Lessons in citizenship

November 4, 1994

In the shadows of the German occupation, Marc Bloch (1886-1944), the greatest of medievalists and co-founder of the Annales school of history, posed the essential question for democratic intellectuals, a question which needs to be posed anew to every generation of academics.

In Strange Defeat (written in 1940, but published after the Liberation), Bloch recounted his re-enlistment in the French army, his subsequent evacuation to England and his decision to return to France and his family to fight again. In particular he examined the developments leading to his country's political and military debacle; however, he did not fail to consider the actions of scholars and academics in the prewar years. These reflections led him to state, near the close of the text: "The real trouble with us professors was that we were absorbed in our day-to-day tasks. Most of us can say with some justice that we were good workmen. Is it equally true to say that we were good citizens?" (Bloch went on to join the Resistance but, tragically, in 1944 he was captured and executed by the Gestapo).

In the face of class, racial and gender oppressions and the devastation of both the Cold War and a murderous war in Southeast Asia, just such a question informed the thinking of my own student generation in the 1960s and early 1970s and, perhaps, especially those of us who took up academic careers.

Indeed, many of us imagined ourselves becoming citizen scholars, critically transforming, in directions ever more liberal, egalitarian and democratic, both our academic disciplines and, as public intellectuals, the political and social orders of the day. American political scientist Benjamin Barber expressed our pedagogical philosophy best when he said that "all education is or ought to be radical -- a reminder of the past, a challenge to the present, and a prod to the future."

Arguably, in certain fields we have accomplished a great deal. Now middle-aged, we have written libraries of work incorporating the experiences and perspectives of peoples previously excluded from polite academic discourse; further, in addition to carrying out significant changes in the disciplines, we have created new ones such as cultural, development, and environmental studies, treating contemporary issues in original ways.

Nevertheless, we must still ask ourselves if we have been, in Bloch's words, "good citizens". In fact, we have been accused by figures on both the left and the right of not being so. Unfortunately, we have too often responded defensively when we should have been considering seriously the charges levelled against us, not simply to chastise ourselves if it is true that we have not been living up to our ideals, nor for the sake of fabricating rationalisations for where we may have gone astray, but to consider what needs to be done if we are yet to realise our aspirations.

In his books, The Last Intellectuals (1987) and Dogmatic Wisdom (1994), Russell Jacoby, one of our own number, declaims that we have forsaken the role of citizen-scholars. He charges that we have enclosed ourselves in our campuses and abandoned our promise to transform society, expending our efforts instead on professional matters and advancement. It is a serious charge that still needs to be properly addressed -- however simplistic it is in its failure to consider the means by which we actually have been marginalised or, more bluntly, kept out of the corporate-dominated public forums.

We need urgently to explore new means by which we can better engage and cultivate "publics", as C. Wright Mills put it back on the eve of the unexpected and tumultuous 1960s. All the more so if, as our experiences attest, our alienation from politics and public life is not merely of our own doing.

By definition my generation's radical-democratic commitments make us anything but good citizens to the political right, and to listen to them you would believe we were near achieving our wildest dreams. Pursuing their corporately-funded campaigns in terms of "the" crisis of history, "the" battle of the books, "the" collapse of the canon, "PC wars", and "multiculturalism", New Right figures such as Irving Kristol, William Bennett, Dinesh D'Souza, Martin Anderson and Lynne Cheney, have been alleging that as teachers and writers we have been subverting the nation from our privileged sanctuaries in colleges and universities.

They assert that as "tenured radicals" we have been turning out graduates who are both ill- or mis-informed about capitalism and the Western heritage and, more dangerously, downright hostile to them. True citizen-scholars, they insist, would not be criticising and deconstructing the history and culture of America and the West but rather transmitting them and cultivating their appreciation; if we were really acting as "good citizens" we would be pursuing national consensus, not the cultivation of dissent. Moreover, they contend that in our "lust for power" we "socialists, feminists and multiculturalists" have been seeking to fashion younger generations in our image.

To be clear about it, the New Right's attacks have repeatedly misrepresented our aspirations and practices. Commanding media attention, they have construed our efforts at educating students to critical modes of analysis and thought as processes of "indoctrination and propagandising" and, to cite only the latest of their distortions, they have wrongly yet deliberately equated multiculturalism with separatist ideologies like "Afrocentrism".

Yet what concerns me as a teacher is that my generation is not nearly as successful in cultivating critical radical-democratic intellects as the New Right, in however distorted a fashion, thinks or, at least, proclaims we are. I am more immediately anxious about the apparent cynicism of contemporary students.

I am even led to wonder about the extent to which our own stories and analyses contribute to it for, as one of my students revealed in her final essay a few years ago, the more aware she becomes of the tragic character of history and the persistent structures of inequality of wealth and power, the less capable she feels of doing anything about them and the more inclined she becomes to seek merely personal advantage and advancement.

Perhaps my colleagues and I actually have been tempering or even undoing the "innate" progressive inclinations of our students and, thereby, furthering the popular acceptance of the idea advanced by the right that we have reached "the end of history". Here, too, serious reflection is in order about both the narratives of past and present and the record and possibilities of human agency we are offering. What needs to be communicated is that however tragic and ironic modern experience has been, it has entailed not only humanly created hells but also humanly created freedom, equality and justice.

If my generation is ever truly to be able to answer Bloch's question in the affirmative, we will not only have to redeem our original vision of ourselves as citizen-scholars, we will have to articulate new ways of securing it.

Harvey J. Kaye is the Ben & Joyce Rosenberg professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He will be delivering the Deutscher Memorial Lecture, "Why do ruling classes fear history?", at the London School of Economics on November 8.

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