Jeffrey Sklansky, 41
Associate Professor, Department of History, Oregon State University, 2003-
At the heart of my first book is the relationship between the personal and the political, or between the intimate ways in which we come to think, feel, and relate to one another and the societal structure of power and property, rights and resources. Looking back, I think that underlying question, derived from the New Left, brought me to the historical profession in the first place.
When I was in middle school, my mother went into private practice as a psychotherapist. We had a growing library of professional and popular psychology at home, and we talked a lot about our feelings, which was a blessing even if I didn't always appreciate it. Around the same time, I got interested in politics; I became an avid reader of The Progressive magazine, wrote a politically oriented column for the school paper, and volunteered for Barry Commoner's presidential campaign. Proposition 13, Three Mile Island, SALT II, Camp David, the Iranian revolution- the political tumult of the late '70s made a deep and lasting impression on me.
In high school, I joined the debate team and advocated things like school busing, marijuana legalization, and an end to U.S. aid for the occupation of East Timor. My political interests supplied an antidote to alienation, as did part-time reporting for the local weekly and daily newspapers. Much of the appeal was that the politics and journalism were about something bigger and more compelling than my own adolescent angst. They allowed me to define what I was about in terms of something other than personal anxieties, aptitudes, and ambitions, something irreducible to my need or desire for it, as high-flown as that may sound.
Journalism and politics came together for me more powerfully at U.C. Berkeley, where I covered rent control issues, urban development, and the burgeoning anti-apartheid/divestment movement on campus for the Daily Cal. I straddled the line between participant and observer, drawn to political action but rarely joining in fully. Maybe more comfortable in the classroom, I was enthralled by the heady mixture of political engagement and intellectual depth and breadth I encountered in my history teachers and texts. For $1,200 a year in tuition, I gained an incalculable state-funded inheritance-much as my father, from a very poor family, had received a first-rate public education at CCNY, a life-changing legacy of the New Deal order.
My love of history and politics drew me to graduate school shortly after college, hardly realizing how fragile and contingent was the political promise of higher education itself. Having worked some more as a newspaper reporter, I was struck by the widening divide between the academic culture of the liberal arts and the neoconservative discourse of the drug war, homelessness, and the dismantling of the welfare state in the early '90s. On the one hand, I struggled to make sense of my own experience in the impersonal language of class and capitalism I learned from social history-"Do you feel oppressed?" one skeptical professor asked me. On the other hand, I was troubled by the psychological rhetoric of addiction and dependency that framed public discussion of social issues-"Who can better help our city recover than someone who has gone through recovery?" as Marion Barry said while running for mayor of Washington, D.C. Such concerns framed my dissertation on what I came to see as the ascendance of modern"social psychology" over classical"political economy," which became my first book.
By Jeffrey Sklansky
About Jeffrey Sklansky
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