Revenge of the intellectuals

The educated will not save our politics


With Stéphane Dion, Stephen Harper, and Jack Layton all having cut their teeth in the halls of academe before entering the brass knuckle world of politics, it might seem relevant to ask why the level of public debate hasn’t been raised.

All three leaders, no doubt, understand how to form an argument based on rationally deduced premises and logical conclusions. Yet the election campaign (like many a campaign before) has often been characterized by ad hominem remarks and wild accusations.

It is not just that the leaders often act in ways that would get them shunned out of any university seminar. Intellectualism, as has been widely reported, is being actively degraded. The Tories have been portraying “professor Dion” as out of touch and elitist, prompting the Liberal leader to clumsily respond with “I share the problems of the daily life of Canadians.”

Responding to the tone of the campaign James Turk, of the Canadian Association of University Teachers, recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education: “Anti-intellectualism doesn’t play well in Canada.” While some election watchers may understandably disagree, Turk might be right. However, regardless of what giddy supporters of Michael Ignatieff thought in the lead up to the Liberal leadership convention, it doesn’t follow that intellectualism does play well.

In a Saturday column in the Ottawa Citizen, Andrew Potter challenged the well worn argument that Pierre Trudeau was successful because of his high brow reasoning formed during his years as a legal academic. Trudeau’s “famous ‘just watch me’ line” is demonstrable of the “irony” that “he was at his most successful as a leader when he was at his least philosophical.”

The notion that academics, even successful ones, would make good political leaders because of their background and not in in spite of it is a notion that is deeply flawed. But it is a belief that is nonetheless widely held, and not just within the ranks of the Trudeauite wing of the Liberal party.

Walk onto any university campus and there is a good chance you will find at least some students and professors, particularly ones studying the humanities and the social sciences, talking as if they have a special responsibility to influence politics. What is often missed is that while Trudeau might have been the closest we’ve had to a leader resembling Plato’s philosopher king, it is totalitarianism that came closest to resembling his Republic.

I don’t say this simply because I find Plato’s ideas to be terrible. Consider the late, and iconic, liberal-egalitarian political philosopher John Rawls. His seminal work, A Theory of Justice, is seen by many as bridging the gap between what is desirable and what is feasible.

Rawls argued that individuals are inviolable, and that their civil liberties are to be given priority over any “social benefits.” Once liberty is fully protected, society is to aim for socioeconomic equality except where inequalities would benefit the “least advantaged,” and so long as equality does not come at the expense of liberty.

To summarize Rawls here further would be a painful (and dull) mess, but it is worth noting that his answer to the question “what is a just society?” is not just thoroughly abstract and complex, but void of many real world considerations. Little attention is paid, for example, to the real economic costs of protecting liberty.

Moreover, while the Harvard professor was fond of liberal democracy, Rawlsian justice would render democratic politics superfluous — easily devolving into bureaucratic tyranny. This is by no means intended to diminish the significance of Rawls’ contribution to philosophy, but rather to highlight the fact that even eminently respectable theories developed in academia would be rubbish as political platforms.

As Potter argues, the academy is about the pursuit of “truth” while politics is about the pursuit of “power.” It makes little sense to hope that someone transferred out of the university and into politics will act any differently than anybody else.

The scientific method or rigorous philosophical analysis just doesn’t translate into politics. It can take years, even decades, before a scholar comes to any solid conclusions about the questions they pursue. And because an academic pursues reasoned analysis in his or her work, it doesn’t mean that they themselves have the personal characteristics of reasonable individuals, or that they will bring public debate to a new level. This reasonableness and rationality are simply the demands of being a professor. Politics has different demands.

We can lament the fact that anti-intellectualism appears to be playing a role in the election campaign. We can hang our heads in disappointment at the fact that our over-educated leaders are not living up to expectations. But this is beside the point. That an academic pursues politics is only evidence that there are those in the ivory tower, like citizens in any number of professions, who are interested in seeking power.

They have no special responsibility, and we should not treat them as if they do. Nor should we become dismayed when their level of civility, or the quality of their campaign platforms, does not reflect their years of academic training.

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Revenge of the intellectuals

  1. Carson:
    It’s noteworthy that your blog essentially tries to get from every issue the conclusion that “academia is not / should not be political”, or some variant of it. I also note that once again, you reduce politics to electoral politics.

    I will just make a couple comments on how your conclusions do not necessarily follow from the facts you mention, and there are other possible perspectives:

    1. The fact that academics are not necessarily successful as elected politicians don’t mean they won’t have influence (for good or for bad, depending of your point of view) on politics. In fact, policy makers, the media, etc. refer to “experts” all the time, so there is certainly indirect influence. Of course influence is both ways, because academia can be influenced by politics as well (there is often larger funding and larger interest in issues that are very publicized, e.g. global warming, immigration, etc.).

    2. You point out that some theories in the social sciences and humanities don’t take into account the concrete limitations of real life. However, research that takes into account these limitations in the formulation of moral theories would be just as academic and maybe even considered a “more complete” theory (that is a question of academic values, but you cannot assume that academia is doomed to be out of touch with reality).

    3. Your point: “That an academic pursues politics is only evidence that there are those in the ivory tower, like citizens in any number of professions, who are interested in seeking power.” is pure speculation about what motivates people to go into politics. Some people might only want power, some might have different reasons. I don’t think it’s useful or accurate to adopt a reductionist view on that front either.

    4. I would argue that “anti-intellectualism”, or even broader, the fact that academics and the general public are disconnected, might be partly due (and certainly aggravated) by the current culture in academia. For example, technical literature which communicate one’s research to one’s peers in a very narrow field is much more valued, and much more frequent, right now than communicating to a broader public. So there is no surprise, given that academic culture, that we don’t see an increase in the “intellectual”-ness of the mainstream discourse around elections.

    Again, just as point 2., I don’t think it’s fair to take a fatalist attitude and to assume that academia is doomed to be disconnected, if communicating with a broader public became a priority in academia it’s fair to assume the attitude of the general public towards intellectuals would change as well.

  2. Philippe,

    I have written two posts, I don’t count this one, about how academia shouldn’t be political. One of them was a review of a book that made that conclusion, and the other was about campus activism. So not “noteworthy.”

    My point here is that in the light of all the leaders of the three main political parties all being academics, it seems relevant to ask why isn’t that reflected in how they approach public debate. Well, that is because it is a different venue.

    And yes we seek out expert opinion all the time.

    And yes some theories could take into account the real limitations of the political world. My advisor wrote a book with that aim.

    Next time I will be sure to write everything that can possibly ever be said on a topic in my next post so you don’t take its absence as me dismissing it…

    And I am reducing to electoral politics because, uh, it is a post about the election.

    I am not being fatalist, or arguing that academia should be disconnected. What I am doing is making an argument about our expectations of political leaders.

  3. I’m sorry if I missed your point in the middle of your blanket statements.

    Still that point:
    “My point here is that in the light of all the leaders of the three main political parties all being academics, it seems relevant to ask why isn’t that reflected in how they approach public debate. Well, that is because it is a different venue.”

    seems overly simplistic in the sense that the leaders don’t determine a campaign strategy alone. And the media picks and chooses how much coverage each topic gets. So it’s not like one party leader could “shape the public debate” alone in whatever way he/she wanted too.

    Also most of the mudslinging seems to be done by the Conservatives. And political commentators have been saying that Dion was not attacking Harper enough, which (like it or not) shows that his academic background is reflected in his approach public debate. Now, whether this different approach works or not is not only a function of Dion himself, but a function of how all the other actors (politicans, media, citizen groups) participate as well.

  4. You missed my point? Did you read the last FOUR paragraphs?

    And, yes, it is overly simplistic, self-evident even, but there is a sense that academics who become politicians will improve public debate because of their background. In the lead up to the Liberal leadership convention, supporters of Michael Ignatieff were giddy over this idea. And many pundits admired both Dion and Harper, often remarking that to watch the two debate would be a welcome change. The point is that just because one is an academic where rationality is a demand of the job, it doesn’t mean that they will apply this to politics.

    And yes most of the mudsligging, on this issue anyway, is being done by the Conservatives, but the Liberals are not innocent, and when Dion’s intellectualism was attacked he responded by trying to step away a bit from his background. And, if his inability to perform well in the election campaign is because he is acting too much like an academic, this reinforces my point. Politics has different demands, and it makes little sense to assume the reasoning that goes on in a graduate seminar will play well in politics.

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