Should professors be political?

Historians in the News

[Naomi Schaefer Riley, a former editor at the Wall Street Journal, is the author of the forthcoming “The Faculty Lounges . . . and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.” ]

The Republican Party of Wisconsin wants to see what William Cronon has been e-mailing about. Through an open-records request, the state GOP is asking to see correspondence from Cronon, a professor of history, geography and environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin, that includes the terms “Republican,” “Scott Walker” and “collective bargaining,” among many other keywords and names....

More likely, though, these e-mails will contain just run-of-the-mill examples of political activism and partisanship....

A significant portion of the professoriate sees engagement in politics as part of the job description. And, unfortunately, they are right. It is becoming harder and harder to find professors devoted to teaching traditional academic subjects for their own sake, to undergraduates who lack the basics in the humanities and the social and natural sciences. The academy has not become politicized because of a few radical professors. Rather, entire departments and university administrations see the goal of higher education as political. At a time when the percentage of students needing remedial education is at an all-time high, when the need for job training beyond high school is pressing and when we worry about how even our top students will compete with their peers around the world, political activism should be at the bottom of any university’s list of priorities.

Since the late 19th century, American university faculty members have been considered (in accordance with the German model) society’s experts, adding to the public stores of knowledge and informing leaders about the best ways to govern. By the early 20th century, American progressives had thoroughly embraced this notion. Herbert Croly, one of the leading progressive thinkers, wrote of the need for a “permanent body of experts in social administration” whose task would be to “promote individual and social welfare.” Progressives such as John Dewey, who helped found the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), argued that for our own good, we needed to protect the rights of professors to engage in any kind of scholarship that they and their fellow experts deemed necessary....

But the aspirations of the public intellectual and the assumptions about his expertise changed in the second half of the 20th century. As Ellen Schrecker, a Yeshiva University historian, writes in her book “The Lost Soul of Higher Education,” professors took on specifically political goals. Schrecker, who is sympathetic to these goals, cites the historian David Hollinger, a Berkeley graduate student in the 1960s: “Life outside of the classes seemed to have become an all-day, half-the-night seminar involving everyone I knew discussing the meaning of the university and the life of the mind in relation to the rest of the world.”...

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Thomas Andrew Owings - 4/9/2011

”Should professors be political?”
The appropriate question academics should be asking is: Can a history professor be political and a historian at the same time?

Although, these e-mails may consist of just “run-of-the-mill” examples of political activism; Cronon’s students and those who read his writings should be given the necessary context required to make informed judgments about Cronon’s objectivity. While Cronon’s fellow Democrat activist go on and on about academic freedom and the Republican’s evil motives; they fail to even mention Conon’s lifelong partisan activities. Shouldn’t historians at least make some attempt at objectivity by acknowledging this fact? Maybe the many historians writing in his defense should review their notes on Historiography 101 and reread E.H. Carr’s, What is History?

This controversy is about politics not academic freedom. Historians should confine their efforts to reporting the facts and not to promote their own political agenda. Failing this, they should make a full disclosure about their own political philosophy and stop pretending they are defending academic freedom. Their smear tactics are by their very nature an attack on academic freedom. Yes, we needed to protect the rights of professors to engage in any kind of scholarship deemed necessary; however we must insist they be academically honest in their endeavors.