|Steve Sack, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune|
Should ethnomusicologists be public commentators? This question generated one of the roundtables I participated in during the Society for Ethnomusicology’s annual conference last month, in Albuquerque. The roundtable’s organizer had written some op-eds for national newspapers including the New York Times, concerning music and nationalism. For one of the op-eds earlier this year, the newspaper had identified him as an ethnomusicologist—previously he had been ID’d as a professor at a university and director of an area studies program—and the responses to his op-ed on line questioned whether ethnomusicologists had any business commenting on public policy. The gist of the negative comments was that he should stick to the subject of music. Would the negative comments have surfaced in response to my colleague’s op-ed had he been identified as a historian or a specialist in political science, a sociologist or a specialist in ethnic studies? Possibly not; but those readers took a rather narrow view of music's place in human life.
Instead of sticking to the subject of music, my colleague--incidentally, a professor who'd studied with me and gotten his degree at Brown--went on to write more op-eds and to organize this roundtable on the subject of ethnomusicologists, advocacy, and expertise—where does it lie, and what should ethnomusicologist be doing in the public arena, now? A few of the participants took the opportunity to offer autobiographical presentations about their increased participation in politics, both inside and outside universities. I took a different tack, an overview of the Society for Ethnomusicology’s history with political participation, and a counter-argument to Stanley Fish’s book, Save the World on Your Own Time. Although I did mention this blog as an example of public commentary since 2008, I wanted to take a broader and longer view about ethnomusicologists in the political arena.
As individual citizens, ethnomusicologists have always participated in politics in their own ways and in their own nations, insofar as they’ve been free to do so. My colleagues’ passionate autobiographical presentations about their current activism exemplified something that some ethnomusicologists always have done. It’s fair to say that in today’s political climate more are taking an active role than before, although few are acting as public intellectuals or spokespersons by writing op-eds, maintaining blogs, and writing or speaking to a broad audience. As in most fields of knowledge production, ethnomusicologists write chiefly for our colleagues in the universities. There’s a sense in which our teaching is more public—we reach, over the years, a cross-section of the public simply by virtue of their presence in our classrooms—but in those classrooms we confine ourselves to our subjects; we do not advocate particular political positions in a partisan manner, and we do not propagandize our students.
Fish, a professor who’s written numerous op-eds for the New York Times, agrees that professors should confine ourselves to our subjects, or academic disciplines; and that we should not, in our teaching, be political partisans and attempt to indoctrinate our students. Fish, writing eight years ago, believed that professors and universities have crossed the line into politics. No doubt he believes it even more strongly today. He does not share the anti-intellectualism of many conservatives who denigrate higher education, especially the liberal arts, and who wish for a more vocationally-oriented curriculum for colleges and universities. Nevertheless, he is emphatic that while as citizens we have every right to be political activists, we should keep activism out of the classroom and out of our professions as scholars. It follows that professional academic societies, such as the Society for Ethnomusicology (SEM), ought also to stay out of politics.
That’s what SEM did until about ten years ago. Since its inception in 1955, SEM’s objective has been to promote research and scholarly communication in the field of ethnomusicology, taking only an occasional political position vis-a-vis scholars detained and imprisoned by governments. In 2007, however, SEM issued a position statement condemning the use of music for the purpose of torture. SEM had, also, transformed itself in the 1990s into an organization that supported ethnomusicology as a profession and also supported ethnomusicologists—that is, SEM increasingly promoted the field among educators at all levels, K-12 and higher, and it considered part of its mission professional development of graduate students, something previously left to the faculty at their own universities, particularly their dissertation advisers—some of whom regularly did so, but others did not. What had been, in 1971 when I joined it, a group of scholars who came together at regional and international conferences and published a journal for the purpose of sharing research and advancing knowledge, had now become an institution devoted to sustaining the field itself. No doubt this is helpful at a time when the number of qualified ethnomusicologists is greater than the number of jobs in the field, yet I confess to a bit of nostalgia for the old days when more of the informal conversations at these conferences was about ideas than careers.
In addition to his views that professors should “do their jobs” (teach their disciplines and do research in their fields) and “not do someone else’s job” (that is, don’t do anything else as teachers, such as promote political activism in the classroom), Fish believes that professors should “not let anyone else do their jobs.” But this is why professors become activists—that is, when people other than professors tell them how to do their jobs, and enforce those views by various means—redistributing budgets, hiring more part-time labor, encouraging vocational training, and so on. I have written here before of the threat to higher education in the transformation of the university from a collegial to a corporate institution, with a corresponding transformation in values among administrators, if not faculty.
But for the past two years, with a new politics of populism and anti-intellectualism ascendant and in control of state legislatures (which allocate money to state universities) and Congress (which allocates money to funding agencies such as the National Science Foundation, and whose political appointments to head these agencies change their direction), professors face a different and equally serious threat to the values of academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas. Which is to say, the academic professions face that threat; and increasingly, SEM and other academic societies (as well as universities themselves) are issuing position statements on political matters (such as DACA, immigration, minority rights, and so on), with the near-full support of their constituent memberships.
This doesn’t answer, directly, the question about why a professor of ethnomusicology might be qualified as a political pundit. But that answer is simple. Ethnomusicologists’ expertise isn’t confined to music. We are also historians, anthropologists, sociologists: we study society, history, and culture. Some of us also have backgrounds in the sciences. We don’t just study the structure of music, or how to appreciate it, or how to perform it, although these things are important. We are concerned with music and sound not simply as structure or aesthetics or a craft, but as a way of life. And that requires understanding life as it is lived, not only in our home communities and nations but all over the world.