Research, Social Justice, and a Brief for the Conduct of Intellectual Life
William Ayers is Distinguished Professor of Education and Senior University Scholar at the University of Illinois at Chicago, author or editor of fourteen books on education including The Good Preschool Teacher: Six Teachers Reflect on Their Lives (Teachers College Press), A Kind and Just Parent: The Children of Juvenile Court (Beacon Press), Teaching Toward Freedom: Moral Commitment and Ethical Action in the Classroom, and Teaching the Personal and the Political: Essays on Hope and Justice (Teachers College Press).
In this essay the author champions the idea that educational researchers can gain sustenance and perspective by drawing explicitly on humanism and the arts in their search for knowledge and understanding. In our research, our teaching, and all our scholarly enterprises, our concerns emanate from central humanist goals: enlightenment and emancipation, human knowledge and human freedom. The author outlines an approach to educational inquiry that appeals to an expansive view of humanity focused on questions like, what interests does our research serve? What forms of inquiry might encourage people to be more creative and active problem solvers? How? Drawing on a handful of scholars’ reflections, he offers a framework for the conduct of intellectual life.
Gwendolyn Brooks, who won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1954, and served as Poet Laureate of Illinois from 1985 until her death in 2000, never left her bustling and bracing neighborhood, and, perhaps more important, never left the commitments and concerns that animated her intelligence and her heart: the lives of the children and families, indeed, the lives of all the ordinary people of Chicago’s South Side. At a massive celebration of her life, one of her former students read this poem to her memory:
Sometimes I see in my mind’s eye a four- or five-
year-old boy, coatless and wandering
a windblown and vacant lot or street in Chicago
on the windblown South Side. He disappears
but stays with me, staring and pronouncing
me guilty of an indifference more callous
than neglect, condescension as self-pity.
Then I see him again, at ten or fifteen, on the corner,
say, 47th and Martin Luther King, or in a group
of men surrounding a burning barrel off Lawndale,
everything surrounding vacant or for sale.
Sometimes I trace him on the train to Joliet
or Menard, such towns quickly becoming native
ground to these boys who seem to be nobody’s
sons, these boys who are so hard to love, so hard
to see, except as case studies.
Poverty, pain, shame, one and a half million
dreams deemed fit only for the most internal
of exiles. That four-year-old wandering
the wind tunnels of Robert Taylor, of Cabrini
Green, wind chill of an as yet unplumbed degree—
a young boy she did not have to know to love.
There’s a dissent in this poem that mirrors the life and work of Gwendolyn Brooks—a refusal of received wisdom, a challenge to the policing proclivities of the social sciences, and an invitation to a possible way forward.
Sketching a familiar landscape, cycling back through the clichés attached so glibly to the city and city kids—coatless and wandering, the windblown streets and the vacant lots—Walton highlights the disciplining bent of some social research—“so hard/to see, except as case studies.” He doesn’t question the predicament of these kids so much as he points to us, questioning our innocence and reproaching our willed myopia. He undermines the received wisdom that had slipped so easily into place (“an indifference more callous/than neglect,” he writes, “condescension as self-pity”) and he asks us in that sudden, surprising last line (“a young boy she did not have to know to love”) to go more deeply, to see beyond a single dimension, to seek out cause and context. Indeed, here is the common faith of educators, not a distinct path, but a possible direction to pursue.
I begin deliberately with a poem in an effort to remind us of the centrality of humanism as principle, guide, and source in our scholarly and intellectual pursuits—our lives as students, our efforts as teachers, our projects as researchers. And I begin with the humanist poet Gwendolyn Brooks precisely because she imagines a disruptive role for the arts: “Does man love art?” she asks to begin one of her poems. Her answer: “Man visits art but cringes. Art hurts. Art urges voyages.” The arts are geared to fire and free the imagination—at their best they urge voyages, voyages that we undertake with a necessary sense of urgency at this precise moment, voyages that might contribute to opening the desicated discourse on educational research and school improvement so dominant just now.
In a concise and provocative way, this poem invites us—in the spirit of Gwendolyn Brooks—to open our eyes to our shared humanity, to challenge orthodoxy, and to engage our shared world with more imagination and hope.
Educational scholars and researchers might draw sustenance and perspective from poetry, from the arts, in our search for knowledge and understanding, our quest to see the world as it really is. Our main goals, after all, are the central tenets of humanism: enlightenment and human knowledge, emancipation and human freedom. The humanist ambition is for every human being to reach a fuller measure of his or her own humanity. Any research grounded in the humanist tradition is necessarily aimed in this direction, and it is open, then, to becoming a raucous and participatory pursuit—inviting every background and class and condition in its perpetual asking of new questions, its continual discoveries, its ceaseless and essential reformulations and revisions and unique revelations. Once we posit humanism as standard, then whatever we find that is out-of-balance must be challenged, the devastating taken-for-granted dissected, exposed, illuminated. Whatever else we bring to our research, our teaching, and our scholarly enterprises the core of all our work is built upon the search for wisdom and liberation. In other words, humanism needs always to be present, and its presence acknowledged.
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Humanism is built upon the idea that human life is indeterminate, expansive, and interconnected, and that there is a special human capacity for knowledge of who and what we are in the world. Humanism embraces all the things we can make through our own labor, including history as an ongoing human construction, and every other form of expression as well: language and research and all manner of goods and works and products. Indeed, just as researchers can benefit from seeking their humanist nucleus and heart, every humanist is always a kind of researcher, drawn—in the spirit of cooperation, sharing, and being-in-common—to explore, to expand.
This exploration requires a leaning outward, a willingness to look at the peopled world, at the sufferings, the accomplishments, the perspectives and the concerns of others, at their twisty, dynamic movement through time, and an awareness—sometimes joyous, but just as often painful—of all that one finds. It requires, as well, a leaning inward toward self-knowledge, a sense of being alive and conscious in a going world.
In each direction the humanist/researcher acknowledges that every person is entangled and propelled, and sometimes made mute, by a social surround, and that each also has a wild and vast inner life. Going inward without consciously connecting to a larger world leads to self-referencing and worse, narcissism as truth; traveling outward without noting your own embodied, situated heart and mind can lead to ethical astigmatism, to seeing other three-dimensional human beings as case studies or data, their lived situations reduced to “my field.”
C. Wright Mills (1963), sociologist and passionately engaged intellectual, reminds students and young scholars that “the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community… do not split their work from their lives. They…take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other.” (p. 195) Mills sees this dissociation as endemic and epidemic, seductive and utterly corrosive. For Mills consistent and disciplined attention to both work and life is necessary for the most propulsive and worthwhile scholarly efforts.
Mills encourages us to cultivate the ability to simultaneously trust and be skeptical of our personal experiences; to enhance our scholarly production with personal insight, and to adjust our life course as we learn and understand more. “The starting point of critical elaboration is the consciousness of what one really is,” Antonio Gramsci (1971) wrote in his Prison Notebooks, “and is ‘knowing oneself’ as a product of the historic process to date, which has deposited in you an infinity of traces, without leaving an inventory.” (p.73) Gramsci’s sense—a sense shared by Mills—is of the infinite and the ineffable tied up inexorably with the concrete and the real. Mills asks us to be conscious of people as social and historical actors in all their wild variety, to keep our eyes open to the largest images of humanity we can conjure, and to a powerful sense of history as something being made and remade by actual people, including us. Personal problems have, then, an often hidden but nonetheless insistent social and shared aspect; social problems and issues naturally have particular and individual iterations and consequences. Life is made in the balance and in the tension of both, in the dialectically developing consciousness of each. Scholarship must somehow work, as well, within this apparent contradiction.
Of course, being conscious can never be fully conscious—we are all more-or-less conscious, contingently aware, and at the same time entirely incomplete. As researchers and humanists we must struggle to approach others as active knowledge-creators and meaning-makers themselves, as agents and experts on their own lives; we might approach ourselves as works-in-progress too, both incomplete and provisional.
But while acknowledging humanization as goal and purpose, we note that dehumanization can be both policy and practice; we enter then, the contested space of school and society, of scholarship and intellectual life, of teaching and research.
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The literary critic Edward Said explores this contested space in much of his work, but perhaps most pointedly in Representations of the Intellectual (Said, 1994) in which he offers in effect a brief for the ethical and lively conduct of intellectual life. The book is crisp, concise, small in size—the perfect companion to cram into your backpack between your toothbrush and your bottle of water, and as necessary a part of daily survival as either of those.
The intellectual, he argues, must strive to become “an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public.” (p. 11) For Said “this role has an edge to it,” for the intellectual must recognize the necessity of opening spaces “to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison de’etre is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.” (p. 12)
Said notes that “the world is more crowded than it ever has been with professionals, experts, consultants, in a word with intellectuals” (xv), and that this creates as a central task the requirement to search out and fight for relative independence from all manner of social and institutional pressures, to authentically choose oneself against a hard wall of facts: “At bottom,” Said argues, “the intellectual…is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical…sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made clichés, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do,” (p. 23)—a description befitting Anthony Walton’s poem. This unwillingness cannot be simply a passive shrug or a cynical sigh. For Said, as for Gwendolyn Brooks, the unwillingness to accede involves publicly staking out a space of refusal.
Said speaks for a particular stance, a distinct approach to intellectual life: all intellectuals, he argues, “represent something to their audiences, and in so doing represent themselves to themselves,” (xv) Whether you’re a straight-up academic or a free-lance writer, a down-and-out bohemian essayist or an itinerant speech-maker, an educational researcher or a teacher or a consultant to corporations or the state, you represent yourself based on an idea you have of yourself and your function: Do you think you’re providing a balanced, disinterested view, or are you delivering objective advice for pay? Are you an expert offering high-level program evaluation, or are you teaching your students some essential truth? Perhaps you imagine you’re advocating an eccentric if important idea. What do you want to represent? To whom? For what purpose? Toward what end, and in the interest of what social order?
Said exhorts intellectuals to work on the basis of a particular principle he takes to be universal: “that all human beings are entitled to expect decent standards of behavior concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously.” (11-12) This might become the fulcrum for us, the central and primary plot point, although it in no way lays out a neat road forward—choose the way of opposition and you do not inherit a set of ready-made slogans nor a nifty, easy-fit party line. There are no certainties—and for some this might prove difficult, perhaps even fatal—nor any gods whatsoever who can be called upon to ease specific, personal responsibility, to settle things once and for all. Each of us is out there on our own, with our own minds and our own hearts, our own ability to empathize, to touch and to feel, to recognize humanity in its many unexpected postures, to construct our own standards of truth about human suffering that must be upheld despite everything. “Real intellectuals,” Said writes, “are never more themselves than when, moved by metaphysical passion and disinterested principles of justice and truth, they denounce corruption, defend the weak, defy imperfect or oppressive authority.” (p. 6) Said is uninterested in allying with the victors and the rulers whose very stability he sees as a kind of “ state of emergency” for the less fortunate; he chooses instead to account for “the experience of subordination itself, as well as the memory of forgotten voices and persons.” (p. 35)
Said returns again and again to the notion of the authentic intellectual as a person who chooses to create an identity in part as exile—restless, in-motion, unsettled and unsettling, a person who does not feel entirely at home in his or her home—and in part as amateur—exuberant, passionate, committed and full of delight. The intellectual lives willfully as an engaged outsider, a gratified if uncomfortable disrupter of the status quo, an advocate, a critic of orthodoxy and dogma, stereotype and received wisdom of every kind, all the reductive categories that limit human thought and communication. Said’s intellectual works hard to maintain a kind of doubleness—something akin, I think, to DuBois’ double consciousness in which African-Americans were compelled, he argued, to see society and the world as both Americans and simultaneously as Black people, this duality being a synthesis, and therefore greater than either perspective alone. Said urges us to see our individual and collective situations in this way, as both insiders and outsiders, participants in the fullness of social life but simultaneously removed from and slightly tangent to our associations. We must cultivate, then, a state of steady alertness if we are to speak the unwelcome truth—as we understand it—to power.
This does not mean that intellectuals are required to be, in Said’s term, “humorless complainers,” nor whiny Cassandras—a character who, he points out, was not only unpleasant but unheard. It does mean that intellectuals work at “scouring alternative sources, exhuming buried documents, reviving forgotten (or abandoned) histories and peoples” (p. xviii). This, for Said, can be “a lonely condition, yes, but it is always a better one than a gregarious tolerance for the way things are.” (p. xviii)
“It is a spirit in opposition, rather than in accommodation,” Said writes, “that grips me because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighted against them.” (p. xv) This points toward a research ideal we might strive toward, and it illuminates as well a series of pitfalls and problems that must somehow be met and engaged. The ideal is knowledge, enlightenment, and truth on the one hand, and on the other, human freedom, emancipation, liberation for all, with emphasis on the dispossessed. That this core of humanism is unachievable in some ultimate or final form might be discouraging to some, but it does set a standard within our existential boundaries, and provides, then, both focus and energy for our efforts.
In the world of teaching and learning, of schooling and education, Said’s concept of the intellectual’s role resonates with particular force. We live in a time when the assault on disadvantaged communities is particularly harsh and at the same time gallingly obfuscated. Access to adequate resources and decent facilities, to relevant curriculum, to opportunities to reflect on and to think critically about the world is unevenly distributed along predictable lines of class and color. Further, a movement to dismantle public schools under the rubric of “zero tolerance,” “standards and accountability,” and “privatization,” is in place and gaining force. This is the moment within which we have to choose who to be as scholars and intellectuals, as teachers and researchers, as citizens.
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Howard Zinn (1997), the eminent historian and activist scholar who has written about these issues for decades, bemoans the honor, status, prestige and pay academics garner “for producing the largest number of inconsequential studies in the history of civilization.” (Zinn, 1997, p. 499) Zinn insists that we take note of and remember what motivated us to become teachers, scholars, scientists in the first place: we wanted to save lives, expand happiness, enable others to live more fully and freely. All of this is somehow rendered suspect in the insistent call for neutrality, objectivity, disinterested and discipline-based inquiry. His indictment: “Like politicians we have thrived on public innocence, with this difference: the politicians are paid for caring, when they really don’t; we are paid for not caring, when we really do” (pp. 499-500). Like Said and Mills he is urgent to resurrect the intellectual as engaged and caring, to close the “gap between the products of scholarly activity and the needs of a troubled world.” (p. 500), to challenge the tenets of professional mythology, and to resist a situation where we publish while others perish.
Toward this end Zinn points out several commonplaces that undermine clear thought and humanistic judgment in all the intellectual precincts, from research project to academy to school to journal. These include the injunctions to: carry on only “disinterested scholarship”; “be objective”; “stick to your discipline”; remember that “scientific” means “neutral”; and believe that there is no room in the world of ideas for something as suspect as passion, love, or emotions.
Zinn’s refutation of these commandments begins with a defense of knowledge as a form of power, a particular kind of power that can be employed against the naked power of brute force. Knowledge has the power to undermine and, perhaps, to overthrow force. But to do so, knowledge must be freely sought, explicitly linked to moral purposes, and tied to conduct. It must stand for something.
Universities are, of course, multimillion dollar enterprises governed by boards of trustees who oversee their operations. These boards are often the equivalent of millionaire clubs, overwhelmingly represented by the owners of the means of production and information, the captains of the military-industrial complex. Such people are not neutral, and the disinterested university is mostly myth. The only question in this twisty, distorted, and always contested context is what and whose interests will be served, and by whom.
Within this disputed space objectivity is not a self-evident good. “If to be objective is to be scrupulously careful about reporting accurately what one sees,” Zinn writes, “then of course, this is laudable” (p. 504). If, for example, “objectivity” were to mean getting all the facts, data, and grounds one can, and making judgments in light of that, well, of course. But, Zinn points out, while a metalsmith would be a fool to tinker or deceive in regard to accurate and reliable measurements, if “the metalsmith has determined in advance that he prefers a plowshare [to a sword]” (p. 504), that determination in no way asks for distorted measurements. Just so a scholar: that she prefers peace to war, national sovereignty to occupation, and women’s equality to patriarchy requires no distortion.
Calls for “balance” in teaching and scholarship, which draw force from a perceived tie to “objectivity,” are similarly peculiar and precarious. If the purpose of education is to seek the truth through evidence and argument, “balance” could only sensibly mean: Find and present all the evidence you can. If by “balance” people mean the equal presentation of contradictory perspectives, the classroom and the scholarly journal become little more than sites of incessant bickering. But the classroom task, the obligation of the scholarly journal, is not quibbling, but achievement of judgment based on the widest and deepest available evidence. This means open debate, continuous inquiry, dialogue, and taking a stand. In reality calls for “balance” are often in the service of a particular ideology. If an historian speaks about Palestinian rights at Columbia University today, for example, the call goes up for “balance.” If an Israeli diplomat defends Israeli policies at the same place, there is no comparable hue and cry.
As with “objectivity” and “balance,” so it goes with educational “research,” an enterprise as we know it today constructed and catapulted after World War II on a wave of federal money. In education a sentence that begins, “The research says…” is too-often meant to silence debate. It evokes Science, which is assumed to be larger than life: the expected response is awe and genuflection. It functions as a kind of bludgeon wielded on several sides of the school wars. It’s contrapositive—“There is no research that shows”—plays a similar role in quashing discussion. So, for example, a principal in Chicago, resisting the idea of bringing in a literature unit based on rap poetry, told me recently that there is no research that links studying rap with improved test scores. This may be true, but when I pointed out that Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was required reading, and asked what research links the study of Shakespeare to higher scores, he said I was being ridiculous.
“Science is a great and worthy mistress,” W.E.B. DuBois wrote, “but there is one greater and that is Humanity which science serves…” (DuBois, 2001, p. 42). It’s important to underline the point: research cannot be neutral. It occurs in contexts, in an historic flow, a cultural surround, a social and economic condition. It serves humanity—or some other mistress. Like education, it is designed either to perpetuate the status quo or to take the side of the disadvantage and underrepresented, to stand for humanization or to accede to dehumanization.
But if not on objectivity, balance, and research, upon what base does a claim for attention rest? Here things get sticky. For many academics that claim is primarily one of status, pedigree, affiliation, or the mantle of science. I’m reminded of the comment of my then-five-year-old son, Malik, at the awarding of my doctorate: “You’re a doctor, right?” he asked brightly. “But not the kind who can help anybody, right?” Right. I thought then of the wisdom of the Wizard of Oz, handing over a diploma—a Th.D., Doctor of Thinkology—to the elated and suddenly notably less hapless Scarecrow: There are plenty of professors who haven’t any more brains than you have, says the Wizard. The one thing they have that you don’t is a diploma.
The alternative to status claims is to claim authority on the basis of content, on the power of evidence and argument, the representation of ideas to and for a public. Mills argues that academics create for themselves a vicious circle: in order to claim status, they too-often adopt an obscure, impenetrable style; yet that grandly opaque style too-often contributes to isolation and peripheral status. For Mills, intellectuals must break the cycle and fight toward clarity of both substance and style: “To overcome the academic prose,” he writes, “you have first to overcome the academic pose” (p. 219). He urges intellectuals to clarify as honestly as they can the claims they offer, the actual difficulty of their subjects, and the audiences they hope to reach.
If there is an urgency to the researcher’s or scholar’s message—a real belief that the content matters—the prose tends toward directness. I urge my students to imagine themselves in an auditorium filled with educators—teachers, administrators, some academics. They are to address the assembly on an issue of immediate importance, something they themselves think and care about. They intend to be informed by, but not enslaved to, their inquiry, their research, their data. This clears away much of the performative underbrush. Cut the bullshit: Speak!
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There is no one better positioned than Edward Said to offer advice on the conduct of intellectual life. At the time of his death in September, 2003 he was perhaps the best known intellectual in the world with millions of readers who saw him variously as a renowned professor of comparative literature, a cultural theorist, a musician, music critic, and (with maestro Daniel Barenboim) musical activist, and, with growing urgency over the last thirty-five years, the most passionate, eloquent, and clear-eyed advocate for the rights of the Palestinian people. Idolized and despised, venerated and denounced, Said was impossible to ignore.
The scope of his interests, the depth of his ambitions, the energy and effort invested in every project was vast, and yet each somehow informed and was influenced by the others, and each was animated by his understanding of humanism as universal, inclusive, communitarian, and democratic. Daniel Barenboim (2005) insists that Said had a “musician’s soul” (p. 163), and he traces Said’s fierce antispecialization, his sense of interconnectedness and inclusion, his distinction between power and force, volume and intensity—all insights of a musician—from his work in music to other fields. Said’s great work on Orientatism—which spawned the field of postcolonial studies, a field Said would go on to criticize and question as it developed its own lazy habits and received wisdom—was written and published after 1967, when Said was brought into Palestinian politics for the first time. Linkages abound around issues of conflicting narratives, visibility, and human rights.
As an advocate for Palestinian rights Said was unparalleled and yet he was not a spokesman in any conventional sense, for he held no office whatsoever, nor was he ever a mouth-piece for power. Indeed his criticisms of the official Palestinian leadership were both withering and relentless, keeping with his consistent injunction to oppose all orthodoxy, especially the lazy reductiveness or corruption or failures of those with whom one shares an affinity. Said in regard to Palestine was a powerful public example of someone with a mind of his own, arguing with himself without ever losing sight of the larger contexts of suffering and oppression.
Still the Palestinians had no more powerful champion. Said (2004) argued that “Humanism… must excavate the silences, the world of memory, of itinerant, barely surviving groups, the places of exclusion and invisibility, the kind of testimony that doesn’t make it into the reports” (p. 81). To this end he made it his business to keep talking about Palestine, to say again and again and again—whether he thought anyone was listening or not—that the Palestinian people exist, and that while they have the sorry fate of being the victims of the 20th Century’s emblematic victims, they still have the same rights as any other people. Because all human beings are entitled to the same standards in regard to justice and freedom, Palestinians must be recognized; there simply is no sensible refutation to that self-evident if inconvenient fact. Against the most high-powered propaganda barrage, in the face of threats and smear campaigns, cancellations of talks and spurious “investigations,” Said stubbornly stood his ground and spoke of Palestinians.
His book-length essay After the Last Sky (Said, 1999) written with the Swiss photographer, Jean Mohr, provides an extended reflection on the lives of Palestinians, and fulfills his injunction to “excavate the silences.” In it he portrays Palestinians, reflects on the images the wider world has of them as well as the images they have of themselves. He maps the corrosive dimensions of occupation, and clarifies the basic human need for people to narrate their own stories in order to move forward.
It is for the Palestinian people themselves “to provide the answer that power and paranoia cannot” (Said, 2004, p. 51), he wrote in Al-Ahram and Al-Hayat in 2001. That answer “can only come from moral vision” based on a common humanity, and never from “pragmatism” nor “practicality”: “If we are all to live—this is our imperative—we must capture the imagination not just of our people but of our oppressors.” (p. 51) In order to accomplish that, Palestinians must “abide by humane democratic values” (p. 51). The moral vision must be “based on equality and inclusion rather than on apartheid and exclusion.” (p. 56) This is a humanist response to a very human tragedy.
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Human beings, and particularly intellectuals and researchers, are driven by a long, continuous: “I don’t know.” It is, after all, not the known that pushes and pull us along, although we must be serious about preparation, work, discipline, and labor. Doing research can be hard work, and a researcher can feel (if she is like others who’ve gone down this path) as if she’s crashed into a wall—overwhelmed, uncertain, deeply confused and dislocated in turn. But if she stays with it, if she dives into the wreckage, she will likely find moments of relief, exhilaration, self-discovery, and even of joy.
There is a long tradition of scholarship whose avowed purpose is to combat silence, to defeat erasure and invisibility—this is research for social justice, research to resist harm and redress grievances, research with the explicit goal of promoting a more balanced, fair, and equitable social order. Several questions can serve as guideposts for this kind of inquiry:
∑ What are the issues that marginalized or disadvantaged people speak of with excitement, anger, fear, or hope?
∑ How can I enter a dialogue in which I will learn from a specific community itself about problems and obstacles they face?
∑ What endogenous experiences do people already have that can point the way toward solutions?
∑ What narrative is missing from the “official story” that will make the problems of the oppressed more understandable?
∑ What current or proposed policies serve the privileged and the powerful, and how are they made to appear inevitable?
∑ How can the public space for discussion, problem-posing and problem-solving, fuller and wider participation be expanded?
There is no single procedure, no computer program that will allow this work to take care of itself; there is no set of techniques that is orderly, efficient, and pretested that can provide complete distance from a phenomenon under study or from the process of inquiry itself. Researchers draw on judgment, experience, instinct, common sense, courage, reflection, further study. There is always more to know, always something in reserve. We’re never exactly comfortable, but neither are we numb or sleep-walking. We don’t get harmony, but we do get a kind of arching forward—always reaching, pursuing, longing, opening, rethinking.
Researchers must peer into the unknown and cultivate habits of vigilance and awareness, a radical openness, as we continually remind ourselves that in an infinite and expanding universe our ignorance is vast, our finiteness itself all the challenge we should need to propel ourselves forward. Knowing this, we nourish an imagination that’s defiant and limitless, and like the color blue or love or friendship, impossible to define without a maiming reductiveness. The goal is discovery and surprise, and in the end it is our gusto, our immersion, our urgency, enthusiasm, and raw nerve that will take us hurling toward the next horizon. We remind ourselves that the greatest work awaits us, and that we are never higher than when we’re not exactly certain where we’re going.
What interests, tendencies, or classes does our research precisely serve? What will invite people to become more aware, more critical, creative, active and productive, more free? While researchers might never know definitively how to answer these questions a priori, a certain angle of regard might help each of us to make sounder judgments, to construct a more hopeful and workable standard by which we can examine our efforts. We begin by recognizing that every human being, no matter who, is a gooey biological wonder, pulsing with the breath and beat of life itself, eating, sleeping, pissing and shitting, prodded by sexual urges, evolved and evolving, shaped by genetics, twisted and gnarled and hammered by the unique experiences of living. Every human being also has a unique and complex set of circumstances that makes his or her life understandable and sensible, bearable or unbearable. This recognition asks us to reject any action that treats anyone as an object, any gesture that thingifies human beings. It demands that we embrace the humanity of every student and every research collaborator, that we take their side.
What are the challenges to human beings today? What does the hope for democracy demand now? Edward Said points out that “Our country is first of all an extremely diverse immigrant society, with fantastic resources and accomplishments, but it also contains a redoubtable set of internal inequities and external interventions that cannot be ignored.” (Said 1994, p. 99) We are faced with the enduring stain of racism and the ever more elusive and intractable barriers to racial justice, the rapidly widening gulf between rich and poor, and the enthronement of greed. We are faced as well with aggressive economic and military adventures abroad, the macho posturing of men bonding in groups and enacting a kind of theatrical but no less real militarism, the violence of conquest and occupation from the Middle East and Central Asia to South America.
Encountering these facts thrusts us into the realm of human agency and choice, the battlefield of social action and change, where we come face to face with some stubborn questions: Can we, perhaps, stop the suffering? Can we alleviate at least some of the pain? Can we repair any of the loss? There are deeper considerations: can society be changed at all? Is it remotely possible—not inevitable, certainly, perhaps not even likely—for people to come together freely, to imagine a more just and peaceful social order, to join hands and organize for something better, and to win? Can we do anything?
If a fairer, more sane and just social order is both desirable and possible, if some of us can join one another to imagine and build a participatory movement for justice, a public space for the enactment of democratic dreams, our field opens slightly. There would still be much to be done, for nothing would be entirely settled. We would still need to find ways to stir ourselves and our students from passivity, cynicism, and despair, to reach beyond the superficial barriers that wall us off from one another, to resist the flattening social evils like institutionalized racism, to shake off the anesthetizing impact of the authoritative, official voices that dominate so much of our space, to release our imaginations and act on behalf of what the known demands, linking our conduct firmly to our consciousness. We would need to reconceptualize ourselves as “stunt-intellectuals,” the ones who are called upon when the other intellectuals refuse to jump off the bridge. We would be moving, then, without guarantees, but with purpose and with some small spark of hope.
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In 1967 at the age of 50, with the rat-tat-tat of revolution in the air, and an exuberant sense of change sweeping throughout the whole world, Gwendolyn Brooks—with several books of poetry, a novel, and a Pulitzer Prize under her belt—wrote of the grand rebirth of consciousness during the early days of the Black Arts Movement:
I who have ‘gone the gamut’ from an almost angry rejection of my dark skin… to a surprised queenhood in the new black sun—am qualified to enter at least the kindergarten of new consciousness now. New consciousness and trudge-toward-progress.
I have hopes for myself. (In Alexander, 2004, p. 44).
“New consciousness and trudge-toward-progress”—we’re reminded that it is only the urgency of youth that can set the pace and the tone of what is to come, of what is to be done, and still, in the grace and fullness of age we might learn to follow along, to enter at least the kindergarten of the new. Because I have hopes for my students and my young colleagues, because I have ambitions for my children and my grand-daughter, I also have hopes for myself.
Alexander, E. (2004). The black interior. St. Paul: Graywolf.
Barenboim, D. (2005). “Maestro.” In: Homi Bhabha and W.J.T. Michell, eds. Edward Said: Continuing the conversation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 163-167.
DuBois, W.E.B. (2001). The education of black people: Ten critiques 1906-1960. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Gramsci, A. (1971). The prison notebooks: Selections. Translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell-Smith. New York: International Publishers.
Mills, C.W. (1963). Power, politics, and people: The Collected Essays of C. Wright Mills. Irving Louis Horowitz, ed. New York: Ballantine.
Said, E.W. (1994). Representations of the intellectual. New York: Pantheon.
Said, E.W. (1999). After the last sky: Palestinian lives. New York: Columbia University Press.
Said, E.W. (2004A). From Oslo to Iraq and the road map: Essays. New York: Vintage Books.
Said, E.W. (2004B). Humanism and democratic criticism. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Zinn, H. (1997). The Zinn reader: Writings on disobedience and democracy. New York: Seven Stories.