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Scholarship in Volatile Political Times: Why I’m Forging Ahead

May 30, 2019

As a student of the history of anti-intellectualism, education, literacy, and books, the past two-plus years have had a perverse effect on my desire to pursue scholarly work.

I’ve wallowed, especially over the past year, as I’ve come to realize, in a deeper way than every before, how shallow our nation’s habits of reading and study have become. I always knew, of course, that audiences were small for scholarly work. But things have worsened over the past 10-15 years. After the 2016 election, a kind of depression, or extreme cynicism, arose. I had been able to combat those feelings with activism. That felt like the best way to make a difference. In relation to my scholarly work, however, the election cemented ongoing fears, based on studies of reading habits, about how the internet and social media have further decreased our attention spans.

My own scholarship on the historical themes of anti-intellectualism has confirmed that we’re either in a regression, or at least a highly volatile phase, in relation to late twentieth century norms. I lean toward volatility rather than regression because of the disruptive powers of online information dissemination and changes in the K-16 education establishment. These disruptions have occurred in library norms and usage, education delivery (less face-to-face), increased STEM initiatives, a renewed focus on professional outcomes (i.e. job ends), breakdowns in journalistic ethics, and the nefarious “scholarly” mimetic work produced by think tanks. And then came the 2016 election. It didn’t change everything for me, but it punched my scholarly gut.

The sum total of these social changes has been astounding. They indicate volatility, however, more than regression. To claim some kind of backsliding one has to measure things according to some fixed historical endpoints. Most of those potential historical endpoints already have highly regressive nodes of educational and political activity. There are very few periods in U.S. history that haven’t experienced some extreme forms of anti-intellectualism. Even while basic literacy has been high in U.S. history, aided by compulsory school attendance in the twentieth-century, the political effects have been difficult to trace. We are still emotional voters, driven by ideology and charisma more than reason. This means the quality of citizenship in any period varies accordingly.

While I’ve been depressed and floundering, I’ve recently come to some new terms with just how limited my audience will be for my work on anti-intellectualism. Those limitations stem from the pressures of daily injustices, glimpsed in the news and perpetrated by an unjust, immoral political regime. The immediate needs are many. Activism is required. But, if we can survive this (and it appears we will), the medium and long-term still matter. We will need new scholarship on anti-intellectualism, books, education, and literacy to help help prevent future troughs. We need to develop new consumer habits and understand the limitations of our present volatile period.

With these factors in mind, I’ve renewed my commitment to scholarly work. It will be needed. It will be crucial to creating a new state of being, and consciousness, in our new ecology of information production and consumption. – TL


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