On Campus

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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