(No answers; just some navel gazing for a Friday morning…)
My original assigned adviser is a tenured full prof who is nearing retirement. He has spent many of the last few years in very much an activist scholar role; he still does research but he has a point he is trying to make with it. He makes a point of being out in the public eye on several issues that he cares about. He chooses his projects to prove what he wants to say and does things like press releases and under 2-week papers refuting conservative think tank publications in the areas he cares about. (I am unclear about whether he would refute liberal think tank publications, since there really aren’t any.) One of the most illustrious profs in our college has the same view. He’s been on the TV News calling our state superintendent of schools a liar. They have a group of senior scholars (many big names) that meets yearly to talk about how to make a difference in policy, not just talk about it.
I’m not entirely sure what I think about this type of thing. I am currently letting the aforementioned adviser drift out of my program in part because his idea of what my comprehensive exams should be is centered around this idea of the public academic; it isn’t about knowing the background of the field or the current events, but also about expressing a blatantly political opinion on the topic. He would argue that studying policy requires us to take a stand.
Now, I am well aware of the fact that we all have biases that impact our work. My libertarian leanings are what got me interested in school choice. My atheism drives me toward an interest in the role religion is playing in public schools. But neither of these interests are in an activist way; I’m not, for example, trying to say that religion should have no roles in schools. I don’t know clearly what role it plays now and whether that is good, harmful, or something in between. My instinct says that it is a bad thing (religion discourages critical thinking), but that the issue is confounded by interactions with other things. But if I were to find something different I could accept that I was wrong about that and move on. And in neither case do I intend to “take up arms” and try to change the world. If someone else wants to take my research and do that, great, but not me.
More importantly, I don’t see the role of a scholar as being compatible with that of an activist. Activists, even think thanks that claim to do real research, start from a conclusion and then find evidence to support it. A scholar starts from a question and then follows the evidence where it leads. Sometimes that isn’t where they thought it would lead and that may require digging deeper to understand what happened. (After all, the scientific process generally starts with a hypothesis that you then test.)
Then the question to me shifts to the difference between an activist scholar and a public academic. My original adviser is an activist scholar. He has causes he is fighting for and against. But is that different from a public academic? Is a public academic just a more mild version wherein the public activities are less confrontational but still partisan? My mentor turns down news interviews but has testified on research issues before both the legislature and state board. Is he a public academic?
But is this all just naive on my part? Research can be twisted and it is inevitable that, if I study anything contemporary, someone somewhere will take mine and use it to prove something I disagree with. Is being a public academic more about being aware of these happenings and responding?