A Student of History

January 23, 2007

Activism and the Academy

Filed under: The Academy — John Maass @ 3:33 pm

I just got via my department an announcement that reads as such:

The Berkeley Journal of Sociology is holding its annual conference on March 9, 2007 on “Globalization and Social Change”. Along with our keynote speaker Walden Bello, executive director of Focus on the Global South, various graduate student presenters, and faculty discussants, the conference will also feature a special panel on “Bridging the Gap between Activism and the Academy”.  Graduate education can be two-sided. While our studies and research often bring us closer to contemporary social problems and/or movements, we can simultaneously be drawn away from them as we join professionalized fields.  Does this reflect your experience at graduate school? How have you managed the gap between activism and the academy?

I have been for some years troubled by this notion of activist historians.  I do not object to historians becoming involved in causes–they are people and as such have every right to engage in politics, social change, activism, etc.  But when we hear things like (as one famous scholar has has written), “you are not doing real history until you smell the tear gas” (a major paraphrase), I wonder/doubt that this is still engaging in historical scholarship.  At what point do activist historians lose their objectivity in their work when they become activists for causes?  It is a tricky line to draw. 

For example, an historian interested in issues of race perhaps can draw on her work of racial relations in the past or in a different country, and use this work to show modern Americans (and, of course, lawmakers) that there are other answers/ways of doing things in terms of race and that we ought to use examples from the past to try to find solutions.  Or historians’ work in Native American history could illuminate treaty rights and obligations, to say nothing of past violations. 

But as the conference announcement above implies, “bridging the gap” seems to be a goal or requirement of historians, and an unquestioned “good thing.”  I am not sure that it is in all, or even in many cases.  Can’t historians get too close to their subjects?  Does it make them lose their objectivity if they do? Doesn’t it make them like attorneys, arguing for a case, rather than presenting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

Peter Hoffer’s book Past Imperfect takes up this issue briefly, and I recommend it.   A review of the book states the problem, as noted above: “A new history arose [by the 1960s] which, written in part by radicals and liberals, had little use for the noble and the heroic, and that rankled many who wanted a celebratory rather than a critical history. To this combustible mixture of elements was added the flame of public debate. History in the 1990s was a minefield of competing passions, political views and prejudices. It was dangerous ground…”

So where does history end and advocacy begin, and should the two be mixed or kept apart, in the name of objectivity?  Historoans, afterall, study the past not the present-but they live in the present, which shapes their work.  If scholars’ work about the past is shaped by the present, should they allow their work in the past make them present day activisits?  Is that a good thing, as the conference folks at The Berkeley Journal of Sociology make plain, i.e., to “bridge the gap”?


  1. Many years ago, certain academics worked assiduously to replace the moral ethic of American (and Western) culture – the so-called ‘Judeo-Christian’ or ‘Scriptural’ moral ethic – with the Utilitarian moral ethic of Secular Humanism. To a large extent, their efforts and the efforts of other academics and ‘important persons’ in Establishment Institutions (including academia) have been successful. The presence in our society of legalized social engineering – euthanasia, abortion, ‘bio-engineering’, income redistribution etc. – are wholly supported by Utilitarianism and condemned by the earlier Biblical moral ethic.

    One of the tenets which ‘disappeared’ with the removal of a Scripture based moral ethic was the understanding of ‘absolutes’; that is, that there were behaviors and beliefs that were by their very nature ‘right’ and ‘good’ and, of course, the opposite was also true – that there were behaviors and beliefs that were by THEIR nature, ‘wrong’ and ‘evil’. No such ‘absolutes’ exist in Utilitarianism; everything is ‘relative’. Situational ethics (as it is known) posits that a behavior may well be ‘wrong’ in one instance and ‘right’ in another and that ‘good’ and ‘bad’ are the function of time, place and persona. Hence, what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ for me might not necessarily be the same for you.

    While this SOUNDED tolerant and progressive on its face, the result of this moral ethic has been the end of the former ‘understanding’ that there are criteria which must be met, especially in academia. Under the former moral ethic, any scholar of character would no more attempt to prove his pet theories by dishonest means than he would rob a bank. Both were considered morally and ethically repugnant. Today, however, it is the ENDS that count, not the MEANS by which they are achieved. If an academic believes that his position holds the ‘moral highground’, he is no longer subject to those ‘old fashioned’ notions of proof and truth but, rather, he can do anything necessary to assure the ‘triumph’ of his point of view. And so, academia in many instances has become an area in which ‘students’ can no longer be assured that what a professor or scholar posits is factually true. Information that bolsters a position is published; information that does not is suppressed. In some instances, if there is not enough of the former, then ‘information’ is ‘created’ for the purpose of ‘proving’ the thesis. In the same way, concrete, factual evidence to the contrary is ignored or even attacked according to whatever ‘politically correct’ ad hominem attack is the most beneficial in destroying the offending facts and those who seek to present them.

    The reality is simply this: while there continue to be scholars and academics who hold to the old moral and ethical principles that founded Western Culture (even if they do not recognize that that is the case), there are more than enough individuals who adhere to the NEW ethic which teaches that the ends justify the means and that whatever is necessary to ‘carry the day’ intellectually and politically is therefore morally acceptable. It is this type of thinking that seems to be motivating our ‘activists’ no matter whether they are found in academia, in law, in government, in education, in medicine etc. These people are a danger to society because they will do and say whatever is necessary to promote their agenda as they believe that they represent ‘good’ and therefore are not under any mandate to play by the ‘old rules’ of truth, facts and logic.

    Parenthetically, BOTH ‘moral ethics’ in play are ‘religious’ in nature. While there is no question that Scriptural ethics are ‘faith based’, the same is also true of Utilitarianism. In no less than 22 Supreme Court decisions, Secular Humanism – the ‘font’ of Utilitarianism – has been determined to be a ‘religion’ in that its ‘believers’ hold to their ‘creed’ by faith. Just as there is no way to ‘prove’ that there is a God, there is no way to prove that there is NOT. And so – like it or not – all cultures must needs have as their foundation a RELIGIOUS moral ethic.

    Perhaps it is time for the West – including the United States – to determine WHICH ‘moral ethic’ it wishes to embrace: that of our Founding Fathers and those who followed them in noble service to our nation, or that of the ‘activists’ noted above. I suppose it all depends upon whether one wishes to be able to study history in the future knowing that it is based upon the best efforts of an historian who embraces the absolutes of fact, truth and reason – or that which is presented by an historian with an ‘agenda’ and who is willing to do whatever he or she believes necessary to further same.

    Comment by Valerie Protopapas — January 24, 2007 @ 2:39 pm | Reply

  2. Thanks for writing with such clarity.

    Comment by John Maass — January 24, 2007 @ 3:09 pm | Reply

  3. Thank YOU for your comment. However, I would like to further ‘clarify’ a point. When I spoke of an ‘earlier’ moral ethic, I was not speaking of one ethic that existed prior to the other. BOTH moral ethics have existed since mankind gained the mental acuity, reasoning power and perception to understand such things as ‘morals’ and ‘ethics’. There is no other species on the planet which has any such understanding of reality.

    Utilitarianism is every bit as ‘old’ as the moral ethic we have come to call ‘Judeo-Christian’ or ‘Scriptural’. As for the latter, St. Paul in one of his letters mentions pagans who ‘have the Law written on their hearts’. By this, Paul means that men have always had an understanding of what constituted virtue and vice. In every civilization at every time, certain ‘virtues’ were lauded: courage, self-sacrifice, generosity, compassion, love, patriotism etc. Now, of course, this does not mean that evil things were not performed in the NAME of these virtues, but there are few societies – if any – who have embraced cowardice, selfishness, greed, brutality, hate and treachery. Even those cultures who have actually PRACTICED these ‘vices’ – such as, say, Nazi Germany – presented them as VIRTUES at the time! They merely ‘changed the rules’ and made good evil and vice versa.

    Utilitarianism is perhaps an even OLDER moral ethic in that it is quite simply, the ‘law of the jungle’ or what we know as ‘survival of the fittest’. The only thing that is needful is to do what is best for the individual involved; to do anything else is not only foolish but wicked as it may place the most important thing – the self – in jeopardy. True ‘Utilitarians’ would find no problem in discarding the elderly, the ill and the powerless for theirs is a ‘burden/benefit’, factory farm ethic of life. If an individual is a BENEFIT to the society – and therefore to the all important ‘self’ – then that individual should receive all assistance necessary to flourish. Conversely, if the individual is a BURDEN on the society, then it is perfectly moral (not to mention legal) to remove that person so that he or she is no longer a drain on the elements contributing to the ‘common good’.

    Furthermore, both ethics recognize a ‘gods or A God’. The Scriptural moral ethic recognizes a God who has over time not only created everything, but interacts with His creation; He hears – and answers – prayers (the answer, however, may be ‘No.”). Around the periphery of that ethic exists those people who may believe in some sort of ‘Creator’, but do not subscribe to any particular creed or even believe that He involves Himself (or Itself) with mankind; Thomas Jefferson, a Deist, was one such individual although he acknowledged the necessity of a MORAL ethic based upon Christian teaching. And, of course, there are those who see the universe in the ‘Star Wars’ concept of a ‘force’ which can be used for either good or evil – dualists.

    Humanism ALSO has a god but that god is man himself. But it is not ‘man’ the individual, but rather, Man as represented by The State. All of the worst tyrannies foisted on humankind arose from the worship of the State as ‘god’ – either as a national concept or in the persona of a human leader (Cesar, Hitler, Stalin etc.). But the problem acknowledged in this particular thread – the intrusion of a personal agenda into scholarship and teaching – is a greater threat in the culture that exists in the West, including the United States, than the more evident threat posed by national cults. Why? Because it is insidious. Most people expect educators and historians to write as factually as possible and if they profess an unusual point of view (such as, Lincoln was a homosexual), to defend same using honest and honorable tools of his trade. This means that an author who believes that he can morally say or do anything in order to assure that his view is accepted is going to – if he is sufficiently credible – fool an awful
    lot of people into accepting falsehood as truth and spurious data as reliable.

    Furthermore, it is bad enough when one is facing sloppy scholarship and even plagerism, but it is infinitely worse when one is dealing with premeditated deception. Worse, once a particular point of view is ensconced in academic and historic circles, all attempts to change or remove it are seen as ‘revisionist’ and unreliable. In the past, such incorrect conclusions were usually the result of a paucity of information and later corrected as new factual data became available. However, today, it is possible that deception and not simple error is the case and so information arising that challenges the thesis is not regarded objectively, but attacked and condemned along with those presenting it.

    Is there an answer to this problem? At present, the only answer appears to be vigilance and intellectual rigor – and when presented with something questionable whether it is the thesis or the ‘activist’ historian presenting it – the willingness to use both. Generally, a good historian who follows where the facts lead to reach his conclusion will offer enough verifiable evidence of that journey to permit the reader to follow. On the other hand, the ‘activist’ will simply shout louder and hope that when he cannot blind his audience with brilliance, he will at least be able to baffle them with bull.

    Comment by Valerie Protopapas — January 24, 2007 @ 7:20 pm | Reply

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