Engaging Imaginations, Making History
by Gail Robinson
Related Stories: Downright Prescient
The scholars and writers selected for the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program are tackling the big questions in the Twitterverse of clicks, shares, sound bites, likes, and short attention spans
On March 10, 2018, Harris County Sheriff Mike Jolley apologized for a crime committed before he was born: the 1947 murder of Henry “Peg” Gilbert in a rural Georgia jail.
“We should have protected him,” said Jolley. “It should have never happened.”
The statement came as Gilbert’s descendants and members of the community rededicated the graves of Henry and his wife, Mae, 71 years after he was brutally beaten to death in Harris County. The facts of Gilbert’s death and the impetus for the ceremony came from the work of the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice (CRRJ) Project at Northeastern University School of Law. CRRJ is compiling a database of racially motivated killings in mid-20th-century America — as many as 500 deaths that share some elements with Gilbert’s murder. The project’s director, Margaret Burnham, is a 2016 Carnegie fellow.
Nearly 1,000 miles north of Harris County, in a quiet corner of Brooklyn, New York, historian Jared Farmer walks among the graves in Green-Wood Cemetery, a park-like swath that holds an array of curious and gaudy tombstones marking the remains of luminaries such as Leonard Bernstein, Horace Greeley, and Samuel F. B. Morse.
To Farmer, the most noteworthy denizens of the cemetery are not the interred souls but the living trees, many of them 150 years old. He believes that studying these trees and their older cousins can offer insight into not only trees but into longevity and the value of long-term thinking in a physical environment being radically altered by humans.
Farmer was named a Carnegie fellow in 2017, one of 99 exceptional individuals selected for the program since 2015, each of them receiving a grant of up to $200,000 from Carnegie Corporation of New York to pursue a special project.
With their very different backgrounds and projects, Burnham and Farmer demonstrate the broad range of the fellows as well as traits the fellows share. All are doing serious work in the humanities or social sciences. Their research is aimed at advancing scholarship in their own fields or beyond. “We want people who are doing forward-thinking work. We want people who are going to push their field to the next level,” says Zoe Ingalls, special assistant to the president of Carnegie Corporation and head of the program.
“There is an alarming rise in ‘anti-public intellectual’ discourse.… The demise of the public intellectual across the world is a bad sign.”
— Elif Shafak, The Guardian
As the fellows research, write, engage, and speak out, they defy popular ideas about the world we live in. “In the age of information, when we are bombarded from all sides, every minute, every hour of the day and night, it can seem that we are living in the least analytical, the least insightful of times,” Carnegie Corporation president Vartan Gregorian has written.
Our culture seems to debase expertise, knowledge, and fact-based investigation. “There is an alarming rise in ‘anti-public intellectual’ discourse. It is fed by populism, nationalism, isolationism. It is also fed by social media and a modern world with a shortened attention span,” Turkish novelist and political scientist Elif Shafak recently wrote in the Guardian. “The demise of the public intellectual across the world is a bad sign.”
In Gregorian’s view, the challenge facing public intellectuals and others “calls for integrating and resynthesizing the compartmentalized knowledge of disparate fields: the ability to make connections among seemingly different disciplines, discoveries, events, and trends and to integrate them in ways that benefit the commonwealth of learning.”
The Carnegie fellows have taken up that challenge. Their work demonstrates that humanities and social science research matters. By crossing lines between disciplines, Carnegie fellows seek to break through the bubbles that surround us. And their activism and commitment show that, while instant experts dominate cable television, serious, curious people who care about the world continue to play an important role in the public discourse.
Carnegie Corporation’s embrace of groundbreaking scholarship goes back more than a century. The foundation funded Swedish economist and sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, whose An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy, published in 1944, documented the chasm between the professed ideals of white Americans and the country’s treatment of black Americans. This work was cited in the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down “separate but equal” education for black children. Henry Kissinger’s first book, Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy, and Robert Caro’s The Power Broker, about Robert Moses and the reshaping of New York, were also written with Corporation support.
The foundation launched the fellows program in 2015, largely in response to a worrisome shortfall in funding for the social sciences and the humanities. While colleges and universities spent a total of about $62.7 billion on research and development in the physical and biological sciences, engineering, and math in 2015, these institutions spent only about $2.3 billion on research in the social studies and just slightly more than $430 million on the humanities, according to figures compiled by the National Science Foundation. At the same time, some colleges and universities have reduced classes in these fields and even eliminated entire departments.
“We need the humanities to understand how we arrived at this moment, to sort fact from fiction, to find shared values, to create alternative ways of being and living, and to ask and address profound questions about society, nature, justice, religion, art, community, and so much more.”
— Christopher Nichols, 2016 Andrew Carnegie Fellow
Despite such trends, these disciplines remain essential, says Christopher Nichols, a 2016 fellow who directs the Oregon State University Center for the Humanities. “We need the humanities now more than ever,” he says. “We need them to help us consider the complex and seemingly intractable, so-called ‘wicked problems’ we confront, such as climate change, nuclear nonproliferation, and rising inequality. In short, we need the humanities to understand how we arrived at this moment, to sort fact from fiction, to find shared values, to create alternative ways of being and living, and to ask and address profound questions about society, nature, justice, religion, art, community, and so much more.”
The Carnegie Fellows Program selects up to 35 people a year, culled from about 300 nominations. After applications are read by outside experts from the candidates’ fields, a jury, working by consensus, whittles down the list. Gregorian sees the quality of the jury as a defining characteristic of the program. Chaired by former MIT president Susan Hockfield, it comprises current and former university presidents, deans, and leaders of research institutions.
As the program unveils its fourth class, the earlier groups are well along in their research, and their explorations and ideas are already having an impact. Masha Gessen, a journalist and 2015 fellow, won the National Book Award last year for The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia, which the program funded. Described by Gessen as a “long (nonfiction) novel,” the book revolves around four narratives to describe how authoritarian leadership and a populace burdened by the past have upended efforts to create a liberal, democratic Russia.
“It is a book about trauma,” Gessen says, although she does not use that word until the end “because I wanted to stick to the rule of show and not tell.” Her aim was to change the way people look at Russia, and that has certainly happened. But Gessen cites such events as the arrest of Pussy Riot, the Russian punk rock provocateurs, and the Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. elections as playing a bigger role than her book in changing perceptions of the country.
Gessen has certainly changed the way we talk about Russia — and the way we talk about the United States. Her article in the New York Review of Books, published right after the 2016 election, led to widespread use of the term “autocrat” to describe both Russian president Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. As a “stickler for precision in language,” she says, the word is “a good term for our times to describe Trump’s aspirations and Putin’s reality.… It harkens back to the imaginary, simpler past.”
Yale University historian Timothy Snyder, another 2015 fellow, won attention for his 2017 book On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. His new book, The Road to Unfreedom, based on Corporation-funded research, appeared in April 2018. “I am trying to show a pattern that has emerged throughout the northern hemisphere — a new form of authoritarianism,” says Snyder. “I’m asserting that the 2010s were a turning point, and I’m trying to show how.”
Snyder stresses that such knowledge and understanding are essential. “We are in a mess in large part because we accepted that history was over, declared that there were no alternatives, and then educated a generation largely without the humanities,” he says.
Although the fellows are not required to weigh in on public policy, many do. Class of 2015 fellow Louise Shelley, for one, thrives on the practical applications of her research. Her project focuses on illicit trade. In the course of her work, she made a discovery that, she says, surprised even her: looking back over 4,000 years, Shelley, a professor at George Mason University, found the most profound changes in illicit trade had taken place in just the last three decades. “In the most advanced forms of illicit trade, we’re dealing in botnets and malware and things that are based on algorithms that have nothing tangible, and they’re being traded in Bitcoins and cryptocurrencies. So, we’ve gone through a total transformation of what is trade and what is illicit trade. And with that has come an incredible speeding up of how illicit trade functions,” she says.
As she finishes writing her book, Shelley testifies before Congress and international bodies, speaks to journalists, and urges policymakers to look at connections among many frightening problems facing society. “People talk about how we’ve got to have a strategy to deal with opioids and we have to have a strategy to deal with human trafficking and smuggling. And we have to have a strategy to deal with wildlife trafficking. The truth is that the criminals and the corrupt people do whatever brings in money and these are not separate phenomena,” she says. “We only perceive the act and we therefore address … the act, but the people behind the act and the facilitators are all the same people. So, we need a much more integrated approach.”
Séverine Autesserre, Barnard College professor of political science and 2016 Carnegie fellow, also seeks solutions to what many view as an intractable international scourge — violence. She is looking at peacekeeping — she prefers the term peacemaking — not from the usual perspective of failed attempts, but from the vantage point of success. “What’s going to enable a village or a community or a district or a province to be peaceful?” she asks. “What are the kinds of projects that can work?”
Autesserre has concluded that peacemaking must be led by “the actual people on the ground who are experiencing the conflict and are suffering from the conflict. It has to be led, it has to be designed, it has to be spearheaded by local actors.” She quickly adds that outsiders can help, but says they “have to help in a much smarter way and in a much better way, more efficient and more effective.”
In her view, there’s no conflict between being an academic and being involved in advocacy. “The academy is a great place to think, to research, and to write because you have a lot of freedom and a lot of time,” she says. “I have the time to gather a lot of information, digest it, write it in a very accessible way, and then give it back to policymakers, to practitioners, to people who are interested in changing the world, and telling them, ‘Look, this is what I found … you can take it from there.’” She concludes: “That’s why academia is a good place to be an activist.”
To accomplish change, Autesserre hopes to reach beyond academics and specialists: “We need to find a way to make peace very sexy, to make peace be as sexy as war, because to me it is much more sexy than war.… We have to find a way to make peace be a thing that people want to talk about and think about.”
Many of the fellows strive to bring the public into the humanities conversation. Historian Christopher Nichols, who studies American isolationism, is going beyond his own work to host a conference this spring on “the role of ideas, ideologies, and intellectuals in the history of U.S. foreign relations.” The participants hope to produce a book and attract media coverage aimed at a broader audience.
The Citizenship and Crisis Initiative Nichols directs already has had a wide reach. It has organized town halls and other events using a major occasion, such as the centenary of World War I, as a springboard for discussions about the meaning of citizenship and its obligations. “Having done this with thousands of people, it strikes me that there is a rising clamor for deep thought and more informed discussion and analysis, and for ways to find common ground without reducing or dismissing difference,” he says.
Restorative justice seeks not to punish crime but to repair the harm done by crime. In cases of racially motivated killing, the damage scars so many aspects of U.S. society, one could say understanding these cases is integral to understanding America.
Reaching out is also a major part of Margaret Burnham’s work on the Civil Rights and Restorative Justice database, which builds on a project launched in the late 1980s to compile information on lynchings in 10 Southern states from 1882 to 1930. Such work has a variety of applications. Burnham says she expects the data she is assembling and interpreting “will allow social scientists to completely reinterpret the Jim Crow period by looking more carefully at the role of violence and the role of law enforcement.… What is it that makes this period distinctive?”
Burnham sees the data as having a significant impact for law enforcement, high schools, colleges, and libraries. But the first purpose, she says, “is to bring dignity to the lives of the victims and their families, their survivors.”
Restorative justice seeks not to punish crime but to repair the harm done by crime. In cases of racially motivated killing, the damage scars so many aspects of U.S. society, one could say understanding these cases is integral to understanding America. “I think we’re experiencing a moment where we are investigating these issues, pulling cases together, and adding to our understanding,” Burnham says.
“This is not the brightest moment as far as our racial history is concerned, in part because our country is so deeply divided along lines that could be described as political but certainly have racial dynamics,” she adds. “So this is a time in which we need to understand why we look like we do as a country.… History can enlighten our inquiry and has to enlighten our inquiry into all of this.”
“When we talk about events in the future we tend to talk about them being in front of us, past events being behind us. In a number of languages it works the opposite way, where the past is seen as being in front of you and the future behind you. There are more exotic systems too, where the future might be uphill.”
— Caleb Everett, 2015 Andrew Carnegie Fellow
Also seeking to shine a light on history is 2017 Carnegie fellow Monica Muñoz Martinez of Brown University. She is exploring thousands of killings of Mexican migrants by police and vigilantes in the Texas-Mexico borderlands between 1910 and 1920.
Some Carnegie fellows go farther afield. Caleb Everett, an anthropologist at the University of Miami and 2015 fellow, explores languages that few people speak and which probably will not exist in 100 years. Everett is the son of linguist Daniel Everett, who studied the Pirahã, an indigenous people of the Amazon rain forest. Caleb Everett spent part of his childhood near the Pirahã and later studied them himself. As he explains in his 2017 book, Numbers and the Making of Us, he realized that the Pirahã did not have words for numbers. This led Everett to conclude that knowing numbers — counting — is not innate human behavior but a cultural convention.
Everett’s Carnegie-sponsored research extends this work into other areas where language reveals differences in how humans think about basic things such as color, odor, and time. “Some really interesting data have surfaced from a variety of languages showing the disparities in how people refer to time,” he explains. “When we talk about events in the future we tend to talk about them being in front of us, past events being behind us. In a number of languages it works the opposite way, where the past is seen as being in front of you and the future behind you. There are more exotic systems too, where the future might be uphill.”
Although much environmental research is done by atmospheric scientists and geophysicists, among others, Carnegie fellows approach environmental issues from the humanities.
While Everett rather cheerfully admits that there may not be major practical applications to his work, he and his colleagues do address very big questions. “To ultimately understand ourselves as a species, people like me believe you need to understand human cognition, human thought, and to do that you have to look at these diverse populations and diverse languages.” He asks: “Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? And then, interrelatedly, what does it mean to be human from the perspective of diversity? How much do humans actually vary?” Everett concludes: “That to me is one of the central questions of my research.”
As they study important issues and break down barriers between disciplines, a number of fellows look at the changing physical environment. Although much environmental research is done by atmospheric scientists and geophysicists, among others, Carnegie fellows approach environmental issues from the humanities.
Jared Farmer calls himself a geohumanist. “I was struggling to describe to people what I do because I’m trained in history, but then I’m kind of a geographer, I’m kind of an environmental scientist, there’s some overlap with geomorphology,” he explains. While he thinks environmental is an ugly word that has been politicized, for him “geo is such a beautiful prefix that pertains to Earth. So geohumanist — I like it because it puts Earth first.”
He focuses on trees, some of which live thousands of years, partly because, “people care about trees. I have yet to meet a person who tells me, ‘I hate trees.’ They are useful, a symbol for many other things,” he says, “and encourage a wonder about world and time.… They help us think in these longer durations in a way that animals can’t.”
“Hopelessness is one of the major challenges facing scholars who work on climate change issues,” but “human beings are creative and resilient, and innovations, policies, and programs could help us adapt to accelerated unnatural climate change.”
— María Cristina García, 2016 Andrew Carnegie Fellow
Farmer thinks trees also offer hope. “I’m really pessimistic about animal extinction and changing oceans and human refugees, the rising sea levels increasing the intensity of storms. That’s all in the pipeline. But I’m not worried we’re going to destroy the Earth…. Earth has been through a lot.
“Our time will end at some point,” he adds, “but I’m pretty confident plants will be here long after we’re gone, and in a weird way I find that kind of comforting.… Maybe there will be another creature of high intelligence that does a better job than us of keeping things going.”
“Hopelessness is one of the major challenges facing scholars who work on climate change issues,” says María Cristina García of Cornell University, a 2016 fellow who is studying environmental migration in the Americas. “The scientific data is sobering, and our politicians are making things worse.” But García sees hope in her students who want to discuss ideas, do meaningful work, and make a difference. She believes “human beings are creative and resilient, and innovations, policies, and programs could help us adapt to accelerated unnatural climate change.”
While they may be hopeful, Carnegie fellows recognize these are difficult times for scholarship. “This is a challenging moment for humanities and social science scholars to have an impact,” Nichols says. “The degrading of expert knowledge and facts, epitomized by the term alternative facts, is repugnant to most scholars and thinkers I know.”
“Today’s world is overwhelming and enervating and isolating. Books allow us to get some distance from the day’s events, to find a better language that we can use to share and to grasp new ideas that change what we believe. This happens. I see it happen.”
— Timothy Snyder, 2015 Andrew Carnegie Fellow
Despite this, he says, “I very often find large, appreciative audiences and groups enthusiastic about facts derived from serious scholarly research, who are eager to discuss, analyze, and also find and develop action plans based on history and humanities insights.”
For Timothy Snyder the very fact of scholarship offers some solace. “Today’s world is overwhelming and enervating and isolating,” he says. “It is very easy to get pounded by the daily news cycle, to be frustrated by apparent polarization, to disappear down the silo of what we already believe. Books allow us to get some distance from the day’s events, to find a better language that we can use to share and to grasp new ideas that change what we believe. This happens. I see it happen.”
“If you can’t think about something, you can’t fix it.”
— Masha Gessen, 2015 Andrew Carnegie Fellow
For Masha Gessen, studying the humanities is a “necessary condition” for dealing with our present and our future. “Not having the skills to make sense of what happened to Soviet society has made it impossible for Russia to move forward.… If you can’t think about something, you can’t fix it,” she says.
But that is not enough. “The failure has been not only in not studying history — but in not engaging the imagination. We need imagination when we talk about the past and the present but particularly when we talk about the future.” Without imagination, Gessen warns, we have “completely handed the future over to stuff.… We don’t think about what kind of society we want to live in in the future. We don’t have a vision.”
Gail Robinson is a freelance writer specializing in education and public policy and an adjunct lecturer at Baruch College, City University of New York.