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Thursday, January 04, 2018

A Few Questions for John Ralston Saul and his Perspective on Academics and, or as, "Official Intellectual Leadership"

I received some excellent comments on my post below about law professors and Twitter. The gist of the post was not to deter legal and other academics from using Twitter, or speaking out on public issues--quite to the contrary, in fact, as I'll note in a second--but to ask whether we need to, or ought to, do so qua academics, with a great show of our academic titles, rather than as citizens, with no special invocation of or appeal to any ostensible "authority" we may (or may not) have as academics or "experts." I suggested that it would be good if we did the latter, speaking and acting as citizens, without attempting to trade (often falsely or questionably) on our ostensible authority. Indeed, perhaps academics should be far more civically involved, and perhaps now more than ever, especially at local levels. But that doesn't mean we need to do so in a way that seems to demand or might result in undue deference, respect for, or attention to our actions or speech. It's not clear that kind of extra attention is warranted, or that it it's good for democracy. And it seems evident to me both that many academics are tempted to invoke their ostensible authority too often and in too many cases where it's unwarranted, or where, even if they are speaking to something within the area of their expertise, the passionate nature of their statements clearly goes beyond anything having to do with their actual expertise or judgment within that field. It also seems evident to me that in many cases this is a strategic move, an attempt to get people to agree with positions they want them to agree with, whether those positions are accurate or "expert" or not--although it may be that they think that as academics, they have and deserve an extra status that demands extra attention from the hoi polloi. (It's been known to happen.) I will leave aside the question of "naming names," which has occasioned some debate elsewhere. It's a valid question, but I think it demands a post of its own. And I don't think anything I've suggested immediately above is so contrary to common experience that it demands evidence especially strongly.     

I responded to most of the comments, which, again, I thought were excellent and certainly provide some good counterpoints to and questions about my position. My response is surely imperfect, although I think it makes a few reasonable points. After that, however, Paul Gowder, whose writing I respect and enjoy and who is a Facebook "friend," offered a comment composed of a fine passage from a speech by John Ralston Saul, a Canadian writer and, if I may, public intellectual. I think the quote offers a fine counter-perspective to mine, although I ultimately think it is much more wrong than right. In part because I think it's worth giving Saul (and Gowder) their innings, and in part because my response to it became long and perhaps post-worthy, I'm taking both from the comments and providing them here, again with stylistic failings intact.

Here's Paul's comment and the extended quote from Saul's speech:

Funnily enough, I saw a link to the below speech, which contains the below wonderful passage... on twitter (source: https://twitter.com/daniellewenner/status/948639223166402561 ):

Let me finish this argument by making a few comments on the obligations of the universities inside this debate; particularly the professors in the universities. In our system, we have something ­called tenure for our professors. Tenure has only one purpose. That is to guarantee the full and unbridled use of freedom of expression to our academics without the threat of losing their jobs. That is the purpose of tenure. There is no other purpose.

And therefore, I think it would be reasonable to expect that professors should daily ask themselves whether they are making full use of their tenure. It is not supposed to be about having a nice house or looking after your family or even being able to go off and research whatever you want. That is not its purpose. And so have one group in society which is actually designated to provide official intellectual leadership. The members of that group are supposed to use that intellectual leadership to go out into the public place – inside the universities and outside of the universities – to be heard. To be heard about what? To be heard about what they really think on the issues facing society. It is their job to be as annoying as possible. Nobody else in society has a contract which says to them that they are being paid in order to be annoying; they are being given a guarantee of employment structured precisely in order to encourage them to be annoying. It's called tenure.

Instead of that, the effect of the chimney, the specialization chimney so beloved in our universities, has been the exact opposite. It has increasingly suggested to the academic world that the purpose of tenure is to give you the time to work as a quiet and closed-in person; as an increasingly isolated specialist in your area – someone who doesn't speak out in public because you're only a specialist in an area which does not have natural public links to other areas; an area which is not broad enough to permit you to speak out on great – or even small- public issues, because they are broader than your specialist expertise.

Now, the Dean is sitting on stage with me, and I know that he speaks out. I've actually been on some public panels with him. There are a few professors who do speak out at this university and in other universities. But let's face it, it's a pretty small group. I'm not even sure it's a double-digit group in most universities. If you actually started making the list of how many of our tenured professors are publicly known for their opinions, I'm sure you'd find it's a pretty low number. In other words, tenure is not being used for its real purpose.

Perhaps the Chancellor will be very unhappy to hear me saying this. I don't know, sir, but I think that it is very healthy in a democracy to have spirited and disorderly debate. And if there are any natural and in fact identified leaders for such a debate, it is the tenured professors. I can see from the smile on your face that you at least partly agree with me.

Because this is not what is happening among the tenured professors, I would encourage them to get out there, into society, outside of their silos and chimneys, and to speak as broadly as they wish and can on the subjects that interest them. I would encourage them to think of their specializations, yes in the habitual vertical terms, but also in unhabitual horizontal terms. Their presence is needed in the public debate. They must not allow the checks and balance system of current intellectual examination to make them feel that they need to be careful about what they say. To imprison their minds in chimneys. It is not actually a central characteristic of intellectual integrity to spend one's time being careful.

I think Socrates made that point pretty clearly. Now maybe you are not interested in drinking a potion that will put ­you out of business. Nevertheless, he made the point. The very fact that we're still talking about his point 2,500 years later suggests that he may have been making a very relevant point. Speak out and take risks.

From a 2003 lecture by John Ralston Saul at the University of Calgary. http://archive.gg.ca/media/doc.asp?lang=e&DocID=4026

I must confess I think he has a point or two.

Thanks again, Paul! And here's my response:

1) Of course he has a point or two! Or five. Although I take certain positions on the academy, academic duty, the purposes of scholarship, and extramural speech by academics that prominently features or trades on one's academic status, I do not think either that my positions are absolutes or that they are immune to counter-argument.

2) I tend to be an institutionalist, in the sense that I think institutions are important and deserve our attention and respect, and that I worry about too much erosion of trust in them. (I do think we shouldn't worship them and that skepticism about institutions is not only valid but necessary. I also think that some of the erosion of trust is not just a matter of external forces--the neoliberal assault on this, the fetishization of autonomy and individualism of that, etc.--but a consequence of things done within and by members of those institutions that have earned a drop-off in trust.)

3) I also tend to be an institutional pluralist, in that I think that even within institutions (such as the press or the academy) there are multiple ways for such institutions to function, and multiple competing views about their purpose, and that we shouldn't stick so hard to a particular position that we fail to recognize the reality, and sometimes the plausibility or possibilities, of these alternative approaches. It is difficult to maintain one's own sense of what these institutions should do as a general rule, as I do, and speak out against what I think are bad or dangerous practices, while still trying to respect and listen to those alternative visions and acknowledge that there is room within a large institution for more than one vision--for, say, different universities with different senses of their core mission. I'm not positive that it's a sustainable position, and people I respect have suggested it's not. That worries me intellectually, and I keep working at this question, but it doesn't worry me much on a daily basis. So I can read and think about Saul's vision without either rejecting it absolutely or accepting it. The paper I mentioned at the top of my previous post discusses some of this. I'll post it one of these days on SSRN. I should note in fairness that it addresses and explores these criticisms and concerns about being an institutional pluralist while still holding one's own views about how academics and universities should act, but I can't say it resolves them.  

4) With that brief preface, I think there is also much to worry about or disagree with in Saul's statement--more, perhaps, than there is to agree with or applaud. We might, at a minimum, consider the following observations and questions.

1) Tenure, as Saul notes, protects academics from job consequences due to extramural statements. Does that really mean that our extramural statements are valuable, or that they are part of our job as academics? Or does it just mean that we are free to engage in the civic sphere, as citizens, without that coming back to haunt us and prevent us from carrying out our key intramural job as scholars and teachers?

2) "Designated to provide official intellectual leadership?" Really? I think that is both an inaccurate description and a very dangerous one. God knows no shortage of academics see themselves that way. I think they're both wrong and tremendously hubristic, even arrogant, to view themselves as such. And the consequences for academics and the academy, and perhaps the broader society, have often been bad ones.

3) Tenured professors are "supposed to go out into the public places?" Is that our job or duty, as opposed to something we are free to do?

4) "To be heard about"...--what, exactly? Is there any reason, other than the possession of a decent SAT score and a doctorate, that I should give special attention or deference to a molecular biologist's views on tax policy? Or even a tax lawyer's view on the law of impeachment? No one who spends sufficient time in a university comes away convinced that a doctorate (or a JD) confers or signals wisdom, good judgment, common sense, or general as opposed to specific intelligence. I have met some very foolish doctorate holders, at least outside their fields. Surely if we have any such duty, which I doubt, it is to speak on "the issues facing society" about which we know something. When we speak on other issues, is it not both dangerous and anti-democratic to purport to do so as an intellectual leadership class, or as academics at all?

5) Is it actually our job to "be as annoying as possible?" As much as that appeals to me personally as a contrarian, it is true? An alternative view, and one that I prefer, is that it is our job to search for the truth, at least within our field, as best as we are able, and not care if stating the truth as we understand it annoys someone. I note incidentally that whether on Saul's version or mine, either description of this job precludes caring too much whether one is speaking truth to power or to the powerless, whether one is afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted or vice versa, whether one is "punching up" or "punching down," and so on. Or, if one cares about it as a person, on either version, one's job should not ultimately be deterred or one's voice silenced by any of those concerns. I think an increasing number of academics, let alone students, today reject both views.

6) Those disciplinary silos he mocks--that we all mock from time to time--should indeed be questioned. But they don't come from nothing and for no reason, and along with their dangers they also bring much value. Just mocking or rejecting them won't do.

7) Again, the fact that many tenured professors are not "publicly known for their opinions" only means "tenure is not being used for its real purpose" if you think the purpose of tenure is not to protect our intramural work from blowback for extramural statements, but to make extramural statements in the first place. I think that's questionable, if not outright incorrect.

8) Is it really true that "[i]t is not actually a central characteristic of integrity to spend one's time being careful?" "Careful" in what sense? As a broad statement, I find this highly questionable.

9) Is Socrates an accurate or appropriate model for the modern academic? On this point, one might want to read Posner's Problematics of Moral and Legal Theory and its discussion of academics and moral entrepreneurs. Perhaps people who aspire to the status of thought leaders speaking out on public issues should seek to be unaffiliated public intellectuals, not tenured academics. Maybe being a tenured academic makes it harder to be a Socrates, for various reasons. And maybe some--or many?--academics who want to speak out on public issues seek a tenured academic position not because it is related to the desire to speak out on public issues, as an academic or otherwise, but because it's a pretty good damn job. A comfortable, highly job-secure bourgeois existence is not necessarily an ideal position from which to be a Socrates. (Of course that doesn't describe the existence of many academics any longer, but Saul himself is talking about the tenured elite, not part-time academics, adjuncts, etc.)

10) There is a distinctly mandarin-ish aspect to Saul's description. It is, perhaps, no accident that it is being spoken by a Canadian, from a country that had and has a substantial mandarinate and mandarin culture, and who served as a vice-regal consort.

11) That leads to my penultimate point, which is that none of what Saul says demands that if and when we speak out in public on "the issues facing society," we are obliged to do so with a flourishing of our academic titles and ostensible authority as "intellectual leaders." We could do so simply as Paul Horwitz or Paul Gowder or Jane Doe or Joe Blow. And, of course, we could act rather than speak, again as citizens rather than in (or with much pomp and show of) our official capacity as tenured professors. I'm not sure why we don't or what is so terribly wrong with or unthinkable about doing so.

12) My final point is less important than the last one, but perhaps not irrelevant to the general discussion. Note that Saul himself, although he holds a doctorate and--as befitting a fully-fledged member of the Canadian establishment and mandarinate--has held all sorts of academic sinecures, has almost never, if ever, lived the life of a tenure-track or tenured academic.      


Posted by Paul Horwitz on January 4, 2018 at 11:56 AM | Permalink


'hoi' means 'the'.

Posted by: Let'scloneandfarmmammothsforthemeat | Jan 6, 2018 4:37:57 AM

Quite right. Sorry. My mea culpa.

Posted by: Paul Horwitz | Jan 6, 2018 9:22:05 AM

ISWYDT -- but I wouldn't be quick to apologize, Paul. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage recommends use of "the" with "hoi polloi"; it points out that back when Dryden, for example, wrote about "the χοι πολλοί," he and other writers of his day always used "the." MWDEU adds: "Perhaps writers such as Byron and Dryden understood that English and Greek are two different languages, and that, whatever its literal meaning in Greek, *hoi* does not mean 'the' in English."

Posted by: Jon Weinberg | Jan 7, 2018 5:01:17 PM

Barbarism - though the OED says this: 'In English use normally preceded by the def. article even though hoi means ‘the’'. Pace the MWDEU, what else would 'hoi' mean *in* English?

(It's also highly doubtful that Dryden wrote 'χοι').

Posted by: Let'scloneandfarmmammothsforthemeat | Jan 8, 2018 5:57:12 AM

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