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On Scholarship and Public Life

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I was an undergraduate in the seventies, and my education included more than a little protest and activism. I was aware that my liberal arts school had a reputation for activism, and I was proud to be part of it. I returned to Wesleyan University as president more than four years ago, and even though now some of this activism is directed against me, I still take pride in this tradition of alma mater. In the last few years, we've tried to integrate that concern with politics and public culture into the curriculum -- notably with a College of the Environment, and a new interdisciplinary minor in Civic Engagement.

Wesleyan is hardly alone in developing paths for connecting what we teach on campus to the lives that our students will lead as citizens. The Duke Center for Civic Engagement, the Simpson Center for the Humanities at the University of Washington, Macalester College's Center for Civic Engagement, and Campus Compact organizations across the country are just a sample of programs that connect higher education to work in community. Over the last few years there have been several books, such as Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, that make the case that the liberal arts provide essential lessons for citizens in a democracy. Although surveys at some prestigious Ivy League schools in recent years seemed to indicate a narrowing post-graduate focus on Wall Street as the path to riches, generations of students and faculty have been finding ways to connect what they study on campus to their lives as citizens and activists. As the description of Wesleyan's Allbritton Center for the Study of Public Life puts it:

University-based intellectuals have been rethinking their connection to the greater public and, consequently, are forging knowledge-seeking alliances with innovators and leaders in government and the corporate world. Social scientists are developing innovative and productive relationships with other sectors of the public, including artists, grass-roots activists, and independent scholars.

And it's not just social scientists who are developing these relationships. You can find faculty across the curriculum doing so.

Many universities with a focus on undergraduate education demand that their faculty excel at a variety of tasks. Faculty are often encouraged to connect their intellectual work to issues that matter to the world off campus -- to Public Life with a capital P and a capital L. But do we want ALL the research of the university to be responding to issues of Public Life? How about basic research in the sciences? Does our faculty have to justify this kind of specialization by looping the work back to some political or social issue? Does detailed research in literature and languages have to be public (read "popular") in order to be considered responsible? In other words, is there an emerging dispensation considering a connection to "Public Life" the litmus test for research?

I've been led to ask this question by some recent discussions concerning historians and the public stimulated by Anthony Grafton, a wonderfully gifted scholar who is now president of the American Historical Association. Grafton has rightly defended the importance of basic research in the humanities and social sciences, but he has also called on historians to fight back against those who manipulate the past without concern for fundamental notions of evidence, argument or honesty. In other words, he wants to ensure that scholars can continue to work on topics that might not appear to be immediately useful, but he also wants to see some scholars engage in questions in the public sphere on the basis of their academic work. Not all the scholarship has to be about civic engagement, but we need some scholars to engage in the public sphere to protect the right to do that basic research.

In addition to engaged scholarship, university leaders should be proud to have faculty and students working on topics because of their intense desire to know more about something that has come to seem important to them. Grafton puts it this way:

We're modeling honest, first-hand inquiry. That austere, principled quest for knowledge matters: matters more than ever in the current media world, in which lies about the past, like lies about the present, move faster than ever before. The problem is that it's a quest without a Grail. The best conclusions we can draw, scrutinizing our evidence and our inferences as fiercely and scrupulously as we can, will be provisional.

We support a culture of inquiry on our campuses, one that is willing to live with the provisional, so long as we have the opportunity to work honestly, intensively and with the necessary tools (e.g., equipment, languages, documents).

A connection to the public shouldn't be the litmus test for scholarship, but there should be such a test -- at least at institutions that claim to have a commitment to undergraduate education. That test should be a connection to the classroom, to the "modeling" of inquiry. Research should have a positive feedback loop with teaching. We are committed to sabbaticals, grants and other support because faculty research enlivens pedagogy and learning on campus. That's what the scholar-teacher model is all about.

When asked about the most rewarding part of his distinguished, prolific career as a historian, Grafton recently responded "teaching." I know that many of my colleagues across the country would echo that notion. Connecting research and undergraduate learning, engaging students in the work of advancing the fields in which we teach, opening their minds to new possibilities in these subject areas and for themselves as independent thinkers, are some of the joys of working in higher education. This should be the heart of the "public life" (small "p", small "l") of higher education.