backwards to encourage the voices of students whose views we disagree with. But so long as we do that, and make sure the materials we present do justice to the realities, we have a responsibility to use our classrooms to explore the difficult issues of our time.
We can do even more than helping students vote and vote thoughtfully. We can also encourage them to volunteer with the national or local candidates they choose to support, whatever their party affiliations, and with nonprofit civic groups that seek to involve the community. In 2004, for instance, two small leadership classes, at Ohio's Baldwin-Wallace College, registered 700 eligible inmates in the Cleveland jails. This year, the professor is assigning her students to volunteer in the local McCain or Obama campaigns, in local or state races, or in nonprofit registration efforts -- and then to write a paper analyzing their experiences. North Carolina Central University is encouraging students to help with major off-campus registration drives in the adjacent communities. Given sufficient institutional support, these kinds of efforts can make a tremendous difference.
How many of our students would volunteer, for instance, if we distributed information on the local McCain and Obama campaigns, or gave out the Web sites, or found ways for them to get involved even if they live in states where the outcomes of the presidential or senatorial races are pretty certain. We could, for instance, encourage them to participate in the voter calling programs that both of the national campaigns are running, where people in states without close national races use their extra cell minutes to call those in states where every vote can matter. So long as we make clear that who the students choose to volunteer with is their choice, not ours, we can encourage all this while still remaining meticulously nonpartisan.
Imagine if we worked through our service-learning networks to get a significant percentage of our students knocking on doors, making phone calls, having conversations that offer their fellow citizens an opportunity to engage with critical issues beyond 30-second attack ads and 1-minute TV sound bites. Once students begin to volunteer in these election-related efforts, they are far more likely to keep doing so throughout their lives. It's also a way to amplify the impact of their voices, as they reach out to others, both on campus and off.
Campuses can integrate these kinds of activities into existing service-learning and civic engagement programs. After the students go out and work with the campaigns of their choice, they could then return to their classrooms, reflect on what they learned, and share their experiences with their peers, including students volunteering for opposing candidates. These kinds of involvement could also connect them with role models of engaged community members. There's nothing like working side-by-side with an 83-year-old volunteer to teach a 21-year-old about keeping on for the long haul.
If we promote these efforts enough, they can shift the electoral landscape. Several elections ago, a Wesleyan University student registered 300 voters on her 3,000-person campus, and educated them on the candidates' respective stands on the environment and access to education. The lawmaker she supported ended up winning by 27 votes. This young woman almost didn't act "because I didn't think of myself as a political person." But the issues impelled her to risk. Had she not gotten involved, the district would have elected a different representative. Whatever we think of the late Rev. Jerry Falwell, we can learn from the approach of the college he founded, Liberty University, to offer buses to take students to the polls and even cancel classes on the day of the election.
Once we register our students, we can encourage them to vote through voting pledges, e-mail, text messages, posters and fliers, student-to-student phone banks, and coordinating transportation to off-campus voting sites. In some states, colleges also need to let students know what they need to do to satisfy restrictive ID laws and provide them with whatever will meet the requirements -- for instance, through a university ID or a zero-balance utility bill for students living in the dorms. We also need a parallel process to help students who will vote absentee (www.longdistancevoter.org offers lots of the necessary tools). And, one way or another, we need to give them a sense that their votes could make the difference.
Considering the impact of this election on the future our students will inherit, we owe it to them to do everything we can to encourage them to participate, while respecting the wide variety of political views and experiences on campus. Given recent trends, they're likely to respond, if we offer them the relevant opportunities. Again, we wouldn't be prescribing the support of any particular candidates. The students would make those choices on their own. But we'd be giving them a powerful opportunity to make their voices matter, and possibly take the first steps toward becoming engaged citizens for the rest of their lives. If we believe that civic education and engagement are part of our mission, this seems a powerful historic moment to rise to that challenge.
Paul Loeb, Maureen F. Curley and Sherry Morreale
Paul Loeb is author Soul of a Citizen and The Impossible Will Take a Little While. Maureen F. Curley is president of Campus Compact, a national higher education association dedicated to educating students for social responsibility. Sherry Morreale is director of graduate studies in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- Edward Moore Kennedy, the senior U.S. senator who struggled through Harvard his first time through, returned to his alma mater Monday afternoon for a convocation all his own, to receive a Doctor of Laws earned through his relentless championing, in 46 years in the Senate, of the weak and the poor and the sick.
“I’m proud to be here for him today,” said John Patti, who works for the Harvard Facilities Maintenance Organization. “He’s a very sincere, honest person. He’s there for the people. We like him.” Patti was on duty, outside of Sanders Theatre, filled with 1,600 of the 8,000 people who had sought tickets to the event.
The sentiment was the same downstairs, by the dining hall. “When I think of Kennedy, I think of Massachusetts. I think of good things.” said Kerry Maiato, a dining hall worker on a break, watching Portuguese soccer on television. “I think of a leader,” said Rui Silva, his colleague.
Harvard has held only 13 one-man, one-degree ceremonies. The most recent was September 18, 1998, for the South African President Nelson Mandela. The first, to which Senator Kennedy referred in his remarks, was April 3, 1776.
“Now I have something in common with George Washington -- other than being born on February 22,” Senator Kennedy said after receiving his degree. “It is not, as I had once hoped, being President. It is instead this rare privilege of receiving an honorary degree from Harvard at a special convocation.” Harvard held the special ceremony because Kennedy, stricken with brain cancer, had been unable to attend commencement last spring.
This afternoon, with a trumpet fanfare, Kennedy entered and walked slowly across the stage to the first of many standing ovations. He handed his silver-handled cane to his wife as he sat. Kennedy left his cane behind when he walked across the stage to embrace the cellist and Harvard alumnus Yo Yo Ma and shake the hand of the current Harvard student and pianist, Charlie Albright, who had played two Gershwin preludes. He left the cane behind when he walked to receive his degree and address the crowd himself.
After a prayer from the Rev. Peter J. Gomes, Harvard's chaplain, James Onstad, Harvard ’09, sang an a capella rendition of “America the Beautiful.” The audience was invited to sing the fourth verse. Senator Kennedy gently mouthed all the words. Harvard granted Vice President-elect Joe Biden a decent seat in the audience, across an aisle from his colleagues, Sens. John F. Kerry Jr. and Christopher J. Dodd. Jeanne Shaheen, U.S. senator-elect from New Hampshire, was there, with Nikki Tsongas and Barney Frank from Congress.
I went to cheer for the College Cost Reduction and Affordability Act of 2007, yet another of the
Photo: Peter Agoos
accomplishments for which Senator Kennedy sought no fanfare. And which, I fear, we, the people, take for granted as just something Senator Kennedy does.
My day began when I arrived in the parking lot of Bunker Hill Community College for the 7 a.m. class I teach there. The parking lot is almost empty then. As usual, an old sedan from Massachusetts and another from New Hampshire were already there. As usual, I parked a few spaces away to grant some privacy to the students asleep in the cars. Without Senator Kennedy’s lifetime of work, I wonder if those two would be able to be in school at all. I despair for my students as I pray for Senator Kennedy’s health. No one in the U.S. Senate comes close to Kennedy’s compassion for students who are poor, never mind his legislative skills.
In plain speaking, for the 2007 College Cost Reduction Act, Kennedy, first, took $20 billion over five years away from line items that sent the money to banks and financial institutions as loan subsidies and fees. That’s not a typo. From banks. Kennedy took $20 billion headed to banks, with all their lobbyists, campaign donations and influence, and sent the money instead directly to poor students as increased grants and less expensive loans. Shifting billions from the powerful to the poor is not supposed to be possible in Washington today.
“Senator Kennedy realized that student loan defaults most affected lower-income students. He knows how to get things done. He, more than any other elected official, is responsible for the size and shape of federal education policy as it exists today,” Terry W. Hartle, a Kennedy education staffer from 1986 to 1993 and now senior vice president for government and public affairs at the American Council on Education, told me by phone Monday morning. “Senator Kennedy has been a leader in every educational piece of legislation since the 1963 Vocational Education Act.”
The question I can’t shake is how Senator Kennedy became such a champion for the people he called, in his remarks, “the ones who need your help the most.”
I kept asking.
“He grew up in pretty comfortable surroundings, but he does not let that get in the way of helping people,” said Julia Mario, a graduate of the College of New Jersey, and a member of the Harvard events staff.
“He’s an expert in the politics of helping,” said Paolo Cueva, a 2007 Harvard government major who was on the events staff because she couldn’t get a ticket to the event. “I worked in the Senator’s Boston Office. He changed my life. When I went to work there, I thought I was going to find politics and backstabbing and all that. Everyone in the office is friends. Everyone loves to get there in the morning and no one wants to leave. Everyone works their butts off. When we got the message that he was sick, he just gave the word that we should keep on working. It’s the politics of caring.”
Colleen Richards Powell, another former Kennedy staffer there, told me, “He’s about hope and possibility and resilience.”
Before the ceremony I asked the question of Caroline Kennedy, the senator’s niece. “It’s just part of who he is,” she said.
Senator Kennedy, ending his remarks to another standing ovation, reminded me that how Kennedy became a champion of the poor is not the point. I’m glad, for my students, that he is that champion. “I have lived a blessed time,” he said. “Now, with you, I look forward to a new time of aspiration and high achievement for our nation and the world.”
The deepening economic crisis has triggered a new wave of budget cuts and hiring freezes at America’s universities. Retrenchment is today’s watchword. For scholars in the humanities, arts and social sciences, the economic downturn will only exacerbate existing funding shortages. Even in more prosperous times, funding for such research has been scaled back and scholars besieged by questions concerning the relevance of their enterprise, whether measured by social impact, economic value or other sometimes misapplied benchmarks of utility.
Public funding gravitates towards scientific and medical research, with its more readily appreciated and easily discerned social benefits. In Britain, the fiscal plight of the arts and humanities is so dire that the Institute of Ideas recently sponsored a debate at King’s College London that directly addressed the question, “Do the arts have to re-brand themselves as useful to justify public money?”
In addition to decrying the rising tide of philistinism, some scholars might also be tempted to agree with Stanley Fish, who infamously asserted that humanities “cannot be justified except in relation to the pleasure they give to those who enjoy them.” Fish rejected the notion that the humanities can be validated by some standard external to them. He dismissed as wrong-headed “measures like increased economic productivity, or the fashioning of an informed citizenry, or the sharpening of moral perception, or the lessening of prejudice and discrimination.”
There is little doubt that the value of the humanities and social sciences far outstrip any simple measurement. As universities and national funding bodies face painful financial decisions and are forced to prioritize the allocation of scarce resources, however, scholars must guard against such complacency. Instead, I argue, scholars in the social sciences, arts, and humanities should consider seriously how the often underestimated value of their teaching and research could be further justified to the wider public through substantive contributions to today’s most pressing policy questions.
This present moment is a propitious one for reconsidering the function of academic scholarship in public life. The election of a new president brings with it an unprecedented opportunity for scholars in the humanities and social sciences. The meltdown of the financial markets has focused public attention on additional challenges of massive proportions, including the fading of American primacy and the swift rise of a polycentric world.
Confronting the palpable prospect of American decline will demand contributions from all sectors of society, including the universities, the nation’s greatest untapped resource. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement’s recently released rankings, the U.S. boasts 13 of the world’s top 20 universities, and 36 U.S. institutions figure in the global top 100. How can scholars in the arts, humanities and social sciences make a difference at this crucial historical juncture? How can they demonstrate the public benefits of their specialist research and accumulated learning?
A report published by the British Academy in September contains some valuable guidance. It argues that the collaboration between government and university researchers in the social sciences and humanities must be bolstered. The report, “Punching Our Weight: the Humanities and Social Sciences in Public Policy Making” emphasizes how expanded contact between government and humanities and social science researchers could improve the effectiveness of public programs. It recommends “incentivizing high quality public policy engagement.” It suggests that universities and public funding bodies should “encourage, assess and reward” scholars who interact with government. The British Academy study further hints that university promotion criteria, funding priorities, and even research agendas should be driven, at least in part, by the major challenges facing government.
The British Academy report acknowledges that “there is a risk that pressure to develop simplistic measures will eventually lead to harmful distortions in the quality of research,” but contends that the potential benefits outweigh the risks.
The report mentions several specific areas where researchers in the social sciences and humanities can improve policy design, implementation, and assessment. These include the social and economic challenges posed by globalization; innovative comprehensive measurements of human well-being; understanding and predicting human behavior; overcoming barriers to cross-cultural communication; and historical perspectives on contemporary policy problems.
The British Academy report offers insights that the U.S. government and American scholars could appropriate. It is not farfetched to imagine government-university collaboration on a wide range of crucial issues, including public transport infrastructure, early childhood education, green design, civil war mediation, food security, ethnic strife, poverty alleviation, city planning, and immigration reform. A broader national conversation to address the underlying causes of the present crisis is sorely needed. By putting their well-honed powers of perception and analysis in the public interest, scholars can demonstrate that learning and research deserve the public funding and esteem which has been waning in recent decades.
The active collaboration of scholars with government will be anathema to those who conceive of the university as a bulwark against the ever encroaching, nefarious influence of the state. The call for expanded university-government collaboration may provoke distasteful memories of the enlistment of academe in the service of the Cold War and the Vietnam War, a relationship which produced unedifying intellectual output and dreadfully compromised scholarship.
To some degree, then, skepticism toward the sort of government-university collaboration advocated here is fully warranted by the specter of the past. Moreover, the few recent efforts by the federal government to engage with researchers in the social sciences and humanities have not exactly inspired confidence.
The Pentagon’s newly launched Minerva Initiative, to say nothing of the Army’s much-criticized Human Terrain System, has generated a storm of controversy, mainly from those researchers who fear that scholarship will be placed in the service of war and counter-insurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan and produce ideologically distorted scholarship.
Certainly, the Minerva Initiative’s areas of funded research -- “Chinese military and technology studies, Iraqi and Terrorist perspective projects, religious and ideological studies," according to its Web site -- raise red flags for many university-based researchers. Yet I would argue that frustration with the Bush administration and its policies must not preclude a dispassionate analysis of the Minerva Initiative and block recognition of its enormous potential for fostering and deepening links between university research and public policy communities. The baby should not be thrown out with the bathwater. The Minerva Initiative, in a much-reformed form, represents a model upon which future university-government interaction might be built.
Cooperation between scholars in the social sciences and humanities and all of the government’s departments should be enhanced by expanding the channels of communication among them. The challenge is to establish a framework for engagement that poses a reduced threat to research ethics, eliminates selection bias in the applicant pool for funding, and maintains high scholarly standards. Were these barriers to effective collaboration overcome, it would be exhilarating to contemplate the proliferation of a series of “Minerva Initiatives” in various departments of the executive branch. Wouldn’t government policies and services -- in areas as different as the environmental degradation, foreign aid effectiveness, health care delivery, math and science achievement in secondary schools, and drug policy -- improve dramatically were they able to harness the sharpest minds and cutting-edge research that America’s universities have to offer?
What concrete forms could such university-government collaboration take? There are several immediate steps that could be taken. First, it is important to build on existing robust linkages. The State Department and DoD already have policy planning teams that engage with scholars and academic scholarship. Expanding the budgets as well as scope of these offices could produce immediate benefits.
Second, the departments of the executive branch of the federal government, especially Health and Human Services, Education, Interior, Homeland Security, and Labor, should devise ways of harnessing academic research on the Minerva Initiative model. There must be a clear assessment of where research can lead to the production of more effective policies. Special care must be taken to ensure that the scholarly standards are not adversely compromised.
Third, universities, especially public universities, should incentivize academic engagement with pressing federal initiatives. It is reasonable to envision promotion criteria modified to reward such interaction, whether it takes the form of placements in federal agencies or the production of policy relevant, though still rigorous, scholarship. Fourth, university presidents of all institutions need to renew the perennial debate concerning the purpose of higher education in American public life. Curricula and institutional missions may need to align more closely with national priorities than they do today.
The public’s commitment to scholarship, with its robust tradition of analysis and investigation, must extend well beyond the short-term needs of the economy or exigencies imposed by military entanglements. Academic research and teaching in the humanities, arts and social sciences plays a crucial role in sustaining a culture of open, informed debate that buttresses American democracy. The many-stranded national crisis, however, offers a golden opportunity for broad, meaningful civic engagement by America’s scholars and university teachers. The public benefits of engaging in the policy-making process are, potentially, vast.
Greater university-government cooperation could reaffirm and make visible the public importance of research in the humanities, arts and social sciences.
Not all academic disciplines lend themselves to such public engagement. It is hard to imagine scholars in comparative literature or art history participating with great frequency in such initiatives.
But for those scholars whose work can shed light on and contribute to the solution of massive public conundrums that the nation faces, the opportunity afforded by the election of a new president should not be squandered. Standing aloof is an unaffordable luxury for universities at the moment. The present conjuncture requires enhanced public engagement; the stakes are too high to stand aside.
Gabriel Paquette is a lecturer in the history department at Harvard University.
Laid low with illness -- while work piles up, undone and unrelenting -- you think, “I really couldn’t have picked a worse time to get sick.”
It’s a common enough expression to pass without anyone ever having then to draw out the implied question: Just when would you schedule your symptoms? Probably not during a vacation....
It’s not like there is ever a good occasion. But arguably the past few days have been the worst time ever to get a flu. Catching up with a friend by phone on Saturday, I learned that he had just spent several days in gastrointestinal hell. The question came up -- half in jest, half in dread -- of whether he’d contracted swine variety.
Asking this was tempting fate. Within 24 hours, I started coughing and aching and in general feeling, as someone put it on "Deadwood," “pounded flatter than hammered shit.” This is not a good state of mind in which to pay attention to the news. It is not reassuring to know that the swine flu symptoms are far more severe than the garden-variety bug. You try to imagine your condition getting exponentially worse, and affecting everyone around you -- and everyone around them.....
So no, you really couldn’t pick a worse time to get sick than right now. On the other hand, this is a pretty fitting moment for healthy readers to track down The Monster at Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu, by Mike Davis, a professor of history at the University of California at Irvine. It was published four years ago by The New Press, in the wake of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which spread to dozens of countries from China in late ‘02 and early ‘03.
The disease now threatening to become a pandemic is different. For one thing, it is less virulent -- so far, anyway. And its proximate source was pigs rather than birds.
But Davis’s account of “antigenic drift” -- the mechanism by which flu viruses constantly reshuffle their composition -- applies just as well to the latest developments. A leap across the species barrier results from an incessant and aleatory process of absorbing genetic material from host organisms and reconfiguring it to avoid the host’s defense systems. The current outbreak involves a stew of avian, porcine, and human strands. “Contemporary influenza,” writes Davis, “like a postmodern novel, has no single narrative, but rather disparate storylines racing one another to dictate a bloody conclusion."
Until about a dozen years ago, the flu virus circulating among pigs “exhibited extraordinary genetic stability,” writes Davis. But in 1997, some hogs on a “megafarm” in North Carolina came down with a form of human flu. It began rejiggering itself with genetic material from avian forms of the flu, then spread very rapidly across the whole continent.
Vaccines were created for breeding sows, but that has not kept new strains of the virus from emerging. “What seems to be happening instead,” wrote Davis a few years ago, “is that influenza vaccinations -- like the notorious antibiotics given to steers -- are probably selecting for resistant new viral types. In the absence of any official surveillance system for swine flu, a dangerous reassortant could emerge with little warning.” An expert on infectious diseases quoted by CNN recently noted that avian influenza never quite made the leap to being readily transmitted between human beings: "Swine flu is already a man-to-man disease, which makes it much more difficult to manage, and swine flu appears much more infectious than SARS."
There is more to that plot, however, than perverse viral creativity. Davis shows how extreme poverty and the need for protein in the Third World combine to form an ideal incubator for a global pandemic. In underdeveloped countries, there is a growing market for chicken and pork. The size of flocks and herds grows to meet the demand -- while malnutrition and slum conditions leave people more susceptible to infection.
Writing halfway through the Bush administration, Davis stressed that the public-health infrastructure had been collapsing even as money poured into preparations to deal with the bioterrorism capabilities of Iraq’s nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. The ability to cope with a pandemic was compromised: “Except for those lucky few -- mainly doctors and soldiers -- who might receive prophylactic treatment with Tamiflu, the Bush administration had left most Americans as vulnerable to the onslaught of a new flu pandemic as their grandparents or great-grandparents had been in 1918.”
The World Health Organization began stockpiling Tamiflu in 2006, with half of its reserve of five million doses now stored in the United States, according to a recent New York Timesarticle. The report stressed that swine flu is driving up the value of the manufacturer’s stocks -- in case you wondered where the next bubble would be.
But don't expect to see comparable growth in the development of vaccines. As Davis wrote four years ago, “Worldwide sales for all vaccines produced less revenue than Pfizer’s income from a single anticholesterol medication. ... The giants prefer to invest in marketing rather than research, in rebranded old products rather than new ones, and in treatment rather than prevention; in fact, they currently spend 27 percent of their revenue on marketing and only 11 percent on research.”
The spread of SARS was contained six years ago -- a good thing, of course, but also a boon to the spirit of public complacency, which seems as tireless as the flu virus in finding ways to reassert itself.
And to be candid, I am not immune. A friend urged me to read The Monster at Our Door not long after it appeared. It sat on the shelf until a few days ago.
Now the book seems less topical than prophetic -- particularly when Davis draws out the social consequences of his argument about the threat of worldwide pandemics. If the market can’t be trusted to develop vaccines and affordable medications, he writes, “then governments and non-profits should take responsibility for their manufacture and distribution. The survival of the poor must at all times be accounted a higher priority than the profits of Big Pharma. Likewise, the creation of a truly global public-health infrastructure has become a project of literally life-or-death urgency for the rich countries as well as the poor.”
There is an alternative to this scenario, of course. The word "disaster" barely covers it.
MORE: Mike Davis discusses the swine flu outbreak in an article for The Guardian. He also appeared recently on the radio program Beneath the Surface, hosted by Suzi Weissman, professor of politics at St. Mary's College of California, available as a podcast here.
A variety of scholars have weighed in on the current debate about American political civility, noting brutal fights on the floor of Congress in the 19th century, nasty mud-slinging of U.S. presidential campaigns throughout history, and other less than impressive aspects of our cultural past. And of course, they are correct that incivility is nothing new. What makes incivility seem omnipresent is the communication environment of our day: the pressure on our 24/7 journalists to fill airtime, new venues for citizens to state their opinions -- thoughtful or lunatic -- online, and a culture that encourages unabashed self-expression.
Who thought we would see the day when CNN news anchors would read incoming “Tweets” from viewers to us in serial fashion, opening an international information channel to faceless, opinionated people with no qualification for broadcasting except time on their hands?
It was difficult not to be appalled by the excesses of campaign rally crowds during the 2008 presidential election, the displays at some health care town hall meetings this past summer, and Congressman Joe Wilson’s outburst ("You lie!"). Students of American political history put these events in context, easily, because incivility is manifest in a variety of ways during different eras. But that scholarly response seems a very unsatisfying reaction to the ill-mannered eruptions, name-calling, and sheer meanness that we find on television and our favorite internet sites, now on a regular basis. The incivility is still worrisome, even if historically predictable, and we look for a way to cope with it.
The scholarly literature on trends in civility is mixed in its conclusions, with some arguing for either a bumpy or near-linear increase of incivility in both the United States and Western Europe, others arguing that we are actually more polite now than ever in public, and still others – like myself – who posit that civility and incivility are both timeless strategic rhetorical weapons. Some people are better at using these tools than others, to achieve their goals, but a macro-historical argument about collective civility is probably a bit of a stretch and difficult to demonstrate empirically, to say the least.
The “incivility as strategy” approach fits our current circumstances, particularly the health care reform debate, fairly well. The political right now draws on Saul Alinsky’s mid-century tactics on behalf of the poor in Chicago for instruction on town meeting behavior, and the political left tries to come up with brutally effective broadcast advertisements, guided by the Republican “Harry and Louise” spots that undermined the Clintons in the 1990s. Civility and incivility are weapons, as are facts, logic, demonstrating, teaching, striking, and all the other means of persuasion one finds in the arsenal of public expression.
But perhaps the essential issue is that incivility is just more interesting than is measured, calm discussion. Incivility is intriguing, almost always. It can be downright exciting, as when blows are exchanged at a town meeting, and replayed like a train wreck on YouTube by millions of viewers. And who is not fascinated by citizens (apparently on the same side of the issues) marching with pictures of the president portrayed as both Lenin and Hitler? It is bizarre, and also hard to take our eyes off of.
As President Obama put it on a recent broadcast of 60 Minutes: "I will also say that in the era of 24-hour cable news cycles that the loudest, shrillest voices get the most attention. And so, one of the things I'm trying to figure out is, how can we make sure that civility is interesting. And, you know, hopefully, I will be a good model for the fact that, you know, you don't have to yell and holler to make your point, and to be passionate about your position."
Obama might, over the longer term, fight incivility in part by maintaining his own preternatural calm throughout incessant appearances on television. But my sense is that exciting nasty discourse needs to be matched by something that gets the blood boiling just as well, or incivility will indeed triumph in any given situation.
Soaring rhetoric from President Reagan in the past, Obama today, and others with their talents in the future may be passionate, but as rhetoric soars, it does not always argue. Great oratory gets steamed up when it expresses hopes and beliefs (e.g., Americans cannot always support other citizens financially, or health care is an inalienable “right”), not when it argues for, say, the "public option" or insurance cooperatives. So, the trick is to find mechanisms for public policy discussion that are exciting, passionate, creative, and thoughtful all at the same time.
From the ancient philosophers onward, a variety of academics across disciplines have tackled the questions of rhetoric, persuasion, political debate, and civility, and as a result, we can offer a tremendous amount of theorizing and empirical research on these topics. But that complex material simply will not penetrate or guide contemporary American public discourse any time soon. And pointing to our campuses as models -- underscoring the ways we debate and argue with respect for each other every day (or nearly every day), in classrooms, faculty meetings, symposiums, and beyond – doesn’t go very far either. It’s hard to explain unless you have lived it: Imploring political leaders or fellow citizens to look to universities as exemplars of "cultures of argument" will not work because it is too experiential in nature.
However, colleges and universities do offer more practical ideas and tools to American lawmakers, journalists, and interest group leaders, that are far more helpful and productive. There is the wonderful work by Gerald Graff and others on teaching argument and conflict, demanding that our students know how to make an argument in class, in papers, and as they go about their lives. As the years pass, these scholars have made a difference, and my bet is that their impact will be even greater as a younger generation of faculty learn how to incorporate argument into their teaching, no matter the discipline or class size.
But even more accessible than these pedagogical paradigms and tools is formal debate itself, from policy debate modeled by national championship college and university teams, to Lincoln-Douglas-style debate, and a variety of other formats that have emerged across nations. While I was only a high school debater myself, and I'm now far outside both the high school and collegiate debate “circuits," it is clear to me that if we can train our students – not only our student leaders and teams – in debate, and make it a stronger presence on campuses, we might build a more constructive public discourse with generational change. Anyone can debate – learn to make an argument, marshal evidence, rebut – with some instruction and practice. And these skills, once gained, can be translated into the sorts of forums our students will eventually find themselves in: workplace meetings, the PTA, community organizations, and in some cases, city halls and legislatures. We do not need to train a generation of lawyers, but we do need to train a generation of students who can simulate what attorneys and great debaters do as a matter of course.
There are many people, organizations and institutions that teach debate either for the classroom or for regional or national competitions, in the United States, abroad, and online (see here and here). But the basic elements are the same across formats: Argument, evidence, forced reciprocity and dialogue, equal time, and mandatory listening. These are precisely the elements missing from much of the contemporary debate about health care reform, and I predict they will be absent as well from the worrisome debates coming next, immigration policy reform in particular. These aspects of communication are the very building blocks for civility, and at this point at least, we have a deficit of them.
Those of us who study political communication used to hope – and perhaps many scholars still do – that the best American journalists would educate the public on the quickly-evolving policy issues before us, leading reasoned debate through newspapers and television programs. Some journalists give it an honest try, when they hold jobs that allow it. And we can locate a few lone heroes among the Sunday morning talking heads, if we wade through all the worthless talk of presidential popularity polls, embarrassing gaffes, and who is spinning whom. But with the financial struggles and disappearance of so many news organizations, it is difficult for any journalist – no matter how talented – to get our attention.
They compete, for better or worse, with bloggers and Twitterers, and wise information “gate-keepers” are leaving us with every passing year. It may be up to academic leaders to take on unexpected and much greater responsibility in shaping citizens, not just in our conventional ways of teaching liberal arts or specialized disciplinary knowledge. Of course we shape citizens already, but we must also figure out how to train our students for the rough and tumble they will find after they leave our contemplative campuses. It’s a jungle out there in the world of American political discourse, and our students will need to give it all some logical structure, and simultaneously invent new forms of civility for their generation.
Many colleges and universities teach public speaking at present, and some have made introductory courses mandatory in core curriculums or as part of major requirements in fields like Communications. Why not, similarly, consider formal debate training, as a mandatory – or at least greatly encouraged – aspect of a college curriculum? To my mind, it should at least be a consideration of all educators watching our national political debate in the fall of 2009. We can shut off CNN in disgust and sit in awe of some truly horrendous town meetings. But we can help things somewhat, by teaching our students both how to argue and why it is exciting to do so. College and university faculty can enhance the long-term health of political communication by focusing on the development of argumentation, in whatever form fits their courses, disciplines, institutions, and community.
Along these lines, Model United Nations is another excellent tool for teaching students how to argue respectfully and take positions they would not normally take. These programs demand more of students in a course than debate might, but as with teaching debate (in person or online), there is extensive support for instructors available for free on the Web. As with debate, the general structure of Model U.N. can be altered to fit a particular curricular goal or theme. For example, in teaching the Middle East conflicts and issues, the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations supports a network called "Model Arab League" at both the high school and college levels. And of course, more ambitious faculty can try to fashion entirely new stakeholder-based deliberation programs, using the general rules of more established activities like Model U.N.
Our students will not – no matter how compelling and well-trained – be able to demand that their local school board follow the tight structure and rules of policy debate or of congress (on a good day). That is an absurdity. But they will have an ideal-typical model for what logical, evidence-based debate should look like, and will inevitably bring some elements of it with them to whatever table at which they find themselves. I have found in so many groups and organizations that people are generally starved for rules about how to conduct their discussions – a rationalized (in Weber’s sense) approach that might bring fairness, civility, and progress. The point is that we need to give students exemplars, somehow, so they can lead others toward structures for talking, listening, and constructive exchange, based on mutual respect and decency. And they might even bring civility to the internet, developing new ways to harness free communication in the service of democratic talk.
The truth is that while Americans pioneered a kind of democracy, we have never been particularly good at debate -- not during Alexis de Tocqueville’s era, and not today. We certainly don’t seem to have the patience for it. There have been some intriguing presidential campaign exchanges here and there, memorable moments in congressional hearings, and of course many moving orators in mainstream politics and outside of it. But we will never see the sort of civil, thoughtful, inventive debate that enables good public policy making until we inspire the young adults in our midst how to pursue it themselves.
Susan Herbst is chief academic officer for the University System of Georgia and professor of public policy at Georgia Institute of Technology.