Tuesday, 19 July 2011


Cooperation between academia and government is as old as the university founded for the purpose of serving society and providing advice and guidance for political leaders as well as expertise in technical fields. As the role of government became larger in society during the 20th century and as it was necessary to rely increasingly on experts in every endeavor from military to financial affairs, academia became indispensable to government as it is to business.

Fields of specialization serving as an ideological mirror and current political trends of the times has resulted in predictable outcomes that every society finds itself in. For example, if the emphasis is on defense industry as it was with the USSR and US from WWII to the end of the Cold War, the result is that a disproportionate segment of academics - from mathematicians to chemists - would be influenced by that trend. The demand for scholarly orientation was to a certain degree shaped not by what the students or even faculty senate wished, but what government and private sector's contemporary needs/interests that college administrations invariably implement, no matter the lofty claims about academic freedom.

The rise of Russian-Slavic Studies, East Asian Studies, etc. in the US was determined by funds the government and well-known foundations made available, and to a degree by "think tanks" at times sponsoring or co-sponsoring research projects funded by government and/or private sector. It was well known that the Rockefeller family, for example, had a long-standing interest in Latin America, so it made money available to researchers to study the region. Given that to a large degree funds from government and private sector determined what field of study universities would pursue, the fields of specialization evolved as a reflection of the money trail.

As diplomatic historians, both Kissinger and Brzezinski were products of Harvard University and both rose to become national security advisers through the Rockefeller family that employed them and was carrying on an FDR tradition of relying on academics for advice. Not just research centers, but many faculty slots in departments were funded for specific purposes, to say nothing of non-university research centers geared to attract and produce a pre-packaged product bought and paid for--a very determinist process for something so wedded to academic freedom.

The preeminence of diplomatic history began to take a back seat in the aftermath of Vietnam, and that was certainly the case when I was in graduate school and my professors made it clear that the specific field was "old hat," and that funding was available for fields with a anthropo-cultural or psycho-historical aspect, and a new area called "public history."
Although the public history was traditionally associated with museum and archival work, in the 1970s the term assumed a new meaning for historians conducting professional or business history--not to be confused with the history of economics or history of business. Public history meant the history of the American Medical Association, the private history of corporations, and of course government at all levels. While traditional historians especially on the center and left made jokes of this field, it was the hottest field during the Reagan era.

The CIA and other agencies had lost their taste for historians and for the most part preferred "psychologists, English majors and PR journalists to manipulate Congress and the mass media," exactly as Professor Whealey points out. The era of Wilson and FDR relying heavily on academics for policy input seemed to be waning slowly during the early Cold War when a number of scientists, Robert Oppenheimer among the most famous, came under suspicion by the over-zealous J. Edgar Hoover who was feeding off and feeding Joe McCarthy to hunt down America's "commies" inside government, academia, Hollywood, and in every institution where "commies" posed a threat to the culture of conformity.
The genesis of anti-intellectualism is rooted in the early Cold War, but as Professor Whealey notes, there is an evolution of how history areas of specialization evolve and how some government agencies like intelligence opt to minimize history as a field of choice for new recruits by the time Nixon resigned.

An individual I knew who was part of the hiring process in one of the US intelligence agencies in the 1970s, mentioned to me that a college graduate working as a used car salesperson was just fine for the job of intelligence if he/she fit the profile, if she/he was a good soldier and represented the agency well. At the time, I did not understand what was taking place regarding the broader thinking of the agencies concerning the profile they were trying to construct to best reflect new post-Vietnam goals against the background of the Frank Church hearings.

Having the assumption that government is interested in a merit-based system followed from Wilson to FDR, I was surprised that there seemed to be a mistrust of intellectuals in general. This of course was right after Agee published his book and there was an underlying attitude by many career people and politicians that the Church Committee had gone too far. Too close to the situation to assess it correctly at the time, I was unable to see the US government need for "public diplomacy"; essentially the endeavor to convince US and foreign public opinion through a variety of networks from print media to motion pictures of the correctness of US policies. This was the beginning of America's antagonistic relationship with the Muslim world, against the background of the Iranian Revolution and the holding of US hostages--with TV hammering the headline every night America Held Hostage.

Although the history of public diplomacy can be traced to Wilson who was a historian, it was Eisenhower who created the US Information Agency and Voice of America, thus affording prominence to public diplomacy. The Clinton administration made it official by creating an under-secretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs, thus further distancing government from substance-oriented academics and opting for PR exercises that would prove fruitless.
Jimmy Carter was the last US president who can be called an intellectual and who employed a prominent historian as his top foreign policy adviser, the last president who often resisted the temptation to resort to hollow rhetoric with the intent to deceive and distract the American people; a virtue that in part cost him the re-election.

Once Reagan came to office, he brought with him corporate executives interested in furthering corporate profits. Reagan the great communicator as the media baptized him also brought shallow would-be-intellectuals from right-wing think tanks whose goal was to project a pleasant image of the president, no matter how much people disagreed with his policies. The Reagan PR team was all about image, characterized as one of the most anti-intellectual and hollow, especially coming on the heels of four years of a plain-spoken president with a sharp intellect, profoundly driven by human Christian moral convictions.
Although this is a Machiavellian idea, Reagan set the tone that nothing more than image matters, and every president since 1981 has followed that model.

After Reagan took office, academia saw itself as the outsider, while university administration took its signal from the top that image matters above all else. Academics who wished to simply go along to move up in the career ladder did what they had to. The rest were marginalized, simply hanging in there with the little they had. Self-censorship became more widespread and continued thereafter for many academics. There were the exceptions depending on the individual and the institution. Careerism set in with the Reagan era and it was more important to move ahead as an individual than to risk setbacks by publishing something controversial that could mean the end of research funding. This fear applied mostly to younger and less-known scholars.

Among others, who could continue their work without much difficulty as there were always opportunities open to them in a society that maintained its claim to pluralism, there were "big names" like Tony Judt, Noam Chomsky, I. Wallerstein, Howard Zinn, all of Jewish background, all coming of the Cold War tradition that had hunted down left-leaning Jews like Oppenheimer, and all challenging the culture of conformity. The overwhelming majority of academics in Liberal Arts settled into conformity mode, allowing the neo-conservative establishment to go fairly unchallenged in comparison with the 1960s and 1970s when many college campuses were centers of opposition.

The business model began to creep into the curriculum and shape colleges and universities whose role was to serve business and not engage in self-reflection and critical thinking. Critical and creative thinking intended to promote self-awareness and social justice was lost in the culture of conformity, power and greed; a culture that led us to destructive wars in the Middle East and the biggest recession since the Great Depression.

1 comment:

John Brown said...

Thank you for this interesting article.