Martha C. Nussbaum: Should Academics Join the Government?

Historians in the News

[Martha C. Nussbaum is professor of law and philosophy at the University of Chicago. She is the author of From Disgust to Humanity: Sexual Orientation and the Constitution and Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities.]

Last month was decision time for the many academics who left their tenured jobs to work in the Obama administration. Universities standardly grant leave for at most two years, at which point a professor must either return or resign. Some, of course, can hope to be rehired later, but prudence often rules. Many of my acquaintances made the choice to return to writing and teaching. A few have stayed on. For a long time I’ve been comparing my free and sheltered life to those exposed and difficult lives, with a mixture of relief and guilt. I keep thinking of Cicero’s acerbic commentary on philosophers who refuse to serve the public realm: “Impeded by the love of learning, they abandon those whom they ought to protect.” Even worse, he accuses them of arrogant self-indulgence: “They demand the same thing kings do: to need nothing, to obey nobody, to enjoy their liberty, which they define as doing what you like.” It’s difficult not to hear that voice in one’s dreams, even if one believes, as I do, that writing itself can serve the public good.

While I pondered my own regal privilege and the recent choices of my friends, I happened upon a book that sheds as much light on such choices as any I know: A Liberal Education, by Abbott Gleason. Gleason is a respected historian of Russia in the pre-Soviet and Soviet periods. He taught in the History Department at Brown from 1968 until his recent retirement—but with a two-year stint in Washington running the Kennan Institute of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a leading think tank focused on Russia and its surrounding states. Gleason’s father Everett, also a historian, made the opposite choice, leaving his tenured position at Amherst and taking on the jobs of chief of the current intelligence staff for the Office of Strategic Services, and of deputy executive secretary of the National Security Council. So Tom (as I always knew him, when we overlapped at Brown) grew up in two worlds, and this early experience informed his later choice....

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