The Professors and Public Policy

One of the best known “historians” in the United States is a fellow named David Barton.  His wallbuilders.com describes him:

His exhaustive research has rendered him an expert in historical and constitutional issues and he serves as a consultant to state and federal legislators, has participated in several cases at the Supreme Court, was involved in the development of the History/Social Studies standards for states such as Texas and California, and has helped produce history textbooks now used in schools across the nation.
A national news organization has described him as “America’s historian,” and Time Magazine called him “a hero to millions – including some powerful politicians.

He has become, absent the real thing, the image of the “public intellectual” of our time.  Self-taught and media savvy.

He doesn’t come under threat.  Not from David Horowitz, not from people using FOIA requests (as is happening in Wisconsin and Michigan) extending openness laws beyond where they were meant to go, not from anyone who might disagree with him.  If he is questioned at all, it is on the accuracy of his claims and on his credentials.  Legitimate questions.

Unlike the inheritors of the positions of the public intellectuals of the past, Barton does not face a concerted campaign of intimidation… a campaign that has allowed our already timid scholars to retreat back behind their (our) ivied walls, to talk angrily of what they (we) should do, but to talk only to each other, no longer participating in the public debate.

William Cronon, now under attack in Wisconsin for acting in the best fashion of the real public intellectual, is but the latest to feel the push against intellectuals who try to participate in the public sphere.  Paul Krugman writes today about who is now asked to testify before Congress as experts (hint: it is rarely the scholar who really knows the field and the issue).

What’s pathetic is that we’ve let this intimidation work, as Krugman’s column shows.  Horowitz and all the others attacking academia have cowed us.  We beat our fists in our academic-freedom committee meetings, speaking with high dudgeon, setting up petitions, attending colloquia… but rarely do we step outside and make our statements there.  More rarely still do we bring our expertise to the broad public debates in a manner that can really be heard and understood.

Once more: Rarely, any longer, do we insist that our voices be heard… before Congress or even before our City Councils and School Boards.  We have withdrawn into our righteous indignation.

If we are to live up to the demands of our precious “academic freedom,” this has to stop.  When we know about something, we have to start going out and talking about it.  Not talking down, not patronizing, but speaking, LISTENING, and responding.  (Admittedly, we don’t listen very well, which is why the screaming caps.)

That doesn’t mean simply participating in protests against budget cuts.  That’s all well and good… but imagine if there had been a thousand Cronons, and not just the one in Wisconsin.  Think of the impact if all of the history professors (and lets add in the high-school history teachers) started making similar points about who and what is behind current movements in state politics.

I’m not just writing this for other people, but for me, too.  I have never attending a City Council meeting here in New York, have never offered to be involved in the Board of Education.  Maybe, my services wouldn’t be wanted, but I should make them available.  If the thousands of others who teach in New York’s schools started to do the same, we could not be ignored.

It would not even be arrogant of me, or of any other, to do so.  This is part of being a citizen.  David Barton does it, so why shouldn’t I?  Also, like all college professors, I do have certain credentials for speaking.  It is not arrogant to use them.

But few of us do.

It would be easy to call me naive (I admit it: I am), but that does not excuse one from withdrawing from what was once posited as part of the role of a college professor.

The only way we really deserve our academic freedom is to act like real public intellectuals… in public, and not behind our closed school doors.

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