Civic Studies as a response to crises in American higher education

This is a panel at the American Enterprise Institute yesterday, part of a daylong conference on “The Future of the American University: Civic Education, Past and Present.” I am on the panel with Justin Dyer, the dean of the new School of Civic Leadership at the University of Texas at Austin, and our moderator, AEI’s Yuval Levin. I made a case for Civic Studies as a new field and then enjoyed the discussion with my two colleagues and the interesting questions from the audience.

The rest of the day was interesting and valuable and can be explored here.

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on the current crisis

Almost every day, I am in conversations about protests on US college campuses. Some of these encounters take place at Tufts (in committees or one-on-one with students and colleagues), but I have also been part of discussions at Stanford, Harvard, and Providence College, and in DC–just to mention events during April.

In decades past, I would have posted frequent reflections here. These days, I am relatively quiet. I hear the argument that people in positions like mine should speak out more. I think I disagree, for four reasons.

First, although taking positions can be appropriate, or even obligatory, it can create challenges if one wants to facilitate open discussions in settings like classrooms or if one wants to advise and help people who have divergent views. I am privileged to receive requests for advice from people with almost the full range of positions on Israel/Palestine, and my interpretation of my own professional role is that I ought to try to help them all.

Second, I often find myself wrestling with what individuals have said in various settings. Sometimes I am moved, challenged, and educated, and sometimes I am somewhat appalled. However, these tend to be confidential statements that are not suitable for public assessment.

Third, although I believe that everyone has a right to form and express opinions, there is also value in talking when you have a solid basis for your views and listening when you don’t. Restraint is especially important for people in my kind of position (as a full professor and associate dean)–people whose opinions may have more weight than they deserve. Just because I teach Civic Studies does not mean that anyone needs to listen to me about Israel/Palestine.

Fourth, there are other people who should be heard: those whose views are well-informed, complex, and challenging in various ways. I feel an obligation to find and share those voices but not to compete with them. (Just as one example: “Najwan Darwish on living in doubt.”)

For whatever it may be worth, my views on Israel/Palestine would probably align best with “What being pro-Palestine means to me / my platform” by Ahmed Fouad Alkhatib. He is sharply critical of both Hamas and the Israeli government. My views on campus speech and civil disobedience are libertarian, with a strong tilt toward countering speech with speech instead of banning or punishing it. (And yes, that does also apply to really nasty speech.) In thinking about movement tactics and strategy, I’d go back to Bayard Rustin’s “From Protest to Politics” (1965). I’d interpret nonviolence not as a set of restrictions (i.e., don’t cause physical harm) but as a powerful repertoire of strategies that can accomplish political goals while increasing the odds that the activists themselves will be wise. (Please join this summer’s Frontiers of Democracy conference for more discussion of that topic.) Finally, I would support efforts to promote dialogue and listening across differences, but not to the exclusion of adversarial rhetoric, which is also essential in a democracy.

The previous paragraph was something of a disclosure, and I will regret making it if it discourages people who disagree with any of it from engaging with me.

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the humanities as civic education

Heads bent over copies of the same text, young people discuss how the author presents matters of high moral import. Their teacher is a facilitator who asks thoughtful questions and demonstrates reading with attention and care.

This is how I was introduced to college, through the Directed Studies “great books” program at Yale in the 1980s. Similar methods persist and are being revived at institutions like Stanford, which has recently enacted a Civic, Liberal, and Global Education requirement.

The approach dates back at least to 14th-century Italy, when Cicero’s phrase studia humanitatis became the name for a curriculum and pedagogy designed mainly for future political leaders. We might render his phrase (from Pro Archia 2:3) as the “studies appropriate for making people humane or urbane.” Gradually, a humanista became the word for a tutor–often a layman–who helped gentlemen read literature, history, and moral philosophy in order to become eloquent and virtuous. This is the origin of the “humanities,” a word that has been closely associated with notions of civic leadership and civic virtue.

I appreciate this humanistic style of civic education and would support using it more widely. By the way, there is no good reason to restrict the assigned texts to a portion of the world labeled “The West” or to label the curriculum “Western Civilization” (using a phrase that’s not very old). Texts can come from anywhere, although it makes sense to choose traditions or dialogues that extend across time. For example: from the Bhagavad Gita and the Gospels to Thoreau, Tolstoy and Gandhi. Or from the Republic to al-Farabi to Utopia to Rousseau to the Communist Manifesto to the Ayatollah Khomeini.

However, this version of humanistic civic education conflicts with several other plausible educational theories.

One rival idea is that the humanities are cumulative research programs that benefit from specialization. On this account, we don’t want a person who wrote a thesis about Plath to teach Plato. Plato should be taught by a scholar who knows Greek, the original context, and the recent literature and its interpretive problems. Reading texts from across time and space is amateurish. It extracts the texts from their contexts and teaches students that they are free to form opinions without doing much homework.

Another rival idea assumes that citizenship is really about addressing current social problems. In that case, the most important intellectual skill is understanding and applying relevant empirical information. Instead of reading Plato or Plath, students should create literature reviews of recent social science and learn how to assess abstracts, methodology sections, and results critically. Quantitative skills become more important; interpreting texts, less so.

A third idea is that people should prepare for responsible civic engagement by learning a set of concepts. We can debate the list, but it might include separation of powers, opportunity costs, social stratification, and habeas corpus, among (many) others. Maybe students won’t remember long lectures or textbook assignments about these topics, in which case a more engaging pedagogy would be more effective. But the point is to transfer such concepts to the learners.

A fourth idea is that civic learning must be deeply experiential because it is primarily about interpersonal relationships, practical knowledge, and an appreciation of one’s specific communities. It cannot come primarily from books. Alexis de Tocqueville and John Dewey are famous proponents of the idea that we should learn the arts of citizenship from civic engagement outside the classroom.

It’s tempting to endorse all five of these ideas, but they trade off, especially given limited time and resources.

See also: core curricula without the concept of the West; “The world wants the humanities”; the public purposes of the humanities (a brief history)–from 2013;

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against using the humanities instrumentally

Imagine this scenario: most college students major in humanities disciplines, while the applied sciences languish. The National Endowment for the Humanities spends 250 times as much money as the National Institutes for Health, instead of vice-versa.

Kindly humanists recognize the value of the applied sciences and gather among themselves to consider how to involve their STEM colleagues in their research. For instance, some humanities professors might be working on the 2025 presidential theme of the Modern Language Association: visibility and invisibility in various kinds of texts. Others are addressing the theme of the American Historical Association’s presidential address: “conversations with the dead.” After brainstorming ways for STEM colleagues to contribute to these agendas, they might come up with proposals. Maybe computer scientists could build a website for presenting the invisible aspects of texts? Come to think of it, the WiFi in the Humanities Center seems a little unreliable–could the Comp. Sci. department help with that?

This is satire, but I want to challenge well-intentioned ways that STEM researchers and administrators often view the humanities. Basically, they assume that important agendas come from the applied sciences, including the biomedical fields. The humanities are worth consulting in two main ways.

First, humanists might be able to address the ethical questions that arise in engineering or health projects. In my view, applied ethics is important, but it involves a tiny proportion of humanists. Besides, if the agenda is already determined, then the ethical horizon is narrow. For example, the question is not whether to have private tech. companies, but how they should design AI tools.

Second, STEM people sometimes hope that humanists can help with communication–they can frame convincing messages for the public good. But humanists are more typically interested in reading against texts, or understanding the relationships among texts, or interpreting especially complex texts that are not particularly accessible, or challenging the assumptions in texts. Studying these questions does not make one particularly good at communicating with broad audiences.

I believe in the engaged or public or civic humanities. I don’t think that humanities professors should set their own agendas in isolation and expect society to pay for their work. I argue that humanists must engage the diverse public in two-way conversations, affecting the public debate while also responding to it.

Therefore, I see value in interdisciplinary projects that originate in the STEM disciplines and that involve limited numbers of humanists. As a philosophy PhD, I often find myself in such roles and enjoy them. But most of the potential is lost if the STEM fields always set the agendas and if the humanities are seen as merely useful around the edges.

See also: “The world wants the humanities”; what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; Tisch Program in Public Humanities

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“The world wants the humanities”

In his 2023 MLA Presidential Address (“Criticism After This Crisis: Toward a National Strategy for Literary and Cultural Study”), Christopher Newfield argues that the humanities must stop trying to preserve their meagre support and instead win major new investments to “allow our fields to reach their intellectual potential, to help solve global society’s hardest cultural problems, to reach the least advantaged and the non-college populace more broadly, to create knowledge at the desired intensity and scale, and to give a proper employment future to our early-career scholars” (p. 17).

Part of his diagnosis is that policymakers and academic leaders don’t really see the humanities as research fields. In turn, this is because humanists receive very little funding: one tenth of one percent of federal research dollars in 2019 (p. 6). The humanities hardly figure on balance sheets, which means that they hardly count toward the research enterprise of a university, which is typically dominated by engineering and health.

I would add that positivism remains a strong intellectual force. People who believe that all knowledge is scientific knowledge have trouble recognizing the intellectual rigor of disciplines that involve thick descriptions of particulars, abductive reasoning about cases, and normative argumentation, which are fundamental to the humanities.

Years ago, I heard a University of Maryland biologist recommending that his students try a course in “art appreciation” for the experience (and perhaps for an easy A). Of course, Maryland does not teach “appreciation.” The history and criticism of art are forms of research as demanding as biology. But they are particularistic, interpretive, and (in complex ways) evaluative disciplines, not sciences. To a positivist scientist, they can sound like hobbies. When they receive no federal funding, that cements the impression.

Another part of Newfield’s diagnosis is that the growth of the humanities in the USA after the Second World War relied on ideological rationales that are not justifiable, nor do they motivate today’s humanists, students, or taxpayers. These rationales included “establish[ing] the US as the cultural heir to Britain as the primary global superpower,” producing cultural criticism that was not critical of the economy, supplying cultural capital to bourgeois graduates, supporting the existing two-party democratic system (thus foreclosing radical alternatives), and–after the 1960s–offering “nonthreatening” spaces for students of color, women, and others.

The alternative rationale that Newfield suggests is that the humanities can help the country “develop the subjectivities, the forms of expression, the understandings of its real cultural histories, the interpersonal affects, the pervasive multilingualism, the public self-reflection that will build a postimperial and post-technocratic order” (pp. 13-14). He observes that social movements demand such work, and he thinks that substantial investments in the humanities would yield more prominent and exciting results that would attract even more support. The problem is not demand, but supply, which can be remedied by more funds.

Near the conclusion of his address, Newfield says: “Society wants the abilities and the knowledges that we create. Our many allies in that society want us to help them make a revolution in culture. This society calls on us. …”

I quote and cite Newfield because I find his analysis useful and inspiring. But I am also somewhat skeptical.

Reading his address, you might envision three groups. One group is “society,” or the people, who are mobilized into social movements that make “popular counterdemands” against “anti- Black police violence, anti-Asian racism, border incarceration, transphobia, the jailing of water protectors, the suppression of nonsuburban voters” (14), and so on. A second group consists of professional humanists, who at least want to work “in relation to these unofficial or popular demands coming from social movements and communities historically excluded from official knowledge production.” The third (and rather shadowy) group consists of politicians and college administrators who oppose such efforts.

I do recognize all three types, but what about members of the public who have other values–religious people, patriotic people, people who are concerned about social disorder, or (indeed) conventional liberals who favor the values on which the Postwar humanities rested? These citizens may not see themselves reflected in the agendas of the humanities professoriate. As for the professors, they encompass quite a range, including a large number who are not so much conservative as fundamentally apolitical.

I can stipulate that some people hold values that are bad. I would also acknowledge that public opinion has causes. Americans would believe and desire different things if the society invested much more in the academic humanities and proportionately less in cable news, partisan advertising, Hollywood, social media platforms, gaming, and organized religion. In that sense, Newfield is right that “demand” is not a root cause but is part of a more complex system–both a cause and a consequence.

Nevertheless, I am reluctant to reduce other people’s values to propaganda. And even if we do subject conservative (or non-radical) values to critique, they are prevalent, and they create opposition to a progressive vision for the humanities. They complicate the claim that “the world wants the humanities.”

One solution is for humanists to engage the world–to talk and listen to a wide range of fellow people, including those who do not share their politics. This happens in some public humanities projects based in academia. It happens more often in the State Humanities Councils and the nonprofit organizations that they fund. The main political explanation for the survival of the National Endowment for the Humanities is the state Councils, whose broad and active constituency influences Congress. But the state Councils tend to focus on local history, often in basically celebratory ways, rather than critical literary studies or philosophy. One could imagine a substantial increase in public investment in this kind of public humanities. It would expand the number of people involved with humanistic work, including research. But it would not directly fund academic humanists to do highly critical research about the culture around them.

See also: what the humanities contribute to interdisciplinary research projects; what are the humanities? (basic points for non-humanists); an empirical study of the humanities; how to keep political science in touch with politics.

Max Weber on institutional neutrality

In a recent open letter, the Academic Freedom Alliance, Heterodox Academy, and the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression say:

In recent years, colleges and universities have increasingly weighed in on social and political issues. This has led our institutions of higher education to become politicized and has created an untenable situation whereby they are expected to weigh in on all social and political issues.

Most critically, these stances risk establishing an orthodox view on campus, threatening the pursuit of knowledge for which higher education exists.

Their recommendation: “if an academic institution is not required to adopt a position in order to fulfill its mission of intellectual freedom or operational capacity, it is required not to adopt a position.” They advise universities to enact versions of the 1967 University of Chicago Kelven report, and many institutions are doing so.

My own views on this matter are complex and conflicted. I am rarely impressed by universities’ statements on political issues. These pronouncements don’t model good participation in the public sphere, and they might chill dissent. However, I doubt that many people have really thought through what it would mean for an institution to refrain from stating or implying views on contested issues. Also, I am a proponent of institutional diversity and can imagine that we should want universities to adopt diverse missions and relationships to the society.

But I am not writing to adopt a stance. Instead, I want to recommend a close reading of Max Weber’s “The Meaning of ‘Ethical Neutrality’ in Sociology and Economics,” which Weber drafted during the First World War, when German universities were being called to support one side in a total war (Weber 1917/1949). In many ways, it sounds like a commentary on our moment–and Weber is a deep thinker.

His conclusion is rather like that of the Kelven Report. He would endorse the report’s view that the “great and unique role” of the university is “the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge”–not criticism or advocacy.

To get there, Weber explicitly cites philosophical premises that don’t seem sustainable to me, above all a “complete distinction” between facts and values (“the evaluative sphere and the empirical sphere,” p. 32), and an assumption that value conflicts “are entirely a matter of choice or compromise” that cannot be settled by any “scientific procedure of any kind” (19). Weber assumes that ethical maxims are “in eternal conflict” (16). I agree that there will always be debate about values, but Weber dismisses the scholarly consideration of them, e.g., in philosophy.

However, Weber complicates his premises in interesting ways. He notes that in order to understand and interpret culture, one must have the “capacity for evaluating” it (33). People create culture to advance values, and an inability to think evaluatively would make human choices unintelligible. I would ask: what does that mean about the education of scholars? Might there be room for the cultivation of ethical and aesthetic judgment?

Weber acknowledges that the comparative, empirical study of ethical (or religious) views can undermine students’ faith in all such views. In that sense, sociology is not neutral and may be a corrosive force (14). He also suggests that–“ultimately”–individuals must choose their own “meaning,” which sounds to me like a liberal, individualistic, and secular view, not a neutral one (18).

Weber recognizes that the selection of problems and topics in the social sciences depends on values, and “cultural (i.e. evaluative) interests give purely empirical scientific work its direction” (21-22). However, he gives this issue little attention, even though it seems fundamental to me and he does discuss it elsewhere (Weber 1905). A university could decide not to publish statements in response to major news events yet drastically expand its research on business applications of Artificial Intelligence while closing its classics department. That hardly seems neutral to me.

In his 1905 essay, Weber had acknowledged that a given intellectual institution–in that case, a major journal that he edited–might strive for neutrality and expressly invite “all political standpoints,” yet it could manifest a certain “character” due to the group of people who gravitate to it. For instance, his journal had mainly attracted non-revolutionary economic progressives (Weber 1905, 62). One could argue that modern American universities also have “characters” (one or more per institution) that are not the result of intentional policies but that diverge from neutrality, for better or worse.

Weber’s situation differs from ours because all German universities in his time were state institutions. In a footnote, he considers the Dutch model, which allowed anyone to create a university as long as it met basic standards. This sounds rather like our policy today. He objects that “it gives the advantage to those with large sums of money and groups which are already in power” (7).

That sounds familiar, and so do Weber’s other targets in the essay. He devotes several pages (35-40) to economists who smuggle strong normative assumptions into their ostensibly scientific models. He is annoyed by obvious partisans who define their positions as the ethically neutral ones (6) and by those who claim that a moderate position or a “‘statesman-like’ compromise” is neutral, when it is just another view that may even be harder than other positions to analyze critically (10). In the earlier essay (Weber 1905, 57), he had written that a centrist stance “is not truer even by a hair’s breadth, than the most extreme party ideals of the right and left.”

Weber alludes critically to colleagues who feel that asking professors to separate their political roles outside the classroom from their teaching duties injures their personalities (5). A central Weberian idea is that modernity requires increasing segmentation into roles.

Weber criticizes the kind of academic who uses data to demonstrate that certain political ideas are unrealistic, as if this were a scientific finding. “The possible is often reached only by striving to attain the impossible that lies beyond it” (24).

He acknowledges that students tend to prefer professors who express opinions in the classroom, and that universities need to hire popular teachers to compete for students, but he maintains that the teacher’s proper job is to inspire “a taste for sober empirical analysis” (9).

When he calls for “the professional thinker” to “keep a cool head” and “swim against the stream” of public opinion (47), Weber is targeting German nationalists and revolutionary socialists.

Weber also objects that academics opine on certain contested issues even though other questions–such as the German monarchy–are officially off limits. He says that the dignified response to partial censorship would be silence (8).

He finds a certain kind of (unnamed) colleague “altogether repugnant.”

An unprecedented situation exists when a large number of officially accredited prophets do not do their preaching on the streets, or in churches or other public places or in sectarian conventicles, but rather feel themselves competent to enunciate their evaluations on ultimate questions “in the name of science” in govenmentally privileged lecture halls in which they are neither controlled, checked by discussion nor subject to contradiction (4).

I suppose that many of us today would recognize this description yet would disagree about whom it describes.

Sources: Weber, M. (1917/1949). The Meaning of “Ethical Neutrality” in Sociology and Economics. In E.A. Shils, & H.A. Finch (Eds.), Max Weber on The Methodology of the Social Sciences (pp. 1–49). Glencoe Ill.: The Free Press; and Weber (1905/1949), “Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy, in ibid (pp. 50- 112). See also: Activism and Objectivity in Political Research; The Democratic Mission of Higher Education; when does a narrower range of opinions reflect learning?; right and left on campus today; academic freedom for individuals and for groupsvaccination, masking, political polarization, and the authority of science; values of a university; etc.

the Tufts prison program and Civic Studies

Rachelle Cohen writes in the Boston Globe:

As a child, Juan Pagan was physically abused by his father. By the time he was 16, his mother, who had battled mental illness all her life, was in prison, and Pagan was expelled from school and had run away from home. His only family became the Lowell gang he was a part of. In May 2006 he stabbed a member of a rival gang, Alexander Castro Santos, and was convicted the following year of first-degree murder — a charge reduced to second-degree in 2008, giving him the possibility of parole down the road.

Now 33, he’ll be awarded his bachelor’s degree from Tufts University Tuesday. He’ll collect it at a ceremony at MCI-Concord along with nine other incarcerated students in the first-ever graduating class of the Tufts University Prison Initiative of the Tisch College of Civic Life.

I’m proud of my colleagues who make this program work, and, above all, proud of the graduates.

These students are earning degrees in Civic Studies, the major that we have developed at Tufts as part of an informal, international network devoted to this emerging field. The Tufts Civic Studies students who are incarcerated often say that the major is ideal because it helps them to understand and change systems. They are part of an international community that consists of hundreds of people who have participated in Summer Institutes of Civic Studies at Tufts, in Europe, and at James Madison University since 2009, plus those who study this subject on Tufts’ main campus.

See also: teaching about institutions, in a prison; article about the Civic Studies major

Maria Avila et al., Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change: Stories of Relational Organizing on Campus and Beyond

Maria Avila is a great community organizer in the tradition of the Industrial Areas Foundation. I often assign her writing to introduce students to principles and strategies for organizing. For instance, this fall, our undergraduates read chapters of her Transformative Civic Engagement Through Community Organizing.

Her latest book is Building Collective Leadership for Culture Change: Stories of Relational Organizing on Campus and Beyond (Cornell University Press, 2023), which she wrote with contributions from Aixle Aman Rivera, Joanna B. Perez, Alan P. Knoerr, Kathleen Tornow Chai, and Philip A. Vieira and a foreword by George J. Sánchez.

This book reflects Maria’s turn to organizing in and from academia. After working in organizations in Chicago and Ciudad Juarez and organizing intensively in neighborhoods in Los Angeles and Albuquerque, she earned a PhD and held positions at Cal State Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) and Occidental College. She says she has used “parts of [the IAF organizing] model to guide my work” in academic jobs “and throughout my doctoral and postdoctoral research” (p. 34). Building Collective Leadership is about being “a civically engaged scholar and organizer,” one who “work[s] with others to create a more democratic, collaborative culture in academic institutions where I work, and in the communities with which I partner (p. 52).”

The model that Maria employs has five very practical components (pp. 38-9).

She starts by “conducting relational one-on-one meetings with people I think might be interested in my work, to learn about people’s self-interest through sharing personal and/or professional stories.”

One-on-one meetings are fundamental to the IAF approach and have a particular character. They are two-way conversations that explore connections between the discussants’ personal values and interests and shared or public issues. These meetings create relationships that are assets for public work. They are not simply friendly and private, nor are they transactional–trying to get another person to do or agree to something. They are the first step in deciding together what we should do.

Maria then invites people who have resonated to her work to join “projects I am working on, based on their interests.” She creates spaces where these people can share their “personal and professional stories,” make and execute plans, and reflect. She educates others about the organizing methods that she has learned and has helped to develop, and she organizes discussions (based on readings) about relevant methods, such as “participatory research in action, narrative inquiry, community organizing, and civically engaged scholarship.”

Building Collective Leadership describes such processes at generally increasing scales. Chapters 1 and 2 are mostly about Maria’s own background and research. In chapter 3, she and her colleagues Kathleen Tornow Chai and Enrique Ortega describe one-on-one interviews and intensive group discussions within CSUDH’s College of Health, Human Services, and Nursing, which shifted the culture of that academic unit.

In chapter 4, Aixle Aman Rivera and Ray López-Chang discuss a partnership involving Maria and a Los Angeles Unified School Board district that changed its office culture and daily practices. In chapter 5, the focus shifts to regional organizing across Southern California and a project to build an intercollegiate chapter of the national network known as Imagining America, which emphasizes the humanities and arts. Chapter 6 describes a particular Imagining America research project that connected CSUDH to student-led and community-based groups. Chapter 7 discusses a reform of the curriculum at CSUDH, when civic engagement was built into the General Education requirements. Importantly, this effort involved community partners from the start.

The book reflects many voices, sometimes in the form of co-authored narratives and sometimes as explicit dialogues among participants. Quite a few of the contributors use the opportunity to criticize prevailing norms and systems of US higher education. For example, CSUDH professor Joanna B. Perez contrasts her “parents’ teachings of humility, community, and service” to “the egocentric and competitive nature of academia” (p. 188). Maria aspires to act “in a relational and hopefully more humane way than what the competitive and siloed academic culture tends to allow” (p. 223).

These critical reactions fuel the desire for change. Speaking for myself, I think that higher education deserves criticism. But I also observe that people who effectively use relational organizing methods within institutions, such as universities or government agencies, often demonstrate underlying care, affection, and loyalty for those institutions and their people (including their leaders). In the terms defined by Albert O. Hirschman, they opt to use “voice” rather than “exit” because they are loyal. The missions, histories, and particular roles of entities like a Cal. State public university inspire them.

I say this because I think that community organizing is effective when there is some alignment between the organizer and the institution. When that is completely absent, it is better to organize outside the institution.

If you are a socialist, you should not take a job at a bank, thinking that it has a lot of money and you can organize from within to distribute the money to the people. You will be endlessly frustrated. You would be better off organizing pressure on the bank from outside–from governments, unions, or social movements–or possibly trying to build some kind of cooperative alternative to a bank that can compete with it effectively. Likewise, if you are a true libertarian, you should probably not become a civil servant, unless you are willing to treat your job as Ron Swanson does and gain your personal satisfaction elsewhere.

(To complicate the advice of the previous paragraph, I acknowledge that you might be a little bit of a socialist or a mild libertarian and still think that you can be helpful working for a bank or a government program. Or you might feel you have no choice: there is nowhere to work except at organizations you despise. But in the latter case, you should try to get out of this bind as soon as possible.)

If you do basically appreciate an institution, such as a university, then organizing within it will sometimes be frustrating and will sometimes fail, but it can be deeply satisfying. You will be able to use mission statements and official policies as resources, since you want to reduce the gap between public promises and actual performance. You will find some programs, funding streams, offices, and positions that are useful for your cause. You should be able to identify allies, since other employees (and students) will be drawn to the organization for similar reasons as yours. One-on-one interviews can reveal such shared motivations. If you’re fortunate, your work will be rewarded by colleagues and even supervisors, since you are fundamentally committed to their common purpose. I think it’s OK to acknowledge your love for an institution that you critically engage.

To be an effective organizer, you do not need positional power: the ability to tell subordinates what to do. Aman Rivera and López-Chang note that their purported positional power as city officials was often illusory, anyway (p. 109). (On the other hand, if you happen to hold a high office, Maria’s methods can still be useful for you). You do need hope, relationships, and good strategies. Building Collective Leadership exemplifies all three.

Activism and Objectivity in Political Research

I agree with the main argument of Michael L. Frazer’s “Activism and Objectivity in Political Research (Perspectives on Politics 2023, 21(4), 2023, pp. 1258-1269). Objectivity is usually a red herring. What we need is “active engagement with inconvenient evidence.” Frazer uses the word “evidence” to encompass both empirical data and conceptual or normative arguments. Evidence is inconvenient if it complicates or challenges our prior beliefs.

As Frazer argues, engagement with inconvenient evidence strengthens both research and activism. Therefore, the valuable question is not whether activist academics should or can be objective, but how any kind of thinker should engage with inconvenient evidence.

People who are both scholars and committed activists have the advantage that they know what they stand for, which can help them recognize which evidence they should wrestle with because it’s inconvenient. However, their engaged stance may make them resistant to such evidence. In contrast, a highly detached scholar may be less aware of implicit assumptions that need to be challenged, yet more comfortable exploring diverse views. I happen to value both kinds of colleagues.

I would add that scholars can be activists in many different ways. For example, I have served on about 30 non-academic boards or committees that make collective decisions. Sometimes in these deliberations, I present inconvenient evidence. This can be my particular contribution as an academic–someone who has the time and scope to explore a range of ideas. On the other hand, sometimes I hold back because I am sensitive to group dynamics and I believe that the organization has value even if I can’t completely endorse its current theory-of-change. Besides, tact is a virtue.

Sometimes I refrain from publicly expressing views that would challenge the public stance of a group to which I belong. On the other hand, involvement with a group may make me aware of current assumptions that I then want to study critically. In such cases, being an activist scholar actually promotes my engagement with inconvenient evidence. But I may choose the slower and quieter medium of academic scholarship or a seminar room to explore complications, so that I don’t disrupt the immediate needs of a group. Exiting and publicly disagreeing always remain options.

Belonging to groups involves literal accountability. I could be removed from a committee. A fiduciary board assesses staff and makes decisions about personnel and budget. Speech in this context has tangible implications and raises many ethical considerations.

The situation is very different if one’s activism consists mainly of addressing public audiences as an individual writer or speaker. Forcefully saying simple things may attract the most attention, but fame is a lure and temptation. I often wish that public intellectuals would be more humble and less certain.

We may also be hired to play a role within an organization, whether that is an academic entity like a university or a nonprofit or government agency. Then we are responsible for the effects of our public speech on our colleagues and students or clients. The organization may need to engage with inconvenient evidence, but introducing difficult ideas may not be timely or appropriate for a given employee. For instance, when you have positional authority over someone else, it can be wise to hold back one’s skeptical thoughts.

I would start with a view much like Frazer’s–and I appreciate his literature review–but I would then explore what “engagement with inconvenient evidence” means for people who play various roles in various social contexts. Often the genuine virtue of intellectual humility is in tension with other valid needs, and the question is how to negotiate those tradeoffs. To make matters even more complicated, many of us play multiple roles, and we fall on continua rather than within discrete categories. For instance, one may be more or less open to inconvenient evidence of various types while spending various amounts of one’s time and energy performing various functions in settings as diverse as a department meeting, a lecture room, a team writing a grant proposal, a community meeting, a political campaign, and a protest action. Both the ethical and epistemic issues are quite diverse and hard.

See also: making our models explicit; analytical moral philosophy as a way of life; du Bois: “Organization is sacrifice.”; Civically Engaged Research in Political Science; Henry Milner, Participant/Observer: An Unconventional Life in Politics and Academia

spammy academic invitations

I am getting an average of more than one invitation to contribute to a journal every day. They are generally dubious, and some are deliciously so. These are among my favorites from the past two weeks:

Dear Doctor. Levine Peter,

Hope you are doing good…!

This is a reminder mail as we have not received any response from your end regarding manuscript submision.

The  Journal of Clinical and Medical Images (ISSN 2640-9615) (IF – 2.6)” is pleased to submit your valuable research to our esteemed journal.

Dear Levine Peter

We hope this letter finds you in good health and high spirits. It gives us great pleasure to cordially extend our invitation to you to attend the IPHC 2024 event. …

Greetings Levine P,

We have genuinely emailed you quite a lot of times but received no response, so we’d like to try once more as courtesy.

The most recent issue (New Edition) is missing one article. Could you please aid us by putting forward an article to this edition of the Journal of Pulmonology and Respiratory Research

Dear Doctor,

Hope you are doing well.

As you being eminent author in the field who have contributed excellent work. With an immense pleasure, we would like to request to help us release best quality articles for the Upcoming issue of the journal.

Dear Dr. Levine P,

Wishes for the day!

We are excited to announce the Call for submissions, an engaging platform for researchers, academics, and industry professionals to share their latest findings and insights. This invitation is dedicated to promoting open access to knowledge and fostering collaboration.

We invite you to contribute your expertise by submitting your research papers on diverse topics within Emergency Preparedness. This is an opportunity to showcase your work to a global audience and be part of meaningful discussions on the latest trends and advancements.

Hi, Doctor,

Greetings from “Current trends in Internal Medicine”

We have gone through your recent publications, have found them interesting, and are of Superior Quality. We would be grateful if you can submit your next paper for our volume-7, issue-04.

We are looking forward for a long and productive relationship with you.
Hoping for your positive reply.
Have a nice day.