Thursday, December 9, 2010

American Intellectuals: Trapped in the Blue Model

by Michael Kaplan

This is from Walter Russell Mead’s follow up to his post on the looming blue state fiscal meltdown. America’s current crisis, Mead argues, is ultimately a failure of creative thinking. American intellectuals are trapped in servitude to the blue beast. They just can’t think outside the blue box to find an alternative model for organizing society suitable for the twenty-first century. Ideology and class interests are to blame for this intellectual lethargy. As Mead explains:

First, there’s ideology. Since the late nineteenth century most intellectuals have identified progress with the advance of the bureaucratic, redistributionist and administrative state. The government, guided by credentialed intellectuals with scientific training and values, would lead society through the economic and political perils of the day. An ever more powerful state would play an ever larger role in achieving ever greater degrees of affluence and stability for the population at large, redistributing wealth to provide basic sustenance and justice to the poor. The social mission of intellectuals was to build political support for the development of the new order, to provide enlightened guidance based on rational and scientific thought to policymakers, to administer the state through a merit based civil service, and to train new generations of managers and administrators. The modern corporation was supposed to evolve in a similar way, with business becoming more stable, more predictable and more bureaucratic.
Most American intellectuals today are still shaped by this worldview and genuinely cannot imagine an alternative vision of progress. It is extremely difficult for such people to understand the economic forces that are making this model unsustainable and to see why so many Americans are in rebellion against this kind of state and society – but if our society is going to develop we have to move beyond the ideas and the institutions of twentieth century progressivism. The promises of the administrative state can no longer be kept and its premises no longer hold. The bureaucratic state is too inefficient to provide the needed services at a sustainable cost – and bureaucratic, administrative governments are by nature committed to maintain the status quo at a time when change is needed. For America to move forward, power is going to have to shift from bureaucrats to entrepreneurs, from the state to society and from qualified experts and licensed professionals to the population at large.
Academia, as it now exists, is an inflexible guild that rewards politically correct thinking—that is liberal progressive rationales for maintaining the blue model—and denouncing any market-oriented alternatives as oppressive and unfair, even racist. The publish or perish mandate in academia, far from nurturing innovative thinking, has forced young academics to tow the line, jump through hoops, and write what senior faculty want them to write. To do otherwise would put at risk their chances of winning tenure—the blue model’s ultimate reward of lifetime job security. Young scholars, struggling to survive in academic institutions, have had to suppress their passion for the unfettered pursuit of knowledge and turn themselves into clones of their elders.

This is a concern raised by Patricia Nelson Limerick, a leading historian of the American West. Limerick observes
that for intellectuals to influence the public beyond academia, they must develop “practices far more strenuous than the comfortable custom of reminding audiences of fellow academics of the virtue and validity of left-wing principles.” Among these practices is the ability to write and speak in clear jargon-free language. Unfortunately, conventional academics see such clarity as a sign “of a lack of sophistication and a questionable level of expertise.” Young scholars who want to think and work outside the box as public intellectuals, Limerick cautions, have to, in effect, become stealth operatives for the first fifteen to twenty years of their careers.

To become university-based public scholars, young people may well have to put their ambition into cold storage for a decade and a half. Go to graduate school, write a conventional dissertation, get a tenure-track job, publish in academic journals and in university presses, give papers at professional conferences to small groups of fellow specialists, and comply with all the requirements of deference, conformity, and hoop-jumping that narrow the road to tenure while also narrowing the travelers on that road. Then, once tenured, you can take up the applied work that appealed to you in the first place.
Assuming of course that you still have that passion for learning and teaching in the broadest sense that originally led you into the academic life. Again, as Mead also points out, there are many intellectuals, inside and outside of the Academy, who are swimming against the tide and thinking creatively, outside the box, about history, politics, economics, and how to move American society forward.

One of the most important points Mead raises is the desperate need for generalists as opposed to specialists: writers and teachers who can synthesize the many different specialized strands of knowledge, and communicate them effectively to the American public. Academia excels at the production of specialized and highly technical knowledge, published in journals and monographs. The importance of this endeavor—expanding the bounds of human knowledge in all fields of liberal arts and science—cannot be emphasized enough; especially at a time when increasingly vocal critics (many of them Jacksonian conservatives) are questioning the very legitimacy of academia’s raison d’être. But the Academy has disconnected from the public. Even in a field like history, scholars more often write for each other than for a larger audience.

I see my mission as a historian to be a generalist who can bring together the past and the present. This is what I aim for in my teaching, though I have to admit my success has been mixed. I’m attempting in my work on the influence of Jacksonian nationalism in American history and culture, to synthesize the many specialized monographs on a variety of related topics into a compelling narrative. This will, I hope, present the type of big picture interpretation of America’s emergence as a nation that I (like Mead) believe is needed in the twenty-first century. This blog will be a testing ground for developing my thinking on history and the human condition. These posts are works-in-progress, where I’ll experiment with the most engaging and compelling ways to share my evolving understanding of history (and politics, and everything else) with my fellow citizens.

© 2010 Michael Kaplan