Back to Prindle Institute
Higher EducationOpinion

Why Academics Should Not Be Activists

By Benjamin Rossi
24 Apr 2023
photograph of lecture with crowd member recording on her phone

In his Theses on Feuerbach, Karl Marx famously complained that “philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.” Today, the prevailing ethos on American, European, and Australian campuses shows the same impatience with mere contemplation. “Engagement” is the academy’s mantra, and it is faintly shameful, particularly for humanities professors, to be unconcerned with politics. Some have even called for “recognizing advocacy as part of the work mandate of academic staff.” While understandable, the push to make academics activists — campaigners for social or political change — is a serious mistake because it threatens to deprive society of the goods that academic institutions, uniquely, provide.

The defining purpose of academic institutions is to generate, and then to transmit, knowledge. They undoubtedly serve other functions, but this function is what makes an institution academic. It is for this reason that institutions that share in that function, though to a lesser extent — e.g., think tanks — are sometimes called “quasi-academic.” And academic institutions exist because that function is, and is thought to be, useful to society.

Within academic institutions, professors are the ones upon whom the primary responsibility for generating and transmitting knowledge falls. Because of this, if they engage in pursuits that degrade their capacity to generate and transmit knowledge, to that extent they are disloyal to their institution and to their institutional role.

Of course, there are higher loyalties, and I’m not arguing that any professor’s highest obligation is to support her institution or fulfill her academic role. Nevertheless, it surely is the case that the bulk of what constitutes a “good” academic is the ability to produce high-quality scholarship, and the ability to convey that scholarship to others — that is, to teach.

Being an activist makes both generating and transmitting knowledge more difficult. It makes generating knowledge more difficult because, as a matter of psychological fact, it is difficult to properly weigh evidence and arguments when one is also emotionally committed — and political commitments are always emotional — to realizing a substantive political goal, if the evidence and arguments bear on, or are connected to, that goal. And being an activist makes transmitting knowledge, or teaching, more difficult because it may undermine the quality of teaching and the teacher’s credibility, at least if what the teacher teaches about is related to their activism. It does this because it raises the real possibility either that the teacher is deliberately teaching the material in a manner that furthers, or is at least consistent with, their political convictions and goals, in the face of reasonable contravening evidence and arguments; or that even if they are attempting to be objective, they are psychologically less able to properly weigh the evidence and arguments than they otherwise would be.

This point about teaching is particularly important, because like it or not, the continuing existence and vitality of the academic vocation depends upon broad-based societal support for academic institutions.

If the latter come to be seen as re-education camps rather than purveyors of a genuinely liberal education, that cannot fail to negatively impact the institutions in the medium and long-term. Of course, there will always be a certain amount of hostility toward academic institutions, because there are plenty of people who do not really like liberal education — they want indoctrination, just not the kind of indoctrination they pillory academic institutions for providing. But that does not mean academics may throw up their hands and disregard the fact that what society thinks about academic institutions is important, and professors are the group within academic institutions most responsible for determining how the public thinks about them. They must be mindful that the relatively high status that academics and academic institutions still enjoy is not a given.

Although I think this argument provides good reasons for academics to be wary of activism, it’s important to note its limits. First, the argument only applies to academics whose subject of study is connected to their activism. For example, it clearly applies to a historian of the modern Middle East who actively campaigns for Palestinian rights. But a historian of the medieval Middle East who actively campaigns for Palestinian rights may not fall within its scope. And a physicist who campaigns against animal cruelty is clearly outside its scope.

It follows, paradoxically, that the academics who are best informed about political issues by reason of their research or teaching should be the most cautious about engaging in activism.

It might therefore be objected that my argument threatens to deprive society of the best-informed voices on particular political issues. But that academics should be wary of engaging in activism does not mean that they should not engage in public outreach of any kind. It is perfectly acceptable for academics to write or speak in public forums about the subjects of their research even if their research is connected to live political debates. They can even make policy recommendations on the basis of their scholarship. What they should be wary of is campaigning for those policies. The line between public outreach and campaigning is admittedly a blurry one, but not to the extent of rendering the distinction meaningless.

Second, certain kinds of academics — for example, political philosophers — are a special case because part of their job may be to argue for certain substantive political goals. I see no reason why a philosopher should not publicly advocate for a substantive political goal if they have done so in their scholarly work. Still, even here I think activism poses a danger, since we expect philosophers to take the “other side’s” arguments seriously until they have good reasons for rejecting them. Being an activist may dispose philosophers to dismiss contrary arguments too hastily. So, philosophers should still be wary of activism, even if they may translate their scholarly arguments for a substantive political goal into language fit for general public consumption.

Third, the argument in no way implies that academics should not engage in internal activism — activism aimed at effecting change to their own academic institutions. I see no reason not to classify campaigning for such internal change as a form of activism, and it is both necessary and desirable that all members of the academic community — including academics — should be involved in efforts to better the community. Such activism generally does not raise the same concerns as outside activism, and even when it does, it can be justified with reference to the academic’s role in the institution as necessary to furthering the institution’s primary goal of generating and transmitting knowledge. By the same token, academics may perhaps justifiably participate in outside activism on behalf of academic institutions — for example, campaigning against laws banning the teaching of certain subjects like critical race theory.

However, returning to an earlier point, it may be objected that even if an academic qua academic should avoid activism, academics are not just academics — they are also citizens and members of communities. Moreover, the obligations attached to these identities trump academics’ obligation to be good academics. Again, I have no real dispute with those who feel their civic duties trump their professional or vocational obligations. However, it is plausible to hold that an academic’s scholarship and pedagogy are themselves a means to fulfill her civic or communal obligations. By generating and transmitting knowledge, academic institutions make a fairly unique contribution to society, and for that reason an academic can reasonably believe that her academic work is the primary way in which she contributes to her society’s welfare.

There is a more general point to be made here. Human life is inherently tragic, in that not all values are co-realizable in a single life (or even, perhaps, a single society). Choosing one lifelong vocation invariably involves forsaking other, equally valuable ones; for this reason, all such choices can be reasonably regretted. Both activism and scholarship are valuable pursuits, but by undertaking both at the same time, a person may find that they excel in neither. Thus, while I entirely understand some academics’ belief that their civic and communal obligations require them to engage in activism, even if it negatively affects the quality of their scholarship and teaching, I believe that they sometimes have to make a choice to pursue one thing or the other. As I have already explained, my argument in no way entails that academics should avoid all activism. But when the subject of their scholarship relates to the goals of their activism, academics would be well-advised to tread with extreme caution.

Benjamin Rossi received his PhD in philosophy from the University of Notre Dame. His primary research interests are in ethics, moral responsibility, and political philosophy. He currently attends Duke Law School.
Related Stories