Phi Beta Cons

Why Not De-Politicize All Disciplines?

At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association held in January, members considered a resolution against Israel proposed by a group within the Association, Historians against War. The resolution condemned Israel “for its conduct affecting higher education in Gaza, Israel itself, and the West Bank,” according to Cary Nelson writing in the Wall Street Journal (“Pushback for Anti-Israel Academics,” January 29, 2016).

Nelson notes that “an academic discipline that is supposedly a forum for disinterested scholarship and open debate was at risk of abandoning its traditions and intellectual integrity.” In addition to using “disinterested” correctly, a rare occurrence nowadays, Nelson is glad to report the happy outcome. A strong majority of historians didn’t want to see their field turned into a propaganda machine and voted down the factually flawed resolution.” Bravo.

However, Nelson also goes on to say, rather blandly, that organizations such as the National Women’s Studies Association that have endorsed anti-Israel resolutions have less at stake. “Born of political movements and forged with political agendas, they sacrificed little in terms of disinterested scholarship.” The discipline of history is a different story for Nelson, history being “one of the venerable humanities fields,” and “its loss to ideological politics would have wide and deeper implications.” This seems odd. Nelson doesn’t seem to mind if Women’s Studies is a propaganda machine, devoid of intellectual integrity, endorsing “factually flawed” anti-Israel resolutions. But he sets a higher standard for other disciplines.

“If the key humanities and interpretive social-science fields–from literature and language to history and anthropology–become centers of anti-Israel indoctrination, they will not only be economically marginal they will be discredited.” Nelson is especially concerned with the decline in prestige, as well as funding, that has affected the humanities. Instead of making a stand for open debate and intellectual integrity all around, he excuses the openly politicized areas and seeks only to gain respect for the “venerable humanities.” But the venerable humanities are at least partly responsible for the intellectually compromised and propagandized areas of study, and are, moreover, infected by them.

How about demanding honest scholarship from all fields and disciplines; that would help the humanities and the academy in general regain the lost credibility and stature that worries Nelson. 

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