A Few Words About the so-called Academic Liberal Elite (whatever that means)

I am working diligently to finish my conference paper for next week's meeting of the Southern Historical Association in New Orleans.   I'm looking forward to spending time with some friends and hopefully some intense discussions about a subject that all of us care deeply about.  If you were to read the recent comment quoted yesterday,  in addition to other postings around the blogosphere and elsewhere, you would think that I am headed off to some kind of political convention of liberal academics whose primary mission is to attack religion, overturn all that is sacred in our collective past, and bash conservatives.  [By the way the individual who authored that passage is the same person who once accused academic presses of being anti-religion (see comments) and recently suggested that Brooks Simpson's decision to post his session comments was nothing more than a reflection of academic historians' "tendency to try to tear people down."

I've attended somewhere around 25 academic conferences over the past ten years and this is not my experience at all.  I can honestly say that I have absolutely no idea where the overwhelming majority of historians, which I've become acquainted with over the years, stand on the bread and butter political and social issues of our time.  In addition, I can't tell you where they stand in terms of religious affiliation.  And to tell you the truth, I don't care where they stand on any of these issues. 

In all of the sessions that I've taken part in, either as a presenter or as a member of the audience, I can't think of a single moment where a discussion of modern politics ensued or the conversation degenerated into a religious-cultural-social bashing free-for-all.   What I do remember are countless discussions that broadened or deepened my understanding of a subject.  In the cases where I presented a paper I almost always left with a clearer sense of my research's strengths and weaknesses.  No one ever accused me of belonging to the wrong religion or political party, and I can't remember the last time someone asked for my stand on abortion.  My guess is that the overwhelming majority of participants attend these conferences to discuss and learn about history. 

My experience as an undergraduate and graduate student in history are also reflective of these observations.  I attended classes in history at William Paterson College (now university), the University of Maryland at College Park, and the University of Richmond.  All of my professors were professional and not once can I remember them engaging in the kind of behavior described in the media and blogosphere.  I even worked as a teaching assistant for Jacques Pluss at WPC and never had any inkling that he was a member of a neo-Nazi organization.  

I would love to ask the authors of these claims the following: (1) When was the last time they attended a college-level history course?  (2) Have they ever attended an academic conference or took part in a workshop with academic historians? (3) Have they ever submitted an essay to a professional journal which would provide insight into how the vetting process works? (4) Have they ever witnessed the kinds of behavior that they describe?  If so, did it occur enough times to warrant such generalizations?  

There is nothing wrong with employing generalizations in an argument.  However, all of us are able to detect a poorly-constructed generalization, and the difference usually boils down to whether a sufficient number of particulars have been properly employed.  The problem in this case is that the authors of these claims have, for the most part, soaked up this critique from the mainstream media and passed it off as if they understand what it means, as if they themselves have experienced the behavior.  In the end, these accusations are nothing more than a product of a defensive posture that views intellectual activity as a threat.  Just below the surface you find ignorance and a whole lot of fear.

11 comments… add one
  • Kevin Levin Oct 13, 2008 @ 10:56

    Flashman, — I agree completely with your comment. My point was never to deny instances of discrimination in the academy. As with any large institution with a long and rich history there are bound to be challenges. My concern is with the sweeping generalizations that are tossed around casually by individuals who have very little, if any, first-hand experience. Thanks for the comment.

  • Flashman Oct 10, 2008 @ 13:22

    I am an historian, as well, and I am familiar with the university presses as you are. I would agree that these presses are not by any means “anti-religion” nor are they political in any way which is untoward. In fact, I can cite several examples of staff at these establishments where conservatives and liberals co-exist quite nicely.

    However, as a graduate student in the 1980s at the University of Kansas, I can most positively assert that politics, and particularly anti-conservative politics, were boldly (and proudly, it seems) on display. One particular professor of history, William Tuttle, was infamous for his anti-Reagan screeds during class which were both frequent and ferocious, and I am sad to say, ultimately wrong. Despite complaints from conservative students, his unprofessional conduct continued unabated. I’ve often wondered what would prompt a respected academic to check his professional self-esteem at the door like that, but regardless – I have never forgotten it, and Tuttle remains for me an example of how not to conduct oneself with students.

    Although your personal experience is doubtless valuable, it may not be the experience of everyone in academia and we as a professional class should not discount reports of this conduct out of hand.

  • Andrew Duppstadt Oct 5, 2008 @ 5:53

    Have fun at SHA this year. I will be unable to attend, but I’m sure your panel will be excellent. I suppose there’s still about a month left until the conference, right?


  • Richard Phillips Oct 4, 2008 @ 21:02

    “Academic Liberal Elite” I think when the general public uses this term they think of events like the Duke Lacrosse Case. The actions of some of the Duke staff show a lack of development that has to cross over into their academic work. This is not to say that I believe someone tagged as a liberal cannot do professional work but it makes the general public (of which I am a member) have some doubts as to their objectivity. The same holds true for someone tagged as a conservative.
    I am sure that universities have processes that challenge scholarship. Maybe I will get to find out. I am seriously considering the pursuit of a Masters in History if I can find someone in NC who will let me go part time.

  • John Oct 3, 2008 @ 0:46

    Hi Kevin,

    Good post as always. On the topic of generalizations, to quote myself: “The only generalization that makes any sense is that, in general, generalizations don’t make sense.”

    At least I can’t ever remember reading it anywhere, and a cursory web search lead nowhere.

    Keep up the good work. I read your blog every day.


  • Larry Cebula Oct 2, 2008 @ 23:15

    You find the same tendencies, though far less pronounced, in western history. We too have a large contingent of reenactors and buffs who are focused on celebrating one side of the encounter, in their case the white explorers, trappers and traders whose exploits used to be the key subject of western history. And some in this community resent the “politically correct” adherents of the “New Western History” which uses terms such as conquest instead of settlement and tries to tell the stories of the Indians and Chinese and other marginal or defeated groups.

    But the worst of our feuds are a pale shadow of what seems to go on in the Civil War communities.

  • Tim Lacy Oct 2, 2008 @ 15:07

    Kevin: Of course my lead post today at H&E makes me look like an academic liberal. Then again, if only 22 percent approve of Bush’s work, that means 78 percent of Americans are liberals—if the definition of a liberal hinges on dissatisfaction with GWB. – TL

  • Kevin Levin Oct 2, 2008 @ 14:56

    Tim, — It does seem to be unique to Civil War history. I am pressed to come up with another area of American history where you will find such rhetoric. In other words you don’t find large sections of the general public accusing historians of rewriting the history of the Gilded Age. Unfortunately, as I stated in the post these criticisms come from people who have very little, if any, experience with academics or universities. It does get old after a while, but they are easy accusations to make, which in turn makes it easy to avoid having to read serious scholarship.

  • Tim Lacy Oct 2, 2008 @ 14:32

    It’s amazing to me, Kevin, how much anti-intellectualism surrounds Civil War Memory as a site and as a general subject. Wow. I’m mildly sorry to employ such a broad label, but your point about generalizations needing particulars is what brought anti-intellectualism to mind. …And, as someone who entered the academy with a fair amount of conservative baggage, my experience ~in~ the academy mirrors yours. I only got into heated political discussions at bars after class—and 95 percent of those times professors weren’t present. – TL

  • Sherree Oct 2, 2008 @ 10:05

    The animosity that you describe extends to those outside of the academic community as well, Kevin. Besides being somewhat amused by the phenomenon and attributing it to the atmospheric disturbances caused by the Presidential election; I am left to wonder what is really going on beneath the surface of some discussions.

    Good luck with your paper and have an enjoyable and productive meeting in New Orleans next week. Without the hard work and dedication of men and women who study the world within which we live (and who, in past centuries sometimes died for the right to study) we would still think that the world is flat. Please, everyone, keep studying, thinking, writing, and publishing!

  • Robert Moore Oct 2, 2008 @ 8:07

    Well said Kevin.

Leave a Reply to John Cancel reply