- Professing Democracy: An Historian’s Guide
Among the delicious tidbits of academic culture scattered throughout Intellect and Public Life is this piece of advice taken from Charles Beard’s syllabus for a politics class at Columbia University:
[R]ead broadly in the great works on American History, for it is in the record of things done, rather than in theoretical treatises that the actual operation and spirit of our institutions are to be sought, and practical guidance for the present and the future to be found.
This book fits the criteria for inclusion on Beard’s reading list. Its author skillfully sifts through the past to find actions and ideas that provide “practical guidance” for readers who may be lost in the epistomological quandaries and cultural battles of contemporary academic life. Mining the record of intellectual history that extends from the early nineteenth century up through the 1950s, Bender retrieves copious examples, admonitions, advice, and inspiration to persuade scholars to venture outside the academy and into democratic public discourse. Bender’s positive, generous, civil voice injects a soothing dose of optimism into current academic [End Page 135] debates, and his invocation of “public culture” delivers a needed antidote to the spurious concept that shares the same initial consonants.
These essays, written between 1977 and 1991, assemble under one cover an array of historical evidence for the notion that the life of the mind has flourished outside the ivory tower. The concept of the public that links these essays together is a relatively late addition to Bender’s rich stock of historical resources. He first set historians to thinking about the public in a widely read essay published in the Journal of American History in 1987, 1 which became the basis of much discussion, if too little implementation. In this volume, Bender elaborates that argument and anticipates a book-length treatment to be titled “History and Public Culture.” Sorting quickly through the theories of Kant, Arendt, Habermas, and Rorty, Bender turns to John Dewey for the most congenial rendering of the public norm of academic citizenship. In his book of 1927, The Public and Its Problems, Dewey sought to bridge the gap between academic epistemology and the everyday knowledge of politics as he enjoined intellectuals to find truth in the public practice of open, democratic communication. Democracy, according to Dewey, finds its “consummation when free social inquiry is indissolubly wedded to the art of full and moving communication” in public. Elsewhere Bender calls Dewey’s ideal setting of public intellect a “participatory community of truth makers,” stressing the contingent, provisional nature of usable public truths.
In the grip of Bender’s lucid and lean prose, the ideal of public intellect takes on a persuasive simplicity that can veil both its radical implications and practical difficulties. The power of the argument also stems from Bender’s ability to embody intellect in some very appealing human shapes. Dewey is one of a cast of heroic intellectuals who carry forward the program of democratic academic citizenship. (Devotees of academic melodrama will also find some villains lurking in the administration building, like President Nicholas Murray Butler at Columbia.) Dewey’s colleague, Charles Beard, stood even taller upon the academic landscape. Beard presented a theory of public culture in academic vernacular, likening the historian’s role, for example, to that of a “statesman, without portfolio to be sure, but with a kindred sense of public responsibility.” He also steadfastly resisted the role of social science expert and exercised a researcher’s obligations to “direct development through some sort of democratic politics.” Finally, Beard acted the part of academic hero; when Columbia’s war-time administration began to police the thoughts and politics of the faculty, Beard decisively and publicly resigned. [End Page 136]
Bender concedes that Charles Beard’s heroism had its quixotic aspects, including an individualistic propensity to resign from quite a number of academic positions in addition to a Columbia professorship. But such individualism is an exception in a tale of remarkable...