To Be Engaged, Scholars Must Share Their Ideas

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James K. Galbraith
Austin American-Statesman,
September 13, 2004

I am an activist in many areas but University governance isn't one of them. My view of the work of colleagues resembles Thorstein Veblen's: idle curiosity is the noblest intellectual motive. Political pressure on university professors is abhorrent. The rat race of departmental rankings is distasteful. Once hired, faculty are best left to their druthers. Even noble efforts to call this unmilitary officer corps to larger common engagement are too heroic for me.

Yet someone has to raise and spend the money.

University leaders have to decide which pursuits will flourish and which will slowly wither on the budget vine. (As a recent president of Harvard allegedly said to the Divinity School: "Let God provide.")

I do believe that engaged scholarship deserves a larger share, at least in the narrow spheres of social science where I spend my academic days.

So far as my home discipline of economics still has a philosophy, it is positivist: concerned mainly with symbolic language ("theory") and then with testing hypotheses about that theory. The language of both endeavors is deeply hermetic. And the peer group able to read and review the work is small.

It's not that I begrudge my fellow economiststheir models and regressions. But do we really need so many of them? Can we afford so little work on defining social problems, on measuring facts, on policy design? Where, if not in economics, government and sociology, should our University deal with poverty and racism, with prisons and schools, with immigration and inequality, with public purposes such as health care and retirement, and with the security issues ofwar and peace, world development and our energy budget? Public Policy can't do it all.

And how should a professor communicate? Only to her peers? Or to the wider world?

My own philosophyis pragmatist. It is concerned with solving problems and propagating ideas. For a pragmatist, ideas are not a scholar's property. They are not a commodity or a brand. They are, instead, the common understandings of a community. Ideas exist only to the extent that they are shared.

A scholar taking this viewpoint must be engaged. Pragmatic scholarship is no enclosed pursuit, but a link in a chain of communication extending from the university in many directions. For some, the preferred direction is upward,to the ear of persons in power. To others, it is outward, through the press and by participation in political organization and civic action. And for us, as for all other teachers, our philosophy also suffuses what we teach to our students.

Communication outside the journal and the classroom is an art form. It obviously doesn't take much to go on some cable TV shout show. But the craft of a good Op-Ed, syndicated column, radio commentary, book review, policy essay or pamphlet must be learned and practiced. (They're all different, by the way.) These arts are no substitute for journals and books, but they have a necessary place in effective social scholarship.

Today it's a rare professor who reaches a wide audience indirectly and without effort, through tireless promotion by students and disciples. And I'm not one of them, alas.

Engaged scholarship demands a spirit of respectful tension with peer review. Economics suffers today from high formalism, rigid orthodoxy and tribal exclusiveness in professional journals; real-world scholarship is not prized and not easily published. But fortunately, with the Internet the costs of publication are falling. New journals are springing up that can peer-review effectively at low cost, and this will one day cause the breakdown of our ossified system.

In a world of virtual journals and electronic working papers, scholarly engagement has a better chance. Let's hope that quality will still be distinguishable from junk.

Finally, for the engaged scholar there is always the tricky issue of the role of values and politics. Some scholarship is intrinsically apolitical but social scholarship can't be. The policies I supportgrow from my ethical and political beliefs, to which my expertise (such as it is) merely adds an element of engineering. And yet, of course, a professor is not a missionary. A profound obligation is to respect the ideas and views of students who come in with different values.

My approach to that is to declare my own politics frankly--I'm a liberal Keynesian Democrat, in case you didn't know. But I try to preserve my classroom as a space for respectful discourse with all points of view.

And, sometimes, you pull it off.

Some years ago, a student wrote these words on my confidential end-of-semester evaluation: "It pains me to say this, but you are the best professor I've had--even though you are a communist."

As my late friend Walt Rostow liked to say, in this business you never know when you're making a nickel.

James K. Galbraith holds the Lloyd M. Bentsen, jr. Chair in Business/Government Relations at the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs, The University of Texas at Austin