Faculty discuss intellectual history in wake of controversial tenure case

May 26, 2016, 12:06 a.m.

Robert Harrison, Rosina Pierotti Professor in Italian Literature, Russell Berman, Walter A Haas Professor in the Humanities and Aishwary Kumar, assistant professor of history, participated in a two-hour public panel discussion “What Is Intellectual History?” on Tuesday evening at Pigott Hall as part of a student-led effort questioning Stanford’s commitment to global intellectual history. The event was prompted by Kumar’s denial of tenure on March 30.

The panel discussion, followed by a Q&A with the speakers, advocated for recognizing the ability of intellectual history to fostering dialogue between ideas that serves as the foundation for global citizenship. Harrison, Berman and Kumar also considered the relationship between intellectual history, tenure and recent campus conversation about undergraduate curriculum.

The audience included undergraduate, graduate, alumni and faculty attendees across disciplines, including intellectual historian Paul Robinson; Richard Lyman Professor in the Humanities, emeritus; Ewa Domanska, associate professor of anthropology; Eavan Boland, Melvin and Bill Lane Professor of English – among others.

Truman Chen ’17, an undergraduate involved in organizing the panel, expressed hope that the panel would not only serve to put a face to Kumar’s name, but also generate campus-wide discussions about intellectual history.

“This [panel] is about starting a larger conversation about the value of the history of ideas on campus,” Chen said. “These seemingly academic disputes over methodologies have a really big impact when it comes to teaching students how to be in the world.”

In her opening remarks for the discussion, Sojourner Ahébée ’18, one of Kumar’s former students, stressed the importance of intellectual history to bringing out the the “true force of ideas by putting them in conversation with each other.”

“Ideas move,” Ahébée said. “It is exactly the urgency of this movement, this fluidity, that Professor Kumar allows us to locate and ask questions of.


What is intellectual history?

Intellectual history, defined by Harrison, who moderated the panel, is the study of the history of thought across cultures and “the channels of communication between them.”

Harrison contrasted intellectual history with the discipline of area studies, which prioritizes the geographic and nationalist categorization of intellectual inquiry – for instance, as with African or South Asian studies.

“Area studies falls short of the goal or idea of what has been called a global education,” Harrison said. “We need a form of history that gets inside of those who do the thinking in a given society or culture.”

Berman and Kumar named contextualism, the attempt to “[explain] an idea by where it came from,” as Berman defined it, as an inadequate approach for assessing the value of an idea.

“If context is our only game in town, we will never actually unpack the true power of ideas and their transformative promise,” Kumar said. “We think not in a context, but to grow out of it.”

Kumar cited thinker and activist Mohandas Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930, an act of mass civil disobedience against the British salt tax levied on Indians, as an example of a historical event inspired by thought that deviated from European and Indian intellectual traditions.

“We are tethered to certainty, but what ideas really allow us to do is to break from every limit that is imposed on us institutionally and disciplinarily,” Kumar said. “That idea of courage is central to the idea of intellectual history, a risk fundamental not just to intellectual history, but to who we are today as citizens.”


Risk-taking in academic tenure

During the panel discussion, Harrison and Berman discussed the risk that tenure itself affords scholars by granting them job security. Harrison called it “academic freedom from persecution.”

“What happens within the university, ideally, is that we can place intellectuality singularly in the center of what we do,” he said, addressing the audience. “For the time of your undergraduate careers, for the time of our tenures, we get to spend a lot of focus on intellectuality in a way that lots of people can’t because they’re torn and pulled and pushed in directions by the vicissitudes of society. We have a kind of privilege within this institution to focus on that intellectuality.”

According to Berman, more tenured scholars could take advantage of this risk.

Students involved in appealing Kumar’s case suggested that Kumar’s work on intellectual history fills a void in the academic study of history.

When we began to think about this a few weeks ago, we said that we must tackle this tenure issue in the language of scholarship,” said Rehan Adamjee ’16, who was involved in organizing the panel, in reference to the case for Kumar’s appeal.

Since March 30, a student-led coalition of undergraduate and graduate students – many of whom are current or former students of Kumar – alumni and faculty organized in protest of the Department of History’s decision to deny Kumar tenure.

The panel was the latest in a string of activities including the release of an op-ed in the Stanford Political Journal, hanging up banners bearing slogans like “global history does not equal area studies” and student testimonies to Kumar’s teaching in the History Corner and circulating a petition to appeal the denial of Kumar’s tenure.

“For us, we count this [panel] as an innovation in addressing questions of tenure and scholarship, speaking in a language that is non-ideological,” Adamjee said.

Panel attendee Alexander Kucy ’17, who had attended a lecture by Kumar as a freshman in Structured Liberal Education, expressed concern about the next steps in pushing an appeal for Kumar’s case.

“It sucks to be at Stanford and feel disempowered as a student,” Kucy said. “The University shouldn’t be set up for that.”

Chen suggested the turnout for the panel, which exceeded room capacity, was a testament to community interest in the field of intellectual history.

More people than RSVP’d showed up,” Chen said. “That speaks to how important these ideas are and how little discussion there is on them at the high level that was provided by the panel.”

Intellectual history and the core

The panelists also addressed the discussion of intellectual history in the context of conversations about the core curriculum, prompted by Adamjee’s questions about how students could best engage in the most recent controversies prompted by the Stanford Review’s call for a Western Civilization requirement.

While Berman did not support the requirement proposed by the Stanford Review, he said, “What I heard on both sides of that debate was a very strong desire for certain kinds of courses that addressed big ideas…separate from academic specialization.”

He differentiated the Western curriculum, courses covering the Western intellectual tradition, from the concept of a unified core, which would embrace “big idea courses” across history and geography.

Harrison also said during the panel that after the Stanford’s Western culture debates in 1988, the termination of the Western culture requirement meant the termination of a core. He argued that the end of a unified core, regardless of geographic categorization, was the end of “a grand narrative” that “[enabled] an exchange of ideas among students” through common texts.

Berman added the perspective that the 1980s saw a pedagogical shift from telling grand narratives to what he termed “hyperspecialization” among University faculty.

“Individual faculty were less prone to making big claims because they didn’t want to take the risk of going outside of their specialty,” Berman said.

In response to a question raised by J. Y. Lee M.A. ’16 during the Q&A about action students could take to resist the denial of Kumar’s tenure, Berman said, “If the analysis is correct, that the reason we don’t have the core, a.k.a. sufficient big idea courses, is because of a predisposition toward specialization in the humanities faculty, students should demand more [of the faculty].”

“We need to responsibly approach the very category of Western civilization,” Kumar said. “There are traditions now that cannot be understood within their insularity or isolation. What we need is a place for a radical equality in which traditions can be approached on their own terms, with equal freedom.”

A full recording of the panel discussion can be found here.


Contact Irene Hsu at [email protected] and Madeleine Han at [email protected].

Seunghwa Madeleine Han '17 is a sophomore at Stanford interested in English, international relations and the intersection of technology and human communication. She is currently a contributing writer for music and a former news desk editor at The Daily. Contact her at mhan95 'at' stanford.edu to find out more.

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