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Academia: What is the difference between thinking and being?
Thinking through people one knows (or knows of) in the humanities in the US these days, one might be struck by the diversity of provenance of the names. That is, until one begins to realize that the person with the Arab name is studying Middle Eastern politics and literature; the people with German names are studying German and Austrian literature, and German history, respectively; the person with the British name is an expert on the Romantic poets; the person with the Indian name is working on modern Indian history; the person with the French name is studying republicanism in France; likewise the Italian, Russian, and so forth.

I
should say clearly that there are many notable exceptions (the exceptions include many, perhaps most, of the serious scholars I know)
. Still, it is enough of a phenomenon to remark upon...and take seriously.

I would be interested in hearing people's thoughts about when and how allowing one's ethnic, historical, sexual or religious identity to constitute an essential part of one's expertise, or qualifications, for academic inquiry began -- and whether it is legitimate -- and why. Are we in danger of confusing the enacting of a certain identity with the intellectual interrogation of what such an identity means?
Given time and inclination,  most of us, I suppose, could became world authorities on American, Russian, Italian, French, Egyptian history and culture.
It would be much simpler, though, for those born in the aforementioned countries to parents and grandparents who had settled there.
How could we hope to compete in authenticity with the natives - even if we had managed to successfully overcome the language and culture barrier?

In response to Michael Gerson
Hi Michael,
I think your comment is one many would make, and that it shows a loss of interest, in some sense, in the faculty of analysis. Are we to become academics only to perpetuate a certain focus on our own history and culture, which we then, naturally, deem outsiders unable to comment on?
What do we want from thought or art? Are the best historians of war those who were generals? Are the best anthropologists natives of the environment under analysis? Would Henry James or Proust or Shakespeare or Woolf have written better if they had really lived like the characters in their books, rather than simply being familiar with the milieu?What I mean is that the talent of academic analysis is something distinct from embodying what is to be studied, although doubtless a certain affinity is useful, in the measure that it is not blinding.
Finally, what do you mean by the word "authenticity"? You seem to be using fluency in the sense of language or culture. Surely academic thought is something different. Is the highest goal of a scholar to be culturally authentic?
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Latest Post: April 3, 2012 at 10:45 AM
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