Ph.D. Octopus

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Act Like a Scholar? Thinking the Cronon Affair through a Bunch of German Scholars

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Bill Cronon

by Luce

There’s a good round-up of commentary at Cliopatria on the Bill Cronon affair, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison released a packet of his emails a few days ago, exempting a broad range of materials and declaring Cronon’s conduct above reproach. Hopefully this will take the blowhardiness out of the Republicans’ sails. But it was distressing to learn a few days ago that a conservative group had issued a public records request for the emails from professors at three Michigan state university labor studies departments, looking for political involvement in the Wisconsin labor toil. The material these scholars study alone made them targets, raising the question of whether conservatives have decided on a new method to attack academic freedom.

In his post on Cronon, Wiz wrote that this is “a clear attack on the idea that historians might engage in public debate and dialogue,” and I agree. Cronon began his blog Scholar as Citizen to reflect on “the public practice of history and the ways in which academic scholarship in his chosen fields of history, geography, and environmental studies can offer useful perspectives on contemporary political debates.”

Obviously not all scholars are held to the same regulations as Cronon is as a professor at a state university, but I think think this episode presents an opportunity to consider the think about what connotes proper conduct on the part of the scholar in relation to his or her society. Should s/he be a social critic? Should s/he advocate some sort of social good? It might be useful consider how a few well-known German scholars thought about the role of the academic in society, particularly as German universities have historically been state institutions and German professors civil servants. This selection obviously has nothing to do with the fact that I will be examined  on these guys in three weeks time.

Kant‘s “What is Enlightenment?” is a good place to start.

Immanuel Kant

Kant was never a political radical (though he did initiate a Copernican Revolution in philosophy by positing that objects conform to our knowledge, rather than our knowledge to objects). In his 1784  “What is Enlightenment” he distinguishes “public” from “private” use of reason, arguing that at timeswhen one has been entrusted with a civic post one may need to “obey” the authorities; however in civil society, as a public citizen, that same state employee must always have the courage and maturity to act as a “scholar” and use one’s reason to critique society. At the end of this passage he uses the person of the “cleric” (the version of the “teacher'” he offers) to delineate different “public” and “private” spheres of reason:

Now in many affairs conducted in the interests of a community, a certainmechanism is required by means of which some of its members must conduct themselves in an entirely passive manner so that through an artificial unanimity the government may guide them toward public ends, or at least prevent them from destroying such ends. However, insofar as this part of the machine also regards himself as a member of the community as a whole….  the cleric–as a scholar who speaks through his writings to the public as such, i.e., the world–enjoys in this public use of reason an unrestricted freedom to use his own rational capacities and to speak his own mind. For that the (spiritual) guardians of a people should themselves be immature is an absurdity that would insure the perpetuation of absurdities.

Note that even in the case of a man of God, whose duty it is to lead his flock according to a higher law, there is a realm in which he should “act as a scholar” and have an “unrestricted freedom” to speak his mind. Note also that to use one’s public reason is described as acting like a “scholar” (the German is Gelehrter, meaning scholar or learned man). Ironically Kant’s own work on religion was censored by the conservative Frederick William II of Prussia, a decree Kant obeyed until the king’s death in 1797, after which he published the very next year a strong defense of intellectual freedom. Kant may distinguish between the public (in civil society) and private (in the case of a duty or position) use of one’s reason– a delineation it’s now clear Cronon himself has maintained– but by Kant’s very definition to “act like a scholar” is use one’s reason to critique, no matter the context.

Kant scholars can correct me, but based on this reading it seems that for Kant a scholar, or professor, always has a duty to use his or her critical reason no matter what space s/he occupies. So should FOIA laws even apply to professors at state universities? Given the links between corporate interests like those of big pharma and the research sciences, I don’t think academics should be exempt. However, I do think it’s crucial to differentiate between the use of critical reason to reflect on contemporary social issues and the instrumentalization of one’s research for politicking or cow-towing to corporate interests. The danger presented in the Cronon case even now is that his Republican email-riflers won’t be able or willing to make these distinctions. This potential for misinterpretation is acknowledged by Cronon, though only parenthetically:

I use [my personal email address] for all communications with family members and friends, and I use it too for any activities of mine that might be construed as political rather than scholarly (though the boundaries between these two categories is harder to draw for a scholar of the modern United States than non-scholars might imagine).

Conservatives have often attacked academic freedom in the past two decades, calling for greater “objectivity” in scholarship, publishing books like David Horowitz’s 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America, obscuring the lines between critique and propaganda. This all contributes to a broader popular sense of “crisis” in the academy, though one that I think scholars in the academy see as only so much hot air.

Max Weber

Max Weber too was facing a crisis in the German university at the end of World War I, and in his 1919 lecture Science as a Vocation [pdf] sought to protect the validity of his profession by sharply dividing fact from value. This is not a distinction between academic and political discourse that I think we would actually want to make today, but Weber’s ideas on the position and duty of the scholar are well worth exploring. Importantly, his essay’s German title is Wissenschaft als Beruf, and Wissenschaft means either science or scholarship, so Weber should be seen as also addressing those who practice the human, cultural, and social sciences.

As a rule, I think this essay should be read by all undergraduates. There is so much food for thought about the dilemmas and possibilities of scholarship. For instance: “Why does one engage in doing something that in reality never comes, and never can come, to an end?” (8) Good question. At another point Weber describes the “intellectualist rationalization” of our world–its disenchantment–whereby we no longer presume that magic and mystery explains certain aspects of our world. But he distinguishes between the idea that conceivably everything might be accounted for through calculation and the idea that we actually have a greater knowledge of the conditions under which we live: “Unless he is a physicist, one who rides on the streetcar has no idea how the car happened to get into motion. And he does not need to know. He is satisfied that he may ‘count’ on the behavior of the streetcar…” A “reluctant modernist,” Weber not only doesn’t value the progressive technologization or rationalization of the world, but argues that the intelligibility of the world in our everyday life is hardly improved by it. This always, maybe wrongly, brings to my mind the awesome Louis CK riff, “Everything’s Amazing and Nobody’s Happy”:

“You’re sitting in a CHAIR in the SKY!” So true.

Finally, to return back to the issue at hand, Weber counters the idealized position that Kant gives the scholar. Weber claims that the illusions of scholarship as a way to true art, or nature, or God have been dispelled. Instead in his era he finds (signaling ahead to the Weimar backlash against neo-Kantianism most famously embodied in Heidegger’s search for a primordial Being and his later rejection of science and technology as obscuring humans’ understanding of Being by treating nature as standing-reserve for human domination), that “redemption from rationalism” is today necessary for “union with the divine.” (11) Enlightenment is not in fact enlightenment, but only another value produced by history. The rational use of one’s mind, and hence the scholar, has no special worldly value above and beyond any other.

This is a long way of saying that a main idea in Science as a Vocation is the distinction Weber (who was influenced by a southwestern neo-Kantian school that maintained the Kantian distinction between reality and concept) makes between facts and values: the former stable and knowable, and the latter so pluralistic as to make one value as meaningful/less as the other. Weber writes,

Consider the historical and cultural sciences. They teach us how to understand and interpret political, artistic, literary, and social phenomena in terms of their origins. But they give us no answer to the question of whether the existence of these cultural phenomena have been and are worthwhile.

Following World War I, when many young German soldiers went off to battle filled with militantly patriotic ideas fed to them by their teachers, Weber argued that it was not the role of a professor to impose political values on a student (we might ask whether he followed his own advice, since the second famous lecture he gave that year was to a crowd of young student revolutionaries where he counseled them to find charismatic leader, both passionate and distanced).

Weber cautioned that “the qualities that make a man an excellent scholar and academic teacher are not the qualities that make him a leader to give directions in practical life or, more specifically, in politics.” (16). While Kant may have seen the duty of man-as-scholar to use his reason to chip away at all mythic immaturity, Weber holds rationalization and intellectualism to be just one value amongst many equally (in)valid other values. The scholar must recognize the particularity of his values and beware of imposing them on his students. His duty as a scholar is to stick to analyzing facts according to a certain methodological model.

But of course Bill Cronon didn’t impose overt political values on his students. He maintained a separate non-university-affiliated website and blog when addressing contemporary social issues. Weber might advise that no scholar should enter the shallow waters of specific political commentary, but even in his entrance into the public sphere, Cronon appears to have mostly followed Weber’s example in mostly avoiding concrete valuation. For the majority of his original post on ALEC, the one that provoked the Wisconsin Republicans, Cronon merely describes how he has uncovered the influence of ALEC activities on Republican politicians. Cronon jutifies his blog post as follows:

I’m posting this long note in the conviction that it’s time to start paying more attention. History is being made here, and future historians need people today to assemble the documents they’ll eventually need to write this story.

It is more the accumulation of “facts,” than their valuation, that concerns Cronon. Weber insists on this distinction between fact and value. In his world, there are still subjects and objects, nomothetic methodologies for the natural sciences and idiographic for the historical and social sciences, (distinctions that science studies has effectively crushed). According to Weber, a scholar must make an admittedly value-laden decision as to what to study and then decide on an academic methodology to organize his facts. Cronon did this: he decided to look at ALEC’s activities and then drew conclusions based on an evaluative model of American political life in order to better understand the function of ALEC within this landscape. However, Cronon does issue a normative valuation at the end:

ALEC’s efforts to disenfranchise voters likely to vote Democratic, for instance, and its efforts to destroy public-sector unions because they also tend to favor Democrats, strike me as objectionable and anti-democratic (as opposed to anti-Democratic) on their face. As a pragmatic centrist in my own politics, I very strongly favor seeking the public good from both sides of the partisan aisle, and it’s not at all clear to me that recent legislation in Wisconsin or elsewhere can be defended as doing this.

Calling ALEC’s activities “objectionable” is obviously a normative valuation. But at this point I’ll diverge from Weber and argue that the distinction between fact and value is a false one. If Cronon had only written that ALEC’s activities were “anti-democratic” (a correct interpretive conclusion to draw based on ALEC’s activities) a normative value would have been already implicit given the American landscape. Further, the Wisconsin Republican party’s rabid response indicates the significance of the valuation already implicit in his choice of topic. Cronon may have been normative but he was hardly incendiary. It was his research into ALEC activities that ticked the Republicans off.

Adorno and Horkheimer

Finally we might turn to the Frankfurt School critical theorists, specifically Horkheimer and Adorno, who thought Kantian “Enlightenment” had reverted to mythology, resulting in a disenchantment of the world that had falsely estranged humans from nature. Influenced by Nietzsche, they gave their critique of Enlightenment a relentlessly critical edge absent from Weber. In Dialectic of Enlightenment, first published in full form in 1947, they claimed that fascism, with its investment in the subject (a critique they would also launch against Friedrich “the last bourgeois philosopher” Nietzsche himself) and barbaric use of instrumental reason, was an apotheosis of the Enlightenment. Yet the reifying ideological effects of instrumental reason were present throughout western society. The Frankfurt School extended a Marxist theory of ideology beyond class divides and combined it with a Lukács-ian theory of reification: all of western thought was suffuse with the ideology of Enlightenment, including Marx himself because of his anthropological reduction of man to ‘worker,’ which reified man and alienated him from a deeper (though never fully defined) conception of nature (man’s own and nature’s). They disparaged positivism, because it accepted the world as it was, and with it pragmatism. At this point it’s hard to see how their broad, nearly totalizing program might have been reconciled with Cronon’s pragmatic centrist (by any standards besides those of contemporary Republicans) foray into state and national politics.

Influenced by Marx and other Left Hegelians from the 19th century, the Frankfurt School rejected radical idealism and conducted research into contemporary issues like the authoritarian family or the ideology of mass culture. Yet they also rejected uncritical empiricism and sought a “middle way” through the possibility of a dialectical social science which would retain negation in its very method. This was a hard course to navigate, as Lloyd Kramer writes in his introduction to The Modernist Imagination:

Critical theorists wanted to affirm their solidarity with reform movements outside the academic world and yet retain a rigorous, intellectual independence, but this complex mediation between two cultural worlds posed a constant challenge for critical-minded intellectuals.

What makes critical theory distinctive is its methodology and way of thinking, yet in attempting to bridge the gap between academia and society, critical thinking and social critique in an era of mass politics, the Frankfurt School and Cronon face similar obstacles. I think it can be argued that in our era the risk of engaging as a public intellectual, particularly when dipping into hot-button issues like union politics, is even more fraught than when the Frankfurt School originally published and when they were picked up by leftists in the 1960s. It seems the main reason that Bill Cronon should be nervous about republicans sifting through his email is that innocuous ideas are easily fragmented and spun into delegitimizing chimeras in the age of hyperactive mass communication. The Frankfurt School may have decried the reifying effects of stable meanings in the modern age; Bill Cronon faces the sometimes treacherous instability of meaning in the postmodern era.

So why bring Critical Theory and Cronon together? What is especially important about the attack against Cronon is the fact that it doesn’t seem to me to have been his substantive critique (small as it was) of ALEC that provoked Republican ire, but the methods (those of a historian) he used in order to research and analyze publicly available information. Cronon engaged in no subterfuge, he merely did what any historian might do when confronted with a question and a topic. Critical thinking brought a particular model of thinking to their topics and Cronon brings a particular methodology. Martin Jay pointed out in the preface to the 1996 edition of Dialectical Imagination, his history of the Frankfurt school that “the academy has become virtually the last refuge of critical thinking of the type epitomized by the Frankfurt school and the opportunities for its practical realization have virtually disappeared” (xx). Cronon and the Frankfurt School may have had very different projects, but both have tried to negotiate the dilemma of being academic social critics. Some in the Frankfurt School would turn more to aesthetics or to utopian visions, while it appears Cronon (Cronon scholars can correct me) has taken a tactic of generally letting the information speak for itself (the Wiki-leaks tactic?). And of course both have benefited from an academy committed to protecting and nurturing critical thinking unencumbered by overt political programs or personal economic interests.

Happily the UW-Madison lawyers have made a strong argument, in its release of Cronon’s emails, for the defense of the protection of academic freedom, refusing to release emails pertaining to intellectual communications among scholars:

Faculty members like Professor Cronon often use e-mail to develop and share their thoughts with one another.  The confidentiality of such discussions is vital to scholarship and to the mission of this university. Faculty members must be afforded privacy in these exchanges in order to pursue knowledge and develop lines of argument without fear of reprisal for controversial findings and without the premature disclosure of those ideas.  The consequence for our state of making such communications public will be the loss of the most talented and creative faculty who will choose to leave for universities that can guarantee them the privacy and confidentiality that is necessary in academia.  For these reasons, we have concluded that the public interest in intellectual communications among scholars as reflected in Professor Cronon’s e-mails is outweighed by other public interests favoring protection of such communications.


Written by Kristen Loveland

April 3, 2011 at 20:55

3 Responses

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  1. Awesome post! Anything that combines Kant and Louis CK makes me inexpressibly happy.


    April 4, 2011 at 10:58

  2. Great post! Love Louis CK. Saw him do a 45 minute set at the comedy festival in Montreal and he killed. I think you should just submit this post as an essay for your exams and be done with ’em.


    April 4, 2011 at 11:34

  3. […] many books, led to my throwing a rope into the real world with posts on Octomom, jury duty, and the Cronon Affair (the latter also including an excellent review of German philosophy for anyone doing a Euro […]

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