I came across a quote that I found quite compelling, and so thought I would also post it here. I first saw it on this site, which got it from here, but I think it’s actually out of this book. The quote, from Edward Said, is:
Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.
I don’t particularly agree with the rather cynical reasons given at the end, but the first part of the quote really struck a chord. I do think there is a tendency (amongst some, at least) to avoid taking some kind of stance. I suspect there are many reasons, some of which are simply related to human nature; it’s easier to just keep out of things. I also think that academia, in particular, has become very specialised. People focus on their own little area and don’t always seem interested in the broader picture. It can also be quite a selfish environment; it’s a competitive environment where permanent jobs are difficult to get, funding is hard, and your career depends on standing out in some way. You don’t have time to really care about other things that may be relevant, but don’t necessarily affect you directly.
Universities are also now run more as a business than as some institution of learning that provides a service to the broader public, be that through educating students, doing research that may have some kind of broader impact, or providing some kind of intellectual leadership. As such, the priorities are to generate income, either through teaching or through research. Of course, universities do need to be financially viable, but I do think they should be careful of prioritising income generation over the intrinsic value of education and scholarship, and I do think we’ve tipped over a bit too much in favour of the former. I think a consequence of this is that academics are encouraged to primarily focus on how to get the next research grant or on how to publish the next high-impact paper. This leaves little time for engaging more broadly and considering things outside your specific area.
Having generalised wildly about universities and academics, I do think that there is an even more insidious problem; I do think that taking some kind of stand is actually discouraged. It’s certainly very clear in the climate debate. Anyone who speaks out is regarded as some kind of activist, labelled as an environmentalist, and their objectivity is immediately questioned. Yes, objectivity and balance is important for research, but so is passion and enthusiasm. The idea that someone who feels strongly about something shouldn’t speak out because they might lose their ability to do objective research is just a little absurd. In fact, I would argue that it would be better if people did speak out more, because then it would be harder to hide their biases under a veneer of supposed objectivity. I also feel that it would be better if people who were regarded as experts were to speak out more, than if they felt that being experts required them to avoid taking a stand.
So, I’ve managed to do what I normally do, which is to start what is intended to just be a quick post, and write much more than I intended. I was really just trying to highlight the quote, some of which struck a chord. I should make clear that I’m not suggesting that academics should be given some kind of special platform, simply suggesting that it’s unfortunate that people who spend their lives trying to understand the world around them, seem content to stay in their own little bubble, rather than engaging with the broader community. Of course, this is just a gross generalisation and there are many who do, but I do think that specialisation and the commercialisation of the university sector has changed what many regard as their role. I’ve also focused here on academics, but I’m certainly not suggesting that they’re the only people who should be encouraged to speak out; it’s just the environment with which I’m most familiar.