U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The pasty skin of the academic vampire

I emerged today, blinking at the strong sunlight…oh my, I will melt! I am used to only the darkest of archives, the dimmest of library shelves, the faint glow of my computer! I stagger out into two encounters with community members which almost sent me scuttling back into the safe, secure darkness. Cause, education ruins the truth and beauty of artists, black artistic expression is soulless, and American academics–especially black ones–care about nothing except the next book on their shelf (one of these gentlemen was black and the other white).

[Actually I’ve been getting a lot of sun biking everywhere this summer, but you get my point.]

It brought up for me again a central question I pondered in my dissertation–what is the responsibility of scholars, as they themselves feel it and as it “should” be in a more abstract philosophical sense. This is something we’ve discussed on the board too. I told one of these men that he could be Ralph Bunche or Abram Harris sitting across from, lamenting the state of black culture in the 1920s and 1930s. I took meant this that this was not a new problem and needed a complex answer; he took it to mean that there is nothing new under the sun.

All throughout my graduate school days, I was totally wracked with guilt that I had chosen the “easier” path of the PhD and not the more worthy path of feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, or sheltering the homeless. Some people looked at me incredulously that I thought a PhD was an easier thing, but it was easier for me to sit in an armchair and spout off about the world than it did getting out there and changing it. And yes, there is that lovely derogatory phrase “armchair activist” to describe that phenomenon. Or the idea that we academics just feed off of the blood of catastrophe to fuel our own publishing industry.

And yet, the more I learn about the world, the more I think that scholars are needed. Rigorous study is needed. One of the examples that one of the gentlemen gave was that “we don’t need another book about poverty in Appalachia; scholars need to get over there and do something!” It made me wonder how we know what to do without the scholarly analysis? And the best scholarly analysis is embedded in the community that they are studying (whether as an outsider or an insider–the project should be drenched in primary sources).

And what is it about this idea of higher education ruining folks? One man quoted a documentary about Henry Louis Gates traveling through Africa. The very end of the movie, he is home in Cambridge and the filmmaker asks him if he has any connection to the black community in Boston. Gates admits that he does not. “But you are the most famous black historian in the nation! These are the people you study and you do not know them?? You do not help them, work for them?” Again, this criticism was leveled at all the black academics I study in the 1930s, and they felt torn by it–they both accepted and acted on the responsibility and chafed at the high, high expectations their local black communities had of them. They also desired an intellectual community of peers that would satisfy that urge for interesting conversation. Abram Harris only felt satisfied with other scholars and intellectuals. Sterling Brown, in contrast, moved fluidly between his academic friends and rural uneducated blacks with their own wisdom.

One of the reasons that there was room for my dissertation was because many of these men were later criticized by the Civil Rights generation for being inactive and even “Uncle Toms.” Carter Woodson wrote a scathing collection of letters in the 1930s when Marion Cuthbert took up a national post at the YWCA–because she was supposedly choosing the glamor and paycheck of a white, Jim Crow organization over helping an all black organization like his own. (I won’t get into the reasons his criticisms lacked factual merit).

To top it off, the documentary I was watching that prompted the comments of one of these men was about Wangari Maathi, the first East African woman to receive a Ph.D. and the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize recipient. For this jaded historian, one of the most inspiring figures of the 20th century.

So I come back to you with the philosophical questions–what is the responsibility of the education person to the community they came from? What are the rights of educated individuals (of whom much is given and much is expected) to socialize only with others of similar mind and/or ability? Does the US academy as it is today expect such conformity of its students that it deflates creativity? Why or why not? What is the role of historian, political scientist, legal scholar, business ethicist in social change?

And, finally, for you political historians, has Obama avoided all of his campaign promises (or, perhaps to reword, the campaign promises many of his followers heard and expected) in a way that is responsible to the slow-turning wheels of the democratic process or flagrantly in disregard for all the hopes and dreams of his followers? (Both men also soundly boxed Obama’s ears for not fulfilling his campaign promises/not being the dove they’d hope he’d be, but I still have the sense that he is being the pragmatist he always has been…….but I haven’t paid enough attention to make a strong argument. Of course, I’m at the point where I feel like I need to pay dissertation level attention to any issue to make a comment on it).