Intellectuals, Academics, and Historians, Oh My!

So, for the past two weeks, I’ve been carrying around two articles not quite knowing what to write about them.  I found both of them to be quite compelling and thought-provoking, and I knew I wanted to share them, but I just couldn’t figure out a good approach.  To be honest, I still don’t have one; nonetheless, I wanted to share my thoughts.  The two articles appeared within one day of each other- “Failure of European Intellectuals?” by Jan-Werner Müller, and “Missing Voices” by Anand Menon- and were calls for action in Europe.

Müller asks what the role of Europe’s intellectuals should be.  One topic that struck me was the role of ideas.  In the 20th century, so Müller argues, ideas mattered and “could be directly translated into politics and turn into deadly forces.”  My response to this was rather cynical, asking if ideas still matter.  In an age when money plays a larger and larger role in politics, do ideas even matter?  Would anybody listen to them?  For that matter, are the ideas espoused by politicians original ideas, or do they originate with big business?  This is where the intellectuals come into play.  They are the ones who are supposed to take all of the messages, “clarify the options,” explain the benefits and detriments,  “and then [leave] it to the peoples of Europe to decide.”  Ideally, the result would be a European population who would at least begin to understand how the EU works.

Menon’s article notes the “absence of academics” in the important debates among policymakers.  He argues that while publications in academic journals leads to success in academia, academics can and should address “pressing contemporary problems.”  This reminded me of an panel I attended at the 125th Annual Meeting of the AHA titled, “The Public Uses of History and the Global War on Terror.” Here’s what I wrote (on my school website) on Jan 10, 2011, about the panel, “Perhaps one of the biggest arguments made by many of the panelists was for historians to engage in public discourse regarding policies.  Of course, this may be easier for those at post-secondary institutions who have a greater degree of intellectual freedom than those of us at the secondary level.  The other interesting issue at stake for this panel was that of the correct use of history.  Numerous analogies have been made between the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq with previous wars, notably Vietnam and the Second World war.  Two of the panelists in particular argued that policymakers and other government officials have misused history to formulate policies.”

I think it is safe to say, then, that the public needs to hear more from intellectuals and academics when trying to make sense of political issues.  Not only would this lead to a more informed citizenry, but it would also help policymakers avoid the mistakes of the past (if they decide to listen).

Regards,

Jason

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