Over the holidays I read Teju Cole’s remarkable Open City. Cole, a Nigerian American, has fashioned a short novel framed around the themes of identity, dislocation, and memory. A young doctor named Julius walks around cities, mostly New York. He observes people and speaks with them; in ethnographic fashion, he records what they say and how it affects him. Not much happens in the novel, but in the style of W. B. Sebald, it teaches readers a great deal about the protagonist, about humanity, and hopefully, about themselves. At one point Julius sums up his way (which is also mine) of seeing and experiencing life: “It is dangerous,” he says “to live in a secure world.”
Julius, of course, is not saying that physical danger is good; rather, he is suggesting that a sense of intellectual security—the feeling that one’s identity is set and firm—is not merely unfounded, but dangerous. Such an observation undoubtedly is what drives much of intellectual life. After all, the most successful scholars are not those who merely regurgitate research findings again and again, but those who take risks, and in doing so, achieve a breakthrough that enables us to see the world from a different perspective.
I resonated with Open City, not merely because of Cole’s superb writing but also because he had tapped into the way I see our work as researchers. AERA has 25,000 members, and we undertake research of all kinds and all methodologies. Throughout my professional life the temptation has existed to cordon off one kind of research or another and claim primacy for it. Whoever does not do that kind of research or champion that sort of methodology is to be banished to the intellectual shadows.
As scholars we can make ourselves comfortable by associating with a single kind of work that calls upon a particular methodology or theoretical framework. We can then view scholars who work outside our domain as either irrelevant or weak. I came of age during the paradigm wars and lived through the methodological cold war. Now, it seems we’re in a moment when others’ work is not so much disdained as ignored.
Like Cole, I think such security is intellectually dangerous. It is also a missed opportunity. We are faced with significant educational and social problems that crosscut our individual areas of inquiry. These problems demand that we get out of our comfort zones. Too many of us see the Association’s great strength—our tendency to disagree with one another—as a weakness.
My academic life has been one long disagreement and I have been enriched because of it. I learn not so much from cohesive conclusions as from thoughtful but conflicting analyses, whether by Greg Duncan and Dick Murnane on inequality and children’s life chances, Bill Tate on schools, neighborhoods, and communities, or Jean Anyon on the impact of social class and race on education.
Sure, we want to be able to make recommendations based on the best scholarship that exists. But too often, we fall short by ignoring the work that contradicts what we are studying or, more likely, is orthogonal to what we are studying. “We experience life as a continuity,” observes the narrator in Open City, “and only after it falls away, after it becomes the past, do we see its discontinuities.” For our work to matter, we need to search out the discontinuities. Rather than dismissing colleagues who disagree or study a different domain, we are then able to engage with them in unfamiliar ways.
As some of us move toward understanding how to use big data and others focus on the microclimates within a classroom, ultimately we are going to need one another’s work. One challenge for our association, then, is to fashion dialogues across intellectual arenas rather than merely within them. Our divisions and our special interest groups are comfortable intellectual homes; but our intellectual futures, I suspect, lie more in our ability to develop, sustain, and respect broad coalitions across intellectual spaces.
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