Public Engagement

As a scholar who believes that a liberal nation state depends heavily upon an educated citizenry, I try to be of use through the public. My philosophy is that academics should address issues within their ken. I give public speeches and informal talks on historical topics, engage journalists and participate in public forums, and I write social commentary that takes a historical perspective. I’m known for being a critic of academics who define themselves as public intellectuals, because, in part, it’s a quest for celebrity that forces people to speak about issues that do not reflect their research and training. I believe the public is best served by those whose knowledge is grounded in the things they study professionally. In short, I believe in sharing my expertise within the broader sphere of public concerns.

I also believe that experts who engage the public do not have to leave their political perspectives at home and take neutral stances on the issues of day. Part of being a citizen in a democracy is to advocate positions and to bring to bear what one knows about the topic. My scholarship about social science and nationalism, black and white, are born not of some disinterested fascination with nation states. Indeed, I have been motivated throughout by understanding the past on its on terms to ascertain how it has or can impinge on the present. I am a committed liberal American nationalist, who is interested in getting Americans to understand several things. First, liberal nationalism is real and came into existence after centuries of struggle. This struggle is denied when it is simply treated as the unfolding and expansion of American democracy. This view, an aspect of American exceptionalism, denies to co-existence of competing American tradition–that of white nationalism–which is also as old as the nation itself. It is not, as some scholars and commentators seem to think, a newfangled development of the last two generations. Given this understanding of race in American history, I stand as an advocate of liberal nationalism, which can only exist with an appreciation for a nation based on civic ideals.

Along with history for advocacy, I also believe in the advocacy of history. Today liberal nationalism is imperiled because Americans have too little belief in the importance of our national history. Too few Americans are interested in how America’s traditions, practices, and institutions came into being, how they developed, and how and why they have changed over time. While lip service is paid to history by leaders, educators, and policy makers, the reality of the ground demonstrates otherwise. Our primary and secondary schools increasingly treat history not as a subject to be mastered, but as segments of time, episodes, that can be separated from their context and treated as stand-along story for developing writing and thinking skills. Our colleges, seeking to address austerity, have largely abandoned their mission of teaching the humanities and social sciences as necessary for an educated citizenry. They are downsizing and eliminating history because few students desire to major in the field. The university now believe the tastes and preferences of students should drive the make up of the curriculum. If students have no use for the past, the past will be removed from the curriculum. This market-driven or neo-liberal approach to educational funding and content increasingly means only citizens who can attend traditional elite universities will be exposed to the liberal arts curriculum that once stood at bellwether of American education.