Paradox,” Brett Jordan

Just as Donald Trump routinely claims that mainstream Democrats are actually socialists or even communists, it has become a cliché to assert that many social science professors are dangerous radicals. Even New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof has suggested that it is easier to find Marxists in some social science disciplines than Republicans.

The truth, however, is that while many social scientists and historians lean towards the Democratic Party, very few of them do more than vote or sometimes contribute to electoral campaigns. The number of academics who are serious allies of movements for social, racial, or environmental justice is pitifully small.

That many allegedly liberal or leftist academics are disengaged from real political struggles is a paradox, and this paradox creates a huge problem because of the right-wing’s success in building a powerful apparatus for disseminating misleading ideas. Back in the 1960s and early 1970s, conservative funders were shaken by the New Left student movement on campuses. They were galvanized by a memorandum to the US Chamber of Commerce written by future Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell.

In response to Powell’s warning, in the following decades, conservative and libertarian funders poured billions of dollars into creating and sustaining a structure of think tanks, policy organizations, and organizing campaigns that worked closely with right-wing media to popularize their ideas. These new organizations have often literally displaced universities and academic experts from their historic role of separating truth from falsehood. This is one source of our current polarized polity where tens of millions of people refuse to believe what mainstream scientists say about climate change or the COVID-19 pandemic. This propaganda has persuaded too many that extreme income inequality is necessary, and—astonishingly, although the events of 2020 surely have put a dent in this—that race and racism are no longer problems in a society that has become “colorblind.”

Over the last 20 years, progressive funders have tried to catch up by building a network of progressive think tanks and policy organizations to counter the Right’s propaganda machine. These efforts have been important, but they still fall short.

But what if thousands of academics were to become allies of movements for social, racial, gender, and environmental justice by reshaping their research agendas? If more academics devoted their energies to exposing injustices, developing proposals for solving social problems, and aligning with justice movements to develop strategies for change rather than stay on the sidelines, that could clearly shift the frame of debate.

Think it is impossible for academics to shift research agendas? Consider this. Writing in The Atlantic last month, Ed Yong reports that in “a survey of 2,500 researchers in the US, Canada, and Europe, Kyle Myers from Harvard and his team found that 32 percent had shifted their focus toward the pandemic.” That’s astonishing. The miraculously fast vaccine development—going from discovery of the pathogen to vaccine launch in less than a year—would surely not have happened but for this shift.

Now, COVID-19 is obviously an extraordinary case, resulting in an exceptional response. But a shift in the research agendas of even a small percentage of social scientists and humanities faculty and graduate students could have a powerful effect.

What stands in the way? One key factor is an academic ethos that developed during the Cold War, which helped create and cement some of the current divides that separate so-called “ivory tower” intellectuals from possible movement allies. For decades, scholars have been told that good research has to be “value-free”—intellectuals must put all of their own preferences to one side to do research that is truly “objective.” Graduate students are still often told to forget whatever political views they had when they start graduate school, so they could do the kind of apolitical and “professional” research that their particular discipline demands.

This idea of “value-free” scholarship is now a zombie idea. It has been thoroughly discredited by generations of thinkers who have shown that all research is shaped by the investigators’ values and assumptions. What separates good research from bad is not the pretense of objectivity; it is the effectiveness with which the researcher links theory with empirical support. Nevertheless, the discredited “value-free” idea of academic inquiry lives on, and graduate students are still told to be “professional” and do research that ignores their own values. The consequence is that many graduate students who enter academia with idealistic visions of social change are transformed into apolitical researchers.

Fortunately, there are now several organizations that directly challenge this ethos. The Scholars Strategy Network based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, works to connect more than 1,000 member-academics to public policymaking. It focuses on helping those with academic expertise influence public debates through policy reports and op-eds and connect with legislators at the local, state, and federal levels. Meanwhile, the Center for Engaged Scholarship (CES), based in California, has provided dissertation fellowships to Ph.D. students in the social sciences and history whose work is of high quality and can contribute to struggles for social, racial, and environmental justice. The Center believes that supporting this kind of work can send a signal to other graduate students that they can resist the professional pressures to pursue more conventional research topics.

Several of the Center’s fellows have been working on issues of economic justice:

  • Isaac Jabola-Carolus, a sociology student at CUNY (City University of New York), is studying the working conditions of home healthcare workers. His survey of 700 respondents in Los Angeles and San Francisco found that as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading, substantial numbers of these workers were not getting the personal protective equipment they needed. His findings helped inform legislation in California pushed by the California Domestic Workers Coalition that would extend coverage to these workers under the state’s occupational health and safety rules.
  • Chryl Corbin received a CES fellowship as a Ph.D. student in Environmental Studies at the University of California, Berkeley and now teaches at Portland State University. She analyzed the struggles over land use in an urban park in Oakland, California, and showed how local residents, especially people of color, were excluded when the city rented out the space for music festivals. She also documented the conflicts set off by a homeless encampment in the park. She has been able to influence city policies as a member of the Oakland Parks and Recreation Foundation.
  • Sonia Grant, an anthropology student at the University of Chicago, has been working with indigenous activists in northwest New Mexico. Her research shows how the historic trajectory of land rights in that region has facilitated the appropriation of wealth by Anglos while leaving native peoples to face an environmental catastrophe. She has worked with a locally based group to co-produce a film about the struggles of Pueblo and Diné peoples to stop fracking.

To be sure, a few energetic and idealistic graduate students are not enough to change the political balance of forces. But every year US universities grant more than 10,000 doctorates to people in fields other than natural science and engineering. Imagine if each year 10 percent of these were people like Isaac, Chryl, and Sonia, working closely with activists to redress wrongs and fight for justice. Imagine if there were 50 new Ph.D. economists annually who were working to raise the income of low-income people or reform taxes to redistribute income from billionaires. It would not take long for numbers like that to significantly strengthen movements for a more just society.

Such a transformation is possible for two reasons. First, the multiple disasters of the Trump years have awakened many in the universities to the danger of clinging to the model of ivory tower intellectualism. Initiatives have been created on different campuses to encourage engaged scholarship and get students and faculty involved in addressing real world problems.

Second, reality has a well-known progressive bias, to paraphrase Stephen Colbert. Cutting-edge knowledge in the social sciences has made it clear that building a society around the celebration of greed and huge differentials in income and wealth is a bad idea. That knowledge also indicates that the best way to preserve and strengthen democratic governance and avoid a slide into authoritarianism is to make governments more responsive to the needs of those who lack accumulated wealth. Moreover, what we know about multiracial societies teaches us that the path beyond deepening racial animosity requires dismantling structural racism.

In a word, academic knowledge points us to the need for a more equal, more just, and more sustainable society. But to get there, we need many more of those social scientists and humanities scholars to transform theory into practice. Doing this will require scholars to get out into the trenches and become contributors to, and participants in, social movements for justice.