U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Why Do Ideas Matter? – Reflections on the 2013 S-USIH Conference

The following is a guest post by Robin Marie Averbeck, who recently graduated from UC Davis with a PhD in American history. See her previous guest post here.

Of the many excellent and compelling talks, conversations, and panels I had the privilege of listening to during this year’s S-USIH conference, a handful of particular moments are beginning to congeal in my mind as the stew of papers, questions, wine, more papers, cheese, again papers, and then beer starts to settle. Together, these moments push me toward what I think one of the primary purposes of conferences are and ought to be – an imagining of where the field could go, and moreover, what it could be.

The first of these moments occurred almost as soon as my conference experience began, at the second panel I attended. Markus Kantola, from the University of Turku, gave a delightful paper on the thought of Reinhold Niebuhr, in particular the theological pessimism he developed during his first ministry in Detroit. During the question and answer session, someone chirped up with a somewhat unexpected comment. It was interesting, he said, that Detroit had such an influence on Niebuhr – because it seems like Niebuhr had almost no influence on Detroit. This blunt point drew a decent amount of laughter from the audience – which sounded like acknowledgment of the sad truth of the claim – and laughter again bounced out after the questioner added, “you can probably guess where I am from.”

Yet while the comment – and the laughter it induced – was a little unusual, the subject matter surrounding such liveliness was not: liberals and liberalism received a considerable amount of attention at the conference, inspiring some of the most exciting conversation and convincing more than a few that the study of liberalism is the next major task for US intellectual historians. This was not due, however, to a lack of papers devoted to liberalism’s supposed opponent, conservatism – there were nearly as many papers touching on aspects of conservative thought as liberal thought, and indeed, the evening plenary on the first day focused explicitly on the question of where the study of conservatism needs to go next. And yet, there was a feeling which I and others detected that the attempt to find the next big thing in conservative studies fell a little flat – or, as this blog’s own Andrew Hartman put it,  “it feels like the subject is saturated.”

All of which, as an historian of post-war liberalism, I suppose I ought to be very pleased about. Yet there seemed to be something odd to me about the lack of buzz surrounding the plenary on conservatism. For although we do indeed have an abundance – some might even say a surplus – of scholarship on all sorts of expressions, variants, and figures of conservatism, I would think the interest of scholars in this topic would far outstrip their need for projects which, they can argue in book and dissertation introductions, are new and necessary. And this is simply because we all now move in a world profoundly shaped by the incredible success, in the last half-century, of conservative thought. Indeed, as public institution after public institution undergoes privatization, as inequality continues to grow, and as prisons are disproportionally occupied by black and brown Americans, it would seem the question of conservatism would remain rather pressing – especially considering that one of the primary targets of not merely those who identify as conservatives, but also those influenced by their economic ideas, is the institution most of us depend on for our purpose and our livelihood – the public university.

There was, of course, some acknowledgment of this during the panel. Politics, as always, floats about overhead at academic conferences, acknowledged repeatedly in one on one conversations and given the occasional implicit nod during papers themselves, yet kept at a polite distance nonetheless – only once in a while do the funnel clouds touch the ground. The evening plenary had such moments – most notably when David Sehat, pointing out that our choice of historical subjects relates to our ideologies and agendas, asked who the “we” the panelists kept addressing in their pleas to further explore a given topic actually was.

I still left with the feeling, however, that the tameness of the panel on conservatism, given our current political realities, was surprising – if for no other reason than the presence of numerous graduate students who must be worrying whether or not any decent academic post awaits them once they get their degree, let alone something as awe-inspiring and increasingly old fashioned as a good, solid tenure-track position. Yet the absence I found myself lingering on was not limited merely to panels and topics with obvious political content, but rather seemed to run through many of the papers and panels I attended – for it seemed to me that at a conference focused on the production, biographies, contexts and contents of ideas, there was relatively little said about the consequences of ideas.

I tried to express this concern at one of the most interesting panels of the conference, the roundtable on the 2013 S-USIH Annual Book Award finalists, which revolved primarily around Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s winning book, American Nietzsche. As I attempted to formulate it in a question, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Ratner-Rosenhagen’s book, but left it feeling somewhat unsatisfied. For while the book undoubtedly shows, as she writes, “that confrontations with Nietzsche laid bare a fundamental concern driving modern American thought: namely, the question of the grounds, or foundations, for modern American thought and culture itself,” I was still left wanting something more.[1] Perhaps because it is a book about Nietzsche – and thinking about Nietzsche inflames a craving for bold claims and assertions – but demanding questions seemed unanswered, or only briefly addressed. One way of putting this feeling was the one I tried (and I think, at least partially failed) to articulate in the question – if all these Americans used Nietzsche to grapple with or resist a world without foundations, can we then declare that indeed we are foundationless? What is Ratner-Rosenhagen’s own conclusions about our condition? In other words, granting her argument about the multiplicity of ways Americans engaged Nietzsche, I feel compelled to ask: so what? What did Nietzsche do to America – or if he didn’t do much at all but rather enjoyed popularity due to something already done, then who, or what, is responsible for our condition?

It could be fairly argued that these questions are as philosophical or speculative as they are historical, and thus do not really belong in a proper history book. Yet no such thing can be said about the subject matter of contemporary liberalism and conservatism, the consequences of which surround us every day and are about as concrete as anything ever gets. How many of us come across reports of the still deteriorating condition of public education on a daily basis? Who can escape the legacy of white backlash when attentive citizens know that the media storm over Trayvon Martin focused on a tragic and yet hardly exceptional illustration of racism? And if you identify as conservative, why not point us to the (presumably positive) historical consequences of the power of conservative ideas? (Or critique the negative consequences of liberalism, as Christopher Shannon has astutely done here at this blog.) These issues were not absent at the conference, and many of the papers I heard spoke to them – one example was the excellent paper on black student activism at Harvard by Afrah Richmond from the University of Bridgeport. Yet I still think there is a lot of latent possibly in exploring the policy consequences of political culture and political thought – particularly in the last sixty years – especially since such projects illustrate the value of our field, because they demonstrate the power of ideas to transform the conditions under which we all operate.

A possible reply to this complaint is that such work is more properly the terrain of policy and political history rather than intellectual history. But how many intellectual historians truly limit themselves to tracing lines of influence and explaining the thought world of their subjects, and how many advocate that limited approach? My reading of contemporary debates on this question suggests that many people have long wanted to move beyond such an approach, and many have done so – but, it seems, this is sometimes more easily said than done.

Perhaps part of the reason fulfilling such promise is difficult – especially when we touch on matters relevant to our contemporary lives – is the potential for conflict such scholarship necessarily entails. The various reactions to David Sehat’s question, for example, illustrate this – some loved this question, while others thought it trivial and unnecessarily confrontational. Constantly in the background is the struggle with how to navigate questions of politics – academic historians are most commonly liberal, many are left of liberal, and a minority are conservative. It is common wisdom to note that our political beliefs impact our scholarship, from what topics we choose to study to our method of studying them. Yet while this connection is often acknowledged in passing, the unofficial rule is to be very cautious about integrating this awareness into the actual tasks of academic practice – the proper boundaries of recognizing the political weigh heavily on deciding what points to include in a paper, what questions to ask of someone else’s paper, or what you say in front of your students during lecture. The stakes are considerable, not merely because are we trained to be scrupulous about our own biases – which we ought to be – but also because the culture of American academia is not one which revels very much in open, passionate conflict – especially political conflict. The discomfort and alienation that ensues when people stir up such conflict attests to this; a discomfort which, I can’t help thinking, encourages many to avoid those prickly problems of consequence which any discussion of political ideas, it seems to me, compels us to ask.

Yet the neglect of such questions by academics runs even deeper than mere conflict avoidance. Embedded in the boundaries we set for ourselves is a belief about the value and potential of our work as it is usually written – written, that is, for other academics to read. Indeed, the keynote speaker, David Hollinger, spoke directly to this when he expressed concern, during a panel on the culture wars, that the call to write publically accessible or overtly political scholarship will inevitably degrade the quality of our work and erode the virtues of professionalism. In light of that anxiety, the quietness at the panel on conservatism seems to make more sense – historians have responded overwhelmingly, after all, to Alan Brinkley’s call for us to study conservatism. We took conservatism, put it in an analytical box, successfully dissected it and decoded it, and now the task is done. We can release this work into the world passively, like a nicely packaged parcel we allow to float down the river – and whatever good it will do will arise naturally and organically, requiring neither ideological explication nor polemical publicity. Indeed, trying to give it an extra push by integrating our political selves with our scholarly selves would be to contaminate the product and render it incapable, in any case, of making the right sort of difference in the world.

Yet such assumptions seem thoroughly disproved by intellectual history itself. Not only are the origins of ideas deeply embedded in the context in which they arise, but so too is their reception. How many a book, or theory, or text, was put to a use different than the author intended, and how many well-meaning tomes ignored? If, as scholars, we have any pretense of caring about the larger social world we live in, we need to take responsibility for ensuring the implications of our work are understood. Indeed, I can’t help but think of the fate of one of my dissertation’s primary subjects, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. As countless liberal defenders have since pointed out, Moynihan never intended to contribute to a backlash against the civil rights movement which would lead eventually to the nearly complete abandonment of impoverished black Americans when he wrote his report on the state of the black family in 1965. Yet rather than recognizing how neatly his work fit into this agenda, and aggressively correcting for the mistake, Moynihan spent the next several years lashing out at those who he felt misinterpreted him and contributing to the exact dynamic he was attempting to deny. Small wonder, then, that some scholars – including myself – consider his report as based more in reaction than reform. Yet despite this, I do not doubt Moynihan originally had some good intentions – so many of us do. But if we assume our own ideas are going to be received into the wider world in which we move without taking the responsibility ourselves to explain and defend their implications, we will be sorely disappointed. And when the barbarians at the gate from the business school arrive – as L.D. Burnett eloquently put it – at the doors of our department, it will be a depressing testament to how resistant our contemporary political culture is to the polite pleadings of academics.

Fortunately, in my hunger for publically committed scholarship I am not, of course, exceptional. Increasingly – especially among young scholars that I meet – there seems to be a desire for an academic community focused on the creation not merely of scholars, but public intellectuals. This, I imagine, has no small relation to the rapidly deteriorating state of the public university, where so many of us still hope to make our home – and talking with many such scholars at this year’s conference was one of the most rewarding aspects of attending, filled as it was with so many creative historians and original projects. Indeed, the increased interest in studying liberalism seems connected to these developments, as we struggle to understand what seems like a nearly unstoppable wave of market liberalism that fails to fit neatly into either conservative or liberal categories and indeed appears to engulf both.

Yet when I reflected on all this, the question that caused sarcastic laughter at the start of the conference came back to mind: Niebuhr may have indeed been influenced by Detroit, but Detroit couldn’t appear to care less about Niebuhr. Such a phenomenon begs for explanation, and more work on how and why ideas are used or neglected is needed. Too often, we look past these questions of consequence; too often we leave the “so what?” either implicit or unanswered. This is an odd quality for a field that justifies its existence on the claim that ideas matter – but perhaps this is in part because we have become too accustomed to limiting our goals for what our own work can achieve.


[1] Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, American Nietzsche: A History of an Icon and His Ideas (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 2012), 23.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this post, Robin. I think you raise some very important points, particularly with your criticism of the irony of saying “well, we’re done with conservatism!” in a room full of people whose political commitments and desires might have them do a lot more with– or to– conservatism amidst the very real crumbling of the public university. Well said. It’s is an important criticism, and one that historians always need to hear. But I wonder if you could be more specific in your vision of how intellectual history and political commitment should mix? What does this scholarship look like, how do these public intellectuals frame their arguments, how do they use history, can you give an example of an intellectual or a book that’s doing this?

    I ask this because I am uncomfortable with the concept of ideas being “used” or “neglected,” and with the strict dichotomy you seem to set up wherein if an idea is not put to political use then it is “neglected,” or wherein an historian is either doing political work on the one hand, or merely “tracing lines of influence and explaining the thought world of their subjects,” on the other(I believe the very concept of a “thought-world” has radical potential). I also fear that too much hand-wringing about the “so what” of ideas begs the question, implying that unless ideas can be seen to directly influence policy, there’s no point. I am not afraid of political scholarship, and, like you, I long for scholarship with bold commitment, but I worry about what happens when they only bold commitment we can envision in scholarship is overtly political, or when we think our ideas can only be relevant if they embrace the explicitly political.

    What I liked most about American Nietzsche was the bold and loving assertion on every page, almost in every sentence, that ideas matter in ways intellectual historians haven’t even begun to explore yet. Ratner-Rosenhagen shows how people *experience* ideas, how we live our highest aspirations and deepest longings through interactions with ideas, and re-imagine self, community, nation in the process(compare this approach to Uncertain Victory, where Kloppenberg meticulously shows the influence of ideas on policy-makers, moving from “from philosophy to politics,” as he puts it). I believe Ratner-Rosenhagen’s approach has more radical potential than a more overtly political story would– consequences she makes clear in the last chapter, and final sentence(“That longing is a longing with longing for”). By ending with Bloom, whose best-seller was initially titled Souls without Longing, Ratner-Rosenhagen calls for a return to Emersonian longing in the American soul. This is bold, even radical, commitment, but not an explicitly or immediately political one.

    My point is not to argue over interpretations of American Nietzsche, but just to suggest another way in which ideas can matter, and another way of answering “so what.”

  2. Hi Rivka – thanks so much for these questions, they have been very useful in helping me think through where I can stand on these questions.

    For your question as to what this looks like – first, a scholarship example. Ira Katznelson’s When Affirmative Action Was White is a great example of the kind of scholarship I admire; clear about its argument and agenda, but also firmly rooted in historical facts and analysis. The title alone – with its willingness to provoke and declare a political argument – makes my heart glow.

    But what else would this look like? First – and this might sound a little crazy, but I hint at it in the post – I would hope to see more passionate arguments breaking out in the various spaces of academia, meaning not only conferences, but seminars, one on one office visits, academic journals and blogs, departmental meetings, graduate listservs, you name it. Now, such things do happen; sometimes they even happen a lot. But it seems to me they are usually remembered with dread; like oh my God, how did we let our emotions get so carried away!, people really need to separate the political from….well from everything else. Now, I am not advocating we all start name calling and hissing at one another. But academics – and I think American academics in particular – seem to me to too often conflate respect with professionalism; so if someone gets wrapped up in making a political claim about a historical fact or current reality, and they let some hand gestures or outrage or whatever else fly (it can even be stated very quietly, sometimes, but if the *implications* are clear, it still feels like an attack to the one on the receiving end), the argument is that they are being disrespectful, when really, most of the time, all they are doing is crossing this unofficial line that says that as academics, we can’t make moral demands of each other – we can’t say, for example, you are ethically obligated to support these graduate students in the strike – because this violates all kind of unwritten rules about how, sure, we have a “community” here in academia (or especially our particular departments) but ultimately, we are not supposed to insist that we have binding obligations to either each other or the larger public. This, I think, needs to be challenged more frequently, and we need to learn to be more comfortable with staring fundamental disagreement in the face, and then going ahead and having the arguments we need to have about that disagreement. This does not require disrespecting people; but it does usually entail making people very uncomfortable and possibly very angry with you.

    And there are other differences I would imagine as well, things that seem small but are actually quite significant – a last paragraph in a conference paper clearly connecting the historical work to current events (when appropriate); an openness with our students about our viewpoints that encourages them neither to blindly agree or blindly disagree with us; a willingness to show up to support on the ground political activism, especially when it is occurring in your back yard (ie, student protests like Occupy or graduate student unionism).

    As to whether or not my argument here misses other and more varied ways in which ideas are important or have radical potential – I see what you are saying here, and I by no means am suggesting we ought to only focus on material that we can easily tie to contemporary, clearly political phenomenon. The value and meaning of ideas manifest in a multitude of ways, for sure. But what concerns me is the disconnect between our own love for ideas – or a whole thought-world, perhaps – and what is actually happening on the ground, in a very literal sense. (How many homeless people did you walk by on the way to university today?)

    Because ultimately, I think we fundamentally disagree about what ideas really have radical potential – for I am either suspicious of a distinction between the political and non-political, or (depending on the case being discussed) we simply disagree about the potential of what we could call “non-political” thought. Anything that can be called radical but has no clear political implications seems more like an individual lifestyle decision to me than a really transformative thought-world. You are right that Ratner-Rosenhagen shows very clearly how ideas shape people profoundly, and I loved hearing those intimate and meaningful stories; but while we are imagining self, community, and nation, what is actually happening in our communities and our nation? That is what I mean by the so what. I’m just not content with thinking about how individual people form their identities and ideas; I want something on how this is going to help or hurt our chances of making this a more suitable place for human beings to live in. To put it in a kind of blunt way: I’ve no doubt that many a person – not solely but, I think it has to be admitted, most frequently a privileged, educated person – had their life fundamentally transformed by Nietzsche, and I live through ideas in this way myself. But nonetheless, the homeless are still on the street tonight, the war on drugs and the prison industrial complex continues to destroy lives and entire communities, and the low-income mother working two jobs in the ghetto is not going to be very impressed with the transformation someone more privileged is undergoing or the radical potential of the not immediately or explicitly political thought that so transformed them. And in the end, for that reason, I’m not really too impressed, either.

    • I detect in you, Robin, and Rivka a kind of Alexander Pope-ian “Reason the card, but passion is the gale” stream of thought as applied to historians. You’re both speaking in a similar romantic register. History might give us, sort of, a sense of where to go, but it won’t get us moving. But perhaps USIH scholarship can do more to give us a sense of longing. But you differ in terms of making that explicitly connect to social justice. …Now to keep reading the discussion below. – TL

  3. “Anything that can be called radical but has no clear political implications seems more like an individual lifestyle decision to me than a really transformative thought-world.” This is really unfair. Your categorical dismissal of a broader vision of intellectual life liberated from a narrowly utilitarian and instrumental mode of thought strikes me as taking us back to a morass we are finally escaping from.

    While I agree that “the low-income mother working two jobs in the ghetto” (is this a person or a rhetorical figure? What might be the politics of characterizing a person as a sociological type like this? ) is unlikely to be impressed with the uses of Nietzsche, the figure you have constructed is just as likely to be unimpressed with almost any form of intellectual “critique”. That’s because her problems are ones that cannot be addressed by having the right critique or analysis or any other academic solution. That solution is a political one, and by all means should engage people politically. But why should it be the end or purpose of scholarship? We have had thirty years or more of insistence by many prominent academics that the world of the humanities in the academy should be subordinated to political ends and uses, that immediate political application is what will make the humanistic disciplines overcome their irrelevance and attach them to a cause more meaningful than their own. How has that worked out for us? It is one thing to say that politics in its many forms is unavoidable, that our ideas are bound up in systems of power and various kinds of hierarchies–that is, I think, a truism at this point. And we should not be evasive about it, for truisms are, in one sense, “true”. It is another thing to say that the larger goal and purpose of scholarly and academic life ought to serve the political goals of transforming social and economic life, that our arguments ought to be about politics in some relatively narrow sense. I rarely agree with Stanley Fish about anything, but when he says that academics should “save the world” on their own time, despite the unfortunate way in which he expresses this, he is largely right. He is not right because the world of the humanities is a self-contained world with its own independent logics and self-justifications–it’s not. But if we pursue intellectual history with the idea that we might open up a way of thinking that imagines the possibilities and ranges of ways of being in the world, that understands the past as different from the present, that roots inquiry in a vision of moral action that is anti-reductionist, we imagine something more than politics in the way you seem to be defining it. You’re right that writing intellectual history doesn’t feed the hungry–but you don’t need a PhD to do that, and one thing doesn’t preclude the other. Although, if you’re really serious about ending homelessness, I doubt spending years obtaining a PhD in the humanities is an effective way to do that. The insistence that academic life be judged by its political efficaciousness seems to me the mirror image of those in the business schools who ask what the humanities are good for in terms of their economic applicability and uses. In fact it betrays a kind of suspicion of ideas as vehicles for something other than practical uses and politics, a kind of anti-intellectualism in the last analysis. I think I’m with James Baldwin on this–those who insist on art and intellectual life serving political ends often end up offering a less humane, more narrow and cramped and didactic vision, one more dehumanizing. Those who want to push beyond politics to address the central contradictions of human cultures and values might, on the other hand, give us a political vision in the broader sense, a more powerful vision of human possibilities and limits.

  4. Hi Dan — thanks for this. I think part of your response is rooted in misunderstanding of what I am arguing — by and large my fault — and probably some real disagreements.

    First, I do not intend to suggest that we stop pursuing ideas without clear utilitarian purposes or that solving certain problems — the homeless or inequality or what have you — is the only pursuit of any value. I’m not. As I briefly mentioned in my comment, I live through ideas in the same way I imagine many of us interested in intellectual history do, and they constantly enable me, as you put it, to imagine “the possibilities and ranges of ways of being in the world” — indeed, the framed picture I have had on my wall of Nietzsche, for nearly 8 years now, is there for a reason. I’ve had my own personal journey with him and many others. I am not trying to argue that has no value or meaning. That would be crazy talk.

    What I am arguing though is that we need to distinguish — or at least, compare and contrast — between the potentials we have personally caught sight of, or experienced, and the surrounding water we swim in. Potential is one thing, and personal revelation is another, and they both *absolutely have value* – but I find that too often, the conversation stops there. I think Reinhold Niebuhr has value, for example, regardless of whether or not Detroit paid much attention to him — but I think it is very important that we discuss why, apparently, Detroit did not. That should also be a substantial part of the discussion, as well as the content and possibility of his thought; but right now, I find, such questions are often either dealt with elliptically, or in the closing stanzas of books, or not at all. I’m not telling us not to value ideas for their own rich potential and capacity to break down our usual categories of thinking; I’m saying that we need to conduct that appreciation with a mind to how such possibilities either can, or did, or failed to relate to a larger world. Even if they failed, that does not mean they should be abandoned — but we have something to learn from that failure, about both the ideas and the context in which they arose.

    And then I think perhaps we have different takes on what the academy has been up to — you are right that people have been arguing for the academy to have a social purpose for a long time now, and you ask where that has gotten us — but maybe your experience was different from mine, for I feel like my experience in graduate school for the past 7 years was one where I was instructed not that the ideas *we* create matter to the larger world or that we should aim to make them do so, but one where I was instructed to expect to simply talk to other academics and tread your politics carefully. So I am coming from my experience of the university as a pretty conservative space; perhaps yours was different, but I can only speak from my own perspective on this. Perhaps the reason people constantly call for this is because reality constantly presents them with something rather different; the argument we have had here recently on the liberal proclamations coupled with the neo-liberal behavior of many academics in the last 20 years speaks to this.

    Just to be clear, I am not arguing — or did not mean to, at least, and I do think I ought to have been more tempered in my language to reflect this — that the only ideas of value worth pursuing or explaining or engaging with are those with clear political content. Human life is way too varied for this and to do this would be to circumscribe its amazing range and colorfulness, clearly. But at the same time, I do look at our current conditions – and history in general if I may say something so sweeping – and see that some ideas ended up, in practice, begin more valuable to some people than others, and some had more extensive impact in impacting a wide range of people than others. This, to me, is the most compelling question about ideas; why does this happen with any particular idea in any particular context?, and what can we learn from that reception (or lack thereof) about the role ideas play in coloring or challenging our current hegemony? I’m simply more interested in that, and contrary to your statements about intellectual history not feeding the hungry, I’m not so willing to accept that. Maybe getting a PhD could ultimately contribute to changing the world for people much unlike me for the better — I don’t know. But I think it’s worth trying; this is what I meant in the last line of my post about where we set our goals.

    Obviously, I do hope others join me, if for no other reason than I am so tired of living in the conditions that currently impact us, and I am making an ethical claim that the rest of us should be tired, too. But this is not to say that ideas that cannot be explicitly tied to this project do not have value. This is only to say that we need to start asking more questions about which ideas currently do, or could have, the potential to be a part of that project. If not in this context, in which context would they have potential? What kind of country would we have to become for Detroit to embrace Niebuhr? Even if you are not personally interested in pursuing politics through scholarship, that is still a valuable and illuminating question, right?

  5. Robin: I think that the barrier to linking our research to political projects isn’t so strong: it’s mostly a matter of having the intention in the first place. Straightforwardly, if we get jobs, we become teachers. Most of us will teach at public universities, and our students will include large numbers of people that political elites since Plato have thought should not use their minds too much.

    If we take the politics of pedagogy seriously, then there is an immediate opening for our work mattering in some political sense. If we offer courses in histories that matter to members of aggrieved communities–courses with titles that our colleagues will likely laugh at, and David Horowitz will fund-raise with–then we would be doing, in my opinion, serious political work. I don’t know a single activist or Left intellectual who doesn’t have a story of having been moved by some college course, sometimes even by a college course just existing.

    Is it possible that what is bothering you about the state of the field isn’t constituted at a formal level: the preference for more or less internalist studies of single authors? There were exceptions to that rule, at the Irvine conference, but there were also a lot of those kind of papers.

    I am enough of a Fredric Jameson person to think that form has a certain ideological weight…. of all the things that would seem hard to translate to a fellow passenger on the bus, the hardest would seem to me to be. e.g.: “I am studying the internal development of X’s thought.” Whereas, I think, there would be a way to say, e.g. “I am trying to understand the way people with different amounts of social power argued about what poverty means” and be understood by my grandma, the Starbucks barista, etc.

    Is this at all relevant?

  6. Robin Marie – Looking for what Jackson Lears calls a hole in the wall, a momentary respite from the current lively discussion, it occurs to me that there might be a little more buzz [though possibly not of the right kind] if we took away a rather different message — not that the study of conservatism is “saturated,” or that the next job is to study the history of liberalism until it too soaks up all the attention it can stand; but that they ought to be studied together.

    Otherwise we might continue with the historiographically and politically useful fiction of coherent ideological essences, organically unfolding “traditions,” instead of interacting, reciprocally defining, interpenetrating and continually shifting formations, contentious elements within a single, albeit continually changing, hegemonic process.

    I say “hegemonic” because, encouraged by Kurt Newman to think about Gramsci’s American reception — surely part of the topic — I dragged out my old copy of Todd Gitlin’s The Whole World is Watching, published the year before Lears’ No Place of Grace, and only three years after Williams’ Marxism and Literature.

    There Gitlin uses Goffman’s Frame Analysis in developing his concept of “media frames” as elements of a larger hegemonic process. The following struck me as a possibly useful clue about how liberalism and conservatism might be considered together —

    “All opposition groups in bourgeois society — whether for liberation or for domination – wage their battles precisely in terms of liberty, equality, or fraternity (or, recently, sorority) — in behalf of one set of bourgeois values against another. They press on the dominant ideology in its own name.” [257]

  7. @Kurt: Yes of course!, you’re being relevant, and much thanks for wandering over here to chime in. Form is relevant — the question of what kind of language we use being one good example — and obviously, education has transformative potential, as you rightly pointed out that most of us have a story about a professor that impacted us.

    I think though that what I am sort of commenting on is how that academy is something that acknowledges and engages politics, but still holds itself apart from it in a way which leads to some weird disconnects between what we practice as opposed to what we preach. For example, why aren’t most professors in departments unionized, especially if we are all so liberal or leftist? This mystifies me. And I also think I am coming from a particular perspective formed by a particular experience; now that I think about your point about most leftists and activists having stories about being influenced by a professor, I think of my own story and realize that while the formal education I received in graduate school got me from conservative to liberal, it did not really get me from liberal to leftist — paying attention to politics on my own time, *and* being a part of an activist movement on the ground through Occupy and the graduate student union here did that. So since then, more often than not, I have experienced the university through a particular set of experiences and frustrations.

    So of course, my reflections here are part of that experience for me. Which is both their limitation and their strength, I think; I know I am pointing to something real, but unless you are in the habit of throwing yourself up against it, as I am, it’s very possible it could be confusing to others exactly what I am fretting about.

    @Bill: I totally agree. Liberalism and conservatism should be studied together far far more than they have been — indeed I think that will be one of the key approaches in solving this problem we keep seem to be running into of what we even mean by liberalism.

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