Monday, November 12, 2012
November 12, 2012: Public Scholarship, Part One
[This week marks AmericanStudies’ two-year anniversary (I began the blog, not coincidentally, right after the 2010 elections). So I’m going to celebrate that occasion by highlighting five posts in which I’ve considered some of the reasons, possibilities, and issues related to public scholarship, blogging, and related work. I’d love to hear your thoughts on those questions, or any other 21st century forms and conversations, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On one of the most frustrating but fundamental reasons why we’re here.
As much as it pains me to do so, I have to focus here largely on Glenn Beck, and particularly on his Beck University. I’ll be damned if I’m going to provide a hyperlink to Glenn Beck’s online, not-for-credit but definitely for-profit (for him) university, so you’ll either have to trust my basic description here or to find the website on your own (no AmericanStudier lifeguard will be on duty, so swim at your own risk, there be monsters). In July 2010 Beck founded this online university, which (for a fee) offers weekly “courses” in topics such as Faith, Hope, and Charity. Despite those broad themes, the courses have focused very specifically on American history and identity (particularly in but not limited to the founding era), and Beck has brought in a series of “scholars” (pardon my air quotes, but I can’t write the word with a straight face) to provide seemingly objective (but most definitely partisan in every sense) perspectives on those national topics. The most famous and certainly most telling of those scholars is David Barton (he teaches the Faith courses), an Evangelical minister who has made his career with a series of books arguing that the Founding Fathers not only did not believe in the separation of church and state, but in fact intended for the United States (and its Constitution, government, and so on) to be deeply and centrally Christian. (Not coincidentally, the Latin motto on Beck U’s coat of arms translates to “Revolution against tyrants, submission to God.”)
For a long time, I had felt as if scholarly perspectives on America (and its history, identity, community, etc) were largely distinct from contemporary political debates; certainly talk radio and Fox News types have long articulated certain visions of those national topics, but it didn’t seem to me as if their goal was to teach their audiences about those topics so much as reinforce existing ideas in service of much more overtly political agendas. But from its name to every aspect of its existence, Beck University does purport to teach, and by at least one measure it seems that he has been perceived as doing exactly that: in a pretty comprehensive April 2010 poll of self-affiliated Tea Party members, over 50% of those polled identified Beck as the person from whom they have “learned the most about America.” And while deciding between which of Beck’s nonsensical fairy tales and conspiracy theories is the most dangerous or destructive is a very tall order, I would argue that it is precisely the ones within this University frame, the ones that Beck and his cohorts define as the most scholarly, the most objective, the most grounded in historical facts and details, that have the greatest potential to do long-term harm. If his audience believes (for example) that FEMA is building concentration camps in which to quarantine conservatives, they will, it seems to me, have to recognize at a certain point that they have not been taken to such camps, nor has anyone else. But if they believe (for example) that the Constitution was created and intended to enshrine Christianity at the core of America’s national identity and government and community—and, more exactly, believe that Beck and his scholars have taught them the historical and factual and inarguable groundings for that idea—then no contemporary trends or events could revise that perspective.
Perhaps nothing can; certainly the thought that I might have any ability to counter Beck University is, I know, an extreme and far from humble one. But I have increasingly come to feel as if I have to try, as if part of my life’s work should be working to articulate narratives and analyses of American histories and identities that can, in their own small way, become part—and, I hope, a more complex and accurate part than those of Beck and his ilk—of our larger conversations about these core and crucial topics. But I can’t do that alone, of course. Ideally it requires many of us to do the same, so that the diversity and depth of scholarly perspectives can contribute to those conversations (see the Scholarly Reviews category for many of the other voices I’ve tried to highlight here). And more immediately and practically, it requires an engaged and active audience, requires you—not only to read, but to respond, to help create conversations here that can both model the best such national dialogues and carry these ideas and analyses and stories forward. So thanks, for the first two years and I hope for many more to come. Next post tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Thoughts on public scholarship, national conversations, blogging, or any other related issues for the weekend’s post?