Much is said on the Bloggernacle about the cognitive dissonance that many feel as they try to reconcile the knowledge they acquire through scholarly treatments of Mormonism with what they hear in their church meetings every Sunday. In this post I would like to explore another form of cognitive dissonance that I find quite prevalent in my own quest to become a professional historian. I hope that you will permit me a moment of personal reflection about something that I think is relevant for those who produce and consume academic history.
My history department here at the U of I is what I would consider a very politically-minded group. These very bright men and women, many of whom I admire very much, strive through their own processes of historical inquiry to reveal examples of social injustice, promote community activism, and rebuild the world according to their own utopian visions. My department is closely affiliated with the ethnic and gender studies programs on campus with many history professors holding joint appointments in these other politically-charged units. These distinguished scholars have gathered around them a body of like-minded graduate students that carry an equal fire for making the world a better place through their research and writing. I remember the impressive answers that members of my cohort gave when our department head asked each of us what historical problems keep us up at night. Issues of violence, oppression, death, and war dominated the discussion. I admire the tenacity and sincerity of those that radically seek to change the world by revealing the mistakes of the past.
Nevertheless, I find that most historians rarely offer methods for solving social problems; we are excellent at identifying and documenting oppression but poor at righting such wrongs. We also hold such myopic views of our own issues that petty matters often put us at odds with those with whom our politics cross. When such political issues combine with the jealousies and antagonisms inherent in the realities of tenure procedures, departmental bureaucracy, and funding issues the solidarities of the scholarly enterprise often rip at the seams. At times we let intellectual arrogance get in the way of true dialogue and empathy.
I am not trying to be overly critical of professional historians; instead, I’m just trying to describe the disconnectedness I often feel within graduate seminars. I love the intellectual stimulation of graduate school, and my studies have helped me understand my priorities and beliefs. Yet I sometimes find myself arguing about things I really don’t believe and holding back some of my true opinions in order to avoid mockery or offense. When I focus my life exclusively on scholarly debate, I seem to feel less connected to the real world. I guess I’m simply wondering if my experience is unique. Do others experience similar cognitive dissonance in their academic pursuits? How do you deal with it? I apologize for the personal nature of this post, but this topic has been in the forefront of my mind as I continue my preparations for my preliminary exams.