The Double-Consciousness of the Academic Historian

By Lewis, Jan | Journal of Social History, Winter 1996 | Go to article overview

The Double-Consciousness of the Academic Historian


Lewis, Jan, Journal of Social History


We in academe like to think that we are set apart from the rest of the world. It is not only, that, as Peter Stearns notes, as a group we historians are more liberal than most Americans, and that probably most of us have been dismayed by the rightward turn American politics took with the election of Ronald Reagan. Even when national political trends are more to our liking, we still stand apart from our society, for it is our role to be critics. Yet at the same time that we stand at a distance from our society, we are also deeply enmeshed in it, both by virtue of what we take from it and what we give back. We are paid, many of us by public institutions, to teach, and our worth to our students is measured by how well we prepare them for entry into the very society that we must criticize. With apologies to W.E.B. Du Bois, we experience a double-consciousness, situated as we are both inside and outside of our societies. The tensions that this situation produces are inescapable, and at times like the present, when the distance grows between the society that we would wish to inhabit and the one that we necessarily serve, those tensions can seem almost unbearable. Yet it is only by facing this double-consciousness squarely and by understanding its implications that we will be able to confront the current crisis in our profession, of which the assault upon social history is a part.

I believe that most of us understand our role as critics well enough that I need not discuss it any further, although it should perhaps be noted that our critical role itself embodies a tension, between the ideological premises upon which some of our critical perspective is grounded and professional expertise, which is supposed to be free from ideology. As critics and as experts, we take nothing for granted; all is grist for the mill. Received wisdom, no matter from whom it is received, is always to be held up to scrutiny. It is by engaging in criticism that we draw the ire of those who are today most heavily invested in traditional interpretations of American history, those on the anxiously self-congratulatory Right. Peter Stearns has asked us how we should confront this anger. Most of his proposals focus on how we should present ourselves as critics. I would suggest that we begin by remembering that we are simultaneously participating members in the very society we hold up to scrutiny. Lack of clarity about the nature of our work has enabled our adversaries to gain an advantage in the struggle to capture public support.

Let us begin by considering what happened to us in the 1980s. According to right-wing critics, a bunch of '60s radicals got tenured; at the time that the rest of the nation was turning to the right, academe was offering permanent refuge to those who supposedly were out of step with the country's new direction. Yet anyone who has worked on a university campus since the Reagan revolution knows that, far from resisting Reaganomics, academic institutions adopted it almost without question. At most universities, the social hierarchy replicates the one in the rest of the nation. At the bottom are the untenured, part-time instructors, almost 40% of college and university faculties nationwide.(1) At the top are the professors with endowed chairs, whose salaries, exclusive of benefits, begin at six digits. The rest of us are somewhere in between, making a comfortable living, although far less than our friends who have gone into medicine, law, business or other professions that require advanced degrees. Rather than questioning our own system, most of us try to play its angles, and why not? After all, it would be nice to be able to afford to send our kids to the universities at which we teach. Take this complaint to the Dean and he will tell you that if you bring him (or occasionally, her) an outside offer, he will match it, but otherwise there's nothing he can do. Like good Reaganauts, we go out to demonstrate our worth on the open market. …

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