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The Academic Vocation

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The Academic Vocation

How activist professors corrupt the university—and the polity November 3, 2022
Education

The goals of an academic life are to contribute to the store of knowledge, to increase the stock of truth, and to teach this truth to the next generation. The dignity of the profession derives from its fulfillment of these purposes. Actions that detract from this mission, however profitable they might be to individual academics, diminish the university as an institution.

While other kinds of truth (experiential, inspired, revealed) may exist, the truth that the university is concerned with is the truth that, at least in theory, everyone can assess and verify, regardless of creed, race, or life experience. Such truth can be expressed in accordance with the well-known canons of evidence and reasoning that the Germans summed up with the term Wissenschaften and that we refer to as disciplines. These organized bodies of knowledge, generated by communities of scholars whose evidentiary and logical methods are known to all participants and who therefore can build on one another’s work and subject one another’s conclusions to criticism, are the basic units of university life. Other kinds of truth-claims than those yielded by the particular conjunction of universality and specialization that constitute a discipline are better regarded as sectarian, not academic. They belong more to a church or movement than to a universitas—that is, to a corporation ordered on the premise that knowledge can both be shared with all human beings and organized and structured into a whole.

With the relentless pace of discovery and the massive accumulation of knowledge in the modern world, no one can see the whole on his own. But academics must believe that such a whole exists in principle: that the truths in one domain can be understood by those trained in another, given the appropriate intellectual capacity, training, and diligence. If we no longer believe that the findings of the different disciplines can in principle be related to one another and appreciated by all scholars of goodwill—if instead we hold that there is only Marxist truth, or Christian truth, or Asian truth—then little justification exists for the immense perks and privileges that our pluralistic society accords the university system.

The role of a professor, like all roles in society worth having, involves abnegation and renunciation—discipline in another, but related, sense. Consider an analogy to medicine. Doctors aim to heal, but they take an oath: “First, do no harm.” Likewise, professors aim to discover new knowledge in their research and to pass on such knowledge in their pedagogy. But this is a hard, slow, and uncertain process. Better, then, to make more cardinal a parallel injunction: “First, do not say anything that one does not have good reason according to one’s expertise to believe is true.” This is the basic condition of possessing integrity as an academic. It would be intolerable to follow such a standard in all facets of life. But when acting as a professor, this ought to be the paramount concern. To say something in the classroom or in an academic text because it is fashionable, because it is seen as in line with “good” objectives, or because one fears ostracism is to fall short.

The goal of attaining the truth—however minute, however irrelevant to the outside world, however much it requires an obsessive search for the correct citation for a secondary point in an argument certain to be superseded later on—is exacting. Nietzsche was right that science has an ascetic dimension; it means saying “no” to other impulses and goods. Quite simply, one cannot serve two masters as an academic. Consider the case of a motivation such as fame or money. A professor who voices an untruth or stretches the evidence for the sake of increasing his audience or winning a grant is rightly reviled. And this condemnation derives not just from the harm of being misled in any particular instance, but also from the recognition that fame and wealth are objects of powerful desires that must be curtailed if the academy is to produce trustworthy knowledge.

So it is with more exalted motives, such as bringing about a more just world. Seeking justice—or, to describe the usual case more accurately, seeking to make one’s own view of justice triumph—is one of the most potent and persistent of human longings. But to conceal counterevidence, to engage in ad hominem arguments rather than substantive ones, to set “out of bounds” certain topics or facts or lines of inquiry in the name of justice: all this conflicts no less with the academic vocation, even if it is nobler in its origin, than distorting one’s research or teaching for less lofty ends. After all, how do we know what justice entails? Claims about justice must stand the same tests as any other claims. A given citizen can be as ardent in propagating her views, in pushing for her desired future for the polity, as anyone else; no one need give up on all else in life just because her career lies in the university. But again, in a scholarly role one must subordinate such wishes to the singular ambition to get the evidence and reasoning right.

This is a point about intentions, not motives, to use a distinction that the utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham pioneered. By intention we mean something that one wishes to accomplish, while by motive we mean the passions or feelings that lead to the undertaking of an activity. Great scholars, like great artists or politicians, have been stirred by a range of motives—to gain recognition, to earn a living, to hoist a rival on his own petard—in addition to any disinterested love of truth. This is fine, so long as these passions merely motivate one to add to the store of knowledge and to convey this knowledge to students according to proper canons of evidence and reasoning. The motivation to advance justice as one understands it can be compatible with academic integrity so long as this cashes out in the intention to excel at following logic and evidence wherever it leads. Indeed, one of the leading motivations for philosophers and scientists in all times has been a faith that truth and justice might be ultimately reconciled in the end.

The problem arises when, in an academic role, a non-truth-oriented motivation transforms into a non-truth-oriented intention—that is, when the desire to make the world better stops propelling one through the tedium, the isolation, the despair that comes with scholarly work, and instead turns into a desire to say what will advance the cause rather than what one knows to be true. Corruption occurs when non-truth-based motivations no longer sustain one’s interest in a subject but rather dictate conclusions about that subject. Alas, such slippage is too common given eternal human frailty, and the difficulty has only been deepened by contemporary conditions. For these reasons, the safest bets in academia have always been those rare few who are, to use Max Weber’s phrase, wholly devoted to their subject: those who would continue to drill into a matter of no significance beyond their scholarly circles, even as the walls around them come tumbling down. Well-conducted academic endeavors, in my view, do produce political and ethical goods of a high order. But someone anxiously seeking to prove to himself that his academic work has an external benefit beyond the simple discovery and articulation of (usually small) truths will not be able to resist the pressures of politicization, instrumentalization, and personalization that beset the academy, especially today.

For many academics, particularly those in the humanities and social sciences who wish to “make a difference in the world,” the most difficult of renunciations is political. One cannot be simultaneously an activist and a professor. For one thing, whoever confuses the seminar for the rally is likely to fail to convey the body of material accurately when political ends appear to interfere with pedagogical ones. But he is also abusing his professorial perch and contributing to the deterioration of our politics. The health of our public discourse and our academic institutions requires that politics and pedagogy mix as little as possible.

This is because political activity, to be ethical, requires relating to others as equals. As a citizen confronting another citizen in a democratic society, you accept that you can be challenged and gainsaid and condemned by others. You admit that you have no claim to others’ assent or even their attention beyond what you can persuade them to give you as a member of a shared community. But the academic profession, however uncomfortable the reality might be to certain modern sensibilities, ineluctably entails a relationship of authority. The professor, within his limited domain, is not the equal of his students. He is their guide and superior. For him to preach politics is therefore to exploit his scientific authority and credentials for an unearned usurpation over a little corner of a public sphere that belongs to us all equally.

No one puts the point better than Weber:

If you speak about democracy at a public meeting there is no need to make a secret of your personal point of view. On the contrary, you have to take one side or the other explicitly; that is your damned duty. The words you use are not the tools of academic analysis, but a way of winning others over to your political point of view. . . . In a lecture room it would be an outrage to make use of language in this way. . . . If [a would-be professor-politician] then asks why he cannot deal with both sets of problems in the lecture room, we should answer that the prophet and the demagogue have no place at the lectern. We must say to both the prophet and the demagogue: “go out into the street and speak to the public.” In other words, speak where what you say can be criticized. In the lecture room, where you sit opposite your listeners, it is for them to keep silent and for the teacher to speak. I think it irresponsible for a lecturer to exploit a situation in which the students have to attend the class of a teacher for the sake of their future careers but where there is no one present who can respond to him critically.

Political activism, especially as conducted in a vibrant democracy, is a noble pursuit; so is a professorship. But they are not the same kind of noble pursuit, and when combined they are mutually destructive. The vitality of democratic politics consists in the fact that even the most exalted, most credentialed figures in society wield their power solely through the freely given conviction that they are capable of inspiring in their fellows. The integrity of academia consists in the confidence that he who speaks as a professor and expert does so only where he can be trusted not to distort, from whatever motives, the body of knowledge in which he is presumed to be better-versed. Democratic politics and academic inquiry both support a good society, but they do so as columns that each bear part of the weight above them without themselves crossing.

Photo by JHU Sheridan Libraries/Gado/Getty Images

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