On June 30, 1881, Wendell Phillips delivered an address to Harvard University entitled The Scholar in a Republic. He said: "I urge on college-bred men, that, as a class, they fail in republican duty when they allow others to lead in the agitation of the great social questions, which stir and educate the age."
One hundred and thirty years later, I think we still need to be reminded of the same advise. Take, for example, Glenn Beck's pronouncement this week of 350.org as a "communist conspiracy". In reality, of course. 350.org has done some of the best organizing and educating around climate change on the planet. Far from a global conspiracy, it is providing ways for everyday people to plug into the green energy movement and become inspired. And, it's spearheaded by a true scholar, Bill McKibben.
Back in the late 1960's, when I was hammering out my graduate degree, Herbert Marcuse awakened me to the reality that I could be both an academic and an activist. In the wake of the McCarthy era, that wasn't popular sentiment. But, Marcuse raised the bar and set the example.
Later, I learned about Scott Nearing: another academic-activist. He was exactly the type of scholar that Wendell Phillips was talking about. He got called a "communist", too (as did Marcuse) but he just kept teaching, writing and speaking. They refused to sit idly back and allow "others to lead in the agitation of the great social questions, which stir and educate the age."
Well, that's a good description of McKibben. He's doing something--a whole lot, actually-- for the world. And the "something" that he is doing is deeply informed by scholarship. He is not sitting back and allowing "others to lead in the agitation of the great social questions." He is performing what Wendell Phillips would have called his republican duty.
We are living in a period when there is a whole lot of "agitation of the great social issues" going on. There are droves of people tendering public comment on things about which they know nothing. Opinion abounds. Intellectual engagement gets pushed to the back burner and emotional appeals sell papers.
It's hard for a citizenry to remain informed when special interest propaganda is cloaked as "information". Most Americans are uni-lingual and are, ipso facto, confined to reading news that is printed in English. For those who are multi-lingual, a quick tour through some major European newspapers provides a very different view of America's "agitation of the great social questions".
I, for one, would like to think that the US will value it's academic-activists as we navigate these next few, turbulent years. I would like to think that we will recognize their commitment to informing their activism by scholarship. And, I would like to think that, as a society, we can return to a rational, measured dialectic instead of ill informed emotional rants.