On Being a White Eastern Intellectual — But hopefully not an Elitist one

On Being a White Eastern Intellectual — But, hopefully, NOT an Elitist one

Ann Withorn, December 2, 2016   http://www.Radicalreentry.com

Last night I attended a Radcliffe talk by Jacob Hacker about “American Amnesia.” I wanted to hear a noted liberal ivy-league intellectual discuss our political situation. Although prepared to be made uncomfortable by the precious surroundings, and to be critical of the expected prideful expertise of the speaker and audience, it seemed worthwhile.

It was.

Hacker’s talk was non-pretentious, and as infused with unease about how he too had not really anticipated the election, and how unsure he is about how to respond as everybody else is. No arrogance. Just trying to think out loud, building on his latest book and life’s work. He set an example for how all of us should be reacting to the debacle.

When pushed about why he had not spoken about race and whiteness, he responded simply that he “should have.” He explained how in his book he had discussed race, while acknowledging that he had not spoken nor written more about the “predatory state” and its targeted “disproportionate impacts” on people of color. No shillyshallying.

Hacker answered another question doubting whether “bipartisanship” is possible now, with a thoughtful analysis of how sharpening party alignments make compromise was far less useful to either party anymore. Especially, he speculated, this happens because Republicans have seemingly almost given up on both governing and government. The only question he flubbed was from a local public university professor who asked about possibilities for re-activated progressive social movements. He did not deny their potential role, but just seemed unconnected from such close-to-the-ground possibilities.

Through the long Q&A, Hacker listened respectfully, picking up on on aspects of questions about which he felt able to comment. But he did not feel called upon to present himself as expert on everything. This is usually difficult for a Yale professor at Harvard to do.

It was impressive, enlightening, and informed by the presence of a room full of smart, critically inclined people who self-identified as students, academics or “members of the public”. Lots were women; fewer were obviously “of color.” But all were engaged and paying attention.

I have to admit I felt comfortable there. And then I felt equally uncomfortable with the realization that, as much as I have long tried to run away from it, I am a white Eastern Intellectual. I don’t think I am an Elitist, but I do value serious learning and a “life of the mind,” even as that life remains so distanced from so many people.

Throughout much of my post-Harvard, public university-based life of social activism, I disparaged the whole academic milieu that helped me grow up to comprehend and to achieve. I scorned the we-know-betterist pretentiousness of Harvard. This Fall, when the Kennedy School received a multi-million dollar grant to study poverty, I was outraged. Just because they are at Harvard, who do they think they are to supersede all the already existing excellent research of my friends and colleagues at U.Mass.Boston, and elsewhere in the City? Not to mention to ignore the longstanding and already deep knowledge about poverty embodied in all sorts of Boston people?

But after last night, I must argue for hard thinking, for deep historical knowledge, and for all sorts of “data”, regardless of the source, as our best hope for confronting Trumpism. AND I must acknowledge that hard thinking, historical awareness and important research often do occur within universities — especially in those with the funding and conglomerate of expertise that places like Harvard and Yale exemplify. Yes, the environment there is often disrespectful to those who are not “deeply connected.” But not always. And even so, I am wrong to deny how much can be learned there, protected by the privilege of achievement.

Maybe my best hope today is that my post-Harvard life has taught me how much more and different intelligence can be found beyond the white eastern intellectual redoubt. This are things I know that many people still in such places do not. I know, as my wonderful Detroit husband George always says, that “their shit doesn’t smell like ice cream, either.” I know, for example, that poor women have insights and theories drawn from their lives that must be heard, and that many workers (especially union members) are able to examine what it hurting them in complex, excruciating detail. And, especially, I know that the direct perspectives of Black and brown people are essential to any way out of our current mess.

Maybe now that the times demand radical realignments of all sorts, I can help more that I have heretofore tried to translate across boundaries. It must be possible to overcome the inherent limits of it all: from the whiteness, the undeserved privilege, and from all the other protections of class and educational advantage. Such “social capital” is only valuable when it proves worthy of being useful. But maybe it is time for me and others like me to try harder.

We cannot pretend to be “elite”, much less to have any natural claim to leadership. But neither can we deny that we may have useful information and tools to share, when asked — if we can do so with humility and in anticipation of being corrected. All the time.

Please see below for some historical background for this post. It’s also on my website



Published: Thursday, April 23, 1970

To the Editors of the CRIMSON:

I am leaving graduate school. I am leaving because I do not think history is a “business” as Professor Bailyn has said it is. I am leaving because all intellectual enthusiasm is being drained out of me by studying for generals and writing and thinking to please others. I am leaving because I am horrified when Professor Handlin suggests “ranking” our class from one to fifteen as an alternative to grades. I am leaving because Roman history means nothing to me and I can think of better ways to discipline my mind. I am leaving because I am already “withdrawn” from a Department which Professor Bailyn describes as “senior faculty.” I am leaving because I cannot associate with a faculty which can criticize someone for having “too much imagination and not enough tough-mindedness.” Spare me from the tough-minded of this world.

I am leaving because I do not wish to be in the ambiguous position of earning a Harvard Ph.D. in order to prove to people that a Harvard Ph.D. means nothing. I am leaving because the History Department “Revolution” last year has been ignored: all that has happened has been the appointment of a graduate student advisor, the establishment of an “auditory” student-faculty committee, the promise of a History Center in the Yard, and the promise of a paper justifying Department policies. I am leaving because the best teacher in the Department, Professor Bailys, admits that he envies a scholar who can work without ever teaching. I am leaving because I do not want a degree which is, as Professor Freidel says, simply a “union card” which allows me to teach in an “acceptable” school. Spare me from the “acceptable” schools of this world.

I am leaving because I do not believe a “relevancy crisis” is sophomoric but that it is something which one should have every day of one’s life. I am leaving because one professor’s opposition was enough to prevent me from transferring from History into American Civ. I am leaving because I do not think that one should necessarily be polite to the Visiting Professor Links who identify with and justify the Woodrow Wilsons of this world. I am leaving because I deny the elitism which Harvard represents and, even worse, in which people at Harvard believe. I am leaving because Professor May says that studying history means that one must constantly discipline oneself to do what one does not want to do. Spare us all from the discipline of Dean May’s world.

I am leaving because the more I learn of what Harvard does in the community, and to its students and employees and of what it means throughout the world, the more ashamed I am of getting a Harvard degree. I am leaving because it is embarrassing to hear a Department Chairman admitting frankly that “I think you are being victimized, but there is nothing I can do about it.” I am leaving even though I respect and appreciate the sincere professional concern which Professors Buck and Freidel have shown me. I am leaving because Professor Heimert-my last, best hope-does not think I should study popular literature either. I am leaving because when I look around I am afraid of what Harvard Graduate School does to people’s souls. I am leaving because I am already so estranged from the Department that I cannot tell any one of them that I am going before I write this letter. I am leaving because I want to teach in junior or community colleges where a Harvard Ph.D. could create an additional barrier between students and myself. I am leaving because Professor May thinks America was imperialist for only a three-year period and because Professor Handlin thinks black people are only another ethnic group. I am leaving because “preserving the amenities” at Harvard means denying any chance for change. Spare us from the “amenities” of any world.

I am leaving because graduate school is making me forget why I ever wanted to learn American History. I am leaving even though Professor Fleming can ask fascinating questions of history. I am leaving because Professor Bailyn says “the Loyalists, we…” I am leaving because studying for generals proved to me that I could pass them but that in the process my mind might be permanently numbed. I am leaving because I have not been learning anything I wanted to learn or could not learn on my own. I am leaving and sending this letter to lots of people in the hopes that it might articulate some feelings others share. I am leaving although it might seem to prove some people right: in fact it does not. I am leaving because I finally realized that it is not great tragedy not to acquire a Harvard Ph.D. I am leaving because I hope to find a better way of learning and teaching and maybe even of living. In the end, I am leaving because I am tired of being told not to be so idealistic about my education. Somebody once said: “the call to abandon illusions about our condition is a call to abandon a condition which requires illusions.” Spare me.