Uniting the States? Brainstorming a Trajectory

When I was in graduate school, looking at the job market, I remember feeling perplexed at certain questions about the future of my career. Some colleges and universities ask you about your “research trajectory.” Finishing a dissertation prepares you with a stack of paper, but now it’s supposed to be nimble and fly like an arrow. I can just picture throwing an unbound dissertation from the top of some stairs, watching the pages fall in all directions. That’s one kind of a trajectory.

A photo of me reading at my desk in 2010, before I came to need glasses.

It wasn’t too hard to imagine things that I wanted to study next, but it’s a huge step in one’s academic career just to finish a major, final project. To be asked at that moment what your next one will be takes one aback. I’ve come to like that question, but somehow I hadn’t been expecting it at the time. It was exciting to think about what I might pursue over the course of my career, though. I had ideas about wanting to work on this or that topic, and some of them did come together.

I thought that I, like so many scholars you meet, would want to depart from the focus of my dissertation. While some steps have been diagonal or roundabout to this point, I have found myself actually returning to some of the issues and sources from that first project. I won’t get into that now, but the fascinating thing for me in writing has had to do with how each work builds on elements of the one before, even if in surprising ways.

Photo of the paperback and hardback editions of 'Democracy and Leadership.'My dissertation on John Rawls and John Dewey’s work focused on basic questions, after which my next project was much more centered on application. Then, Democracy and Leadership was a return to theory, especially to Plato, but with adaptations drawn from Dewey and some from Rawls. The last chapter of that prompted further focus on application, which resulted in Uniting Mississippi. While working on each of these earlier projects, I have had cause to return to Rawls and Dewey’s work, and noticed a concern that I believe is crucial, yet insufficiently explored in studying justice: especially the role of culture in enabling or impeding it.

So, I’ve been working in slow steps on A Culture of Justice for a few years now, longer than I expected. It is coming together, still needing work. That said, it is definitely a more theoretical project, even if I see and will note many possible applications. With my more applied writings, I’ve been striving to make them more and more accessible and publicly engaged. In addition, I’ve focused quite a bit on Mississippi, given that issues for democracy, education, and leadership are so striking here. At the same time, many of the issues I’ve studied are relevant beyond the South. Dean Skip Rutherford of the Clinton School highlighted that point for me. I thought it to be true, but he encouraged me to speak to a broader audience, beyond both Mississippi and the South.

Bust of Socrates.Given that, I’ve started rethinking some of the next projects that I want to pursue. In particular, I’m seeing a number of ideas come together for a next step after A Culture of Justice. The big picture challenge for democracy at the national level can be drawn from what I argued about Mississippi. That lesson was itself learned from Plato. Plato’s Socrates asked what could be a greater evil than that which makes the city many, instead of one? And, he continued, is there any greater good than that which binds it together and makes it one? Nothing and no. Unity is indeed vital for a good city.

For Plato, unity was important enough to trample on liberty. He thought leaders were justified even to lie to their own people for the sake of fostering unity. He was not democratic. In a democratic society, liberty is central. So how could a democracy be united, he wondered? Plato doubted that democratic societies could be wise enough to unite, to care about virtue, and to limit the will of the majority, when it wants vice and injustice.

John Rawls once noted that in many ways American democracy has been remarkably stable. I would suggest that he could only say that in a part of the country that did not fight for secession. We still have the scars of division from the Civil War showing in Mississippi. That said, I believe that Rawls was right when he explained that there are so many more things that unite Americans than that divide us.

A stack of newspapers.We focus so much on the latter, as that’s disagreement. It’s drama. It sells newspapers, or at least ads on their Web sites. The countless things I could mention that people accept as uncontroversial and obvious are so numerous that they would take entirely too long to list. Given that, we can say that in many ways, our hyper-polarized, divided society does live up to one key aspect of our nation’s billing. Indeed, it’s so easy to forget: the key virtue noted in Plato’s Republic is the one virtue mentioned in the name of our country: unity. Ours are the United States of America. Unity is primary. It is vital. But it is also not guaranteed.

So, I’m thinking about expanding from my project on Mississippi. I’ve adapted Faulkner’s line, and want to follow that next step. Faulkner said that to understand the world, you’ve got to understand a place like Mississippi. Ok, so I’ve given Mississippi a try. Next, I want to study the needs, forces, and factors Uniting the States of America. That may not be my title, but I’m working on it. Hell, I may go in a very different direction, but at present, this feels right.

The cover of 'Uniting Mississippi,' featuring University of Mississippi students participating in a 2012 candlelight vigil in Oxford, MS.While I’m an unabashed optimist — nothing ventured, nothing gained — I recognize that the “stability” that Rawls saw in the United States comes at a price of the massive incarceration of poor and otherwise disadvantaged people, the use of labor under the table, paid to people who do not have the protection of the police, and many other troubles that people face in the U.S. That said, a vision of progress takes recognition of our challenges, of what divides us. When we see the need for unity, for fighting problems like hyper-incarceration, we can fight for change. In that particular example, there is cause for hope, as Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and the Koch brothers, powerful voices on the Left and Right, all believe that we desperately need to combat hyper-incarceration.

These are just some sketched thoughts about the big picture next steps for my writing trajectory. If you have thoughts or questions for me, send me a tweet @EricTWeber or post on my Facebook Author page.