The Academy Is Unstable and Degrading. Historians Should Take Over the Government, Instead.Roundup
tags: education, historians, government, history in crisis
Daniel Bessner is an assistant professor of American foreign policy at the University of Washington.
What does it mean to be a public intellectual?
When scholars discuss this question, they generally assume that the primary path to publicness is to engage with a mass audience. A public intellectual, in other words, writes long-form features or op-eds in widely read magazines, appears on television, gives speeches in popular forums, or sends tweets that go viral. The supposition, in short, is that the public intellectual’s main task is an educational one centered on bringing knowledge to ordinary people in the hopes, over time, of raising consciousness and advancing some political goal.
Academics have long excelled at this task, and their efforts have unsurprisingly intensified in an era when the university has become subject to the will of Donald Trump, Betsy DeVos, Scott Walker, and other know-nothing politicians. Scholars in my own discipline of history have since 2016 achieved an unprecedented presence in the public sphere. This is reflected most clearly on Twitter, where historians like Keisha Blain, Ibram X. Kendi, Kevin Kruse, and Natalia Mehlman Petrzela are able to connect immediately with thousands of ordinary people living across the globe.
It is this type of educational arrangement that most academics think about when they think of themselves in relation to the public sphere. But there is a second way that scholars, particularly those who identify with the social-democratic left, should contribute to public life: by engaging with state institutions through participation in the intellectual technostructure — think tanks, policy schools, university centers — that since World War II has shaped U.S. policy.
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