Friday, December 04, 2009

The human terrain

It seems the Pentagon's 2-year-old program embedding social scientists - especially anthropologists - in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan has been condemned by a committee of anthropologists. The program, with the rather mind-blowing name Human Terrain System, was criticized as "dangerous, unethical and unscholarly" at a panel at the recent meeting of the American Anthropological Association, reports the Times.

The report cited insufficient training to prepare scholars for work in the field, concern about confidentiality and obtaining informed consent from the local population, and the possibility that collected research could be used to select military targets. Scholars are supposed to refuse to hand over any data they suspect will be used for choosing targets.

Is this conflict of values surprising? Not really, I suppose. But it's probably too easy for us academics to think we can avoid dirty hands altogether. The work of anthropologists with the military goes back at least to Ruth Benedict's Chrysanthemum and the Sword, which became the Bible of the American occupation of Japan after WW2. The philological work of old-style Orientalists was so definitively linked with the imperatives of imperial occupation by Edward Said that the very word Orientalism changed meaning. Much of political science, economics and area studies aimed to influence policy in the cold war and towards the third world. In our own time, lots of scientific work meets the interests of funding agencies, private and public (including the military). Not all academic work is directed this way, but it's naive to suppose none of it will be, or should be.

And yet a certain discomfort seems appropriate. The results of scholarship might well inform policy - and make it more insightul and effective - but this can't be the purpose of the scholarship. Or at least I'd want to say that scholarship serves the public interest best by not aiming to aid any particular agenda. In fact particular agendas will get more from scholarship that - if not as "value-neutral" as Weber thought it can and should be - at least seeks to be objective or impartial. I won't be able to persuade you that my policies are worth supporting if all the evidence I offer is the work of scholars for hire, laboring away at my party think tank. Indeed scholarship isn't worth supporting in general if it isn't useful in this general way, if it doesn't (to use a fashionable term) speak truth to power, or (to use the phrase from Weber's "Wissenschaft als Beruf" that is the lodestar of my own teaching) provide "inconvenient facts" for every party opinion.

These issues can seem far away at a liberal arts college, since liberal arts are understood as aiming for just this level of generality and common good. This generality permits free inquiry and attention to larger questions but it can also cover a multitude of sins. Liz Coleman's making such waves because colleges have become factories of knowledge so specialized and arcane as to seem untranslatable into the more general concerns they're supposed to be illuminating. As Coleman (who worked at The New School for a period, before ending up shaking up Bennington) makes clear, these issues come up in interesting ways especially in schools that think themselves "progressive," as ours does. Is "progressive" a subset of liberal arts, the superlative form of liberal arts, or, to the contrary, a kind of defection from it? (On these questions I'm more liberal than some of my colleagues, whose self-understanding is more politically engaged where mine is more, well, academic. They'd smile or grimace at my use of words like objectivity and impartiality.)

The relation of academic work to service is an old set of problems, still far from clearly solved, but recently it's coming up in a new way, too, as our new provost contemplates developing new curricula in something he's calling "applied liberal arts." Designed for application in general, or for particular applications? Maybe we can get a better purchase on the broader questions by working through what keeps "applied liberal arts" liberal...

1 comment:

mark said...

Haha, when I wrote this I didn't know that Liz Coleman's activities at The New School included founding the Freshman Year Program, and helming the Seminar College!