Academic politics are so vicious because the stakes are so small.
That adage received a curious twist after the American Studies Association voted in December to boycott Israel’s higher-education institutions to protest its treatment of Palestinians.
A symbolic and nonviolent gesture is what Matthew Frye Jacobson, a former president of the association, called it in a recent interview, adding, “If that’s not allowable, then what is?” Within a month, however, the presidents of more than 100 colleges and universities denounced the resolution. “Academic boycotts subvert the academic freedoms and values necessary to the free flow of ideas,” Drew Gilpin Faust of Harvard wrote in a statement echoing what the other presidents said.
Since then, the controversy has spilled into statehouses and even Congress. A bill introduced in February in the House of Representatives would make an institution that participates in such a boycott ineligible for certain funds. Legislators in at least seven states have introduced similar bills or proposed resolutions condemning academic boycotts (the Illinois effort was voted down in committee last week).
The association’s protest has also provoked larger questions about American studies. Has a discipline that in the 1950s and 1960s was a model of bold interdisciplinary inquiry — fusing literature and history, sociology and economics, popular culture and ethnography — changed, or degenerated, into a bastion of ideological militancy? Continue reading “Post-american studies”