Jul 10, 2003

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A funny thing happened on the way to the (public) forum. Academics lost
their way.

Despite our expertise in specific fields, our prowess as analysts and investigators, most of us are uninvolved in the public debates that effect us all.

How many SFU professors are members of a city council, the provincial legislature, or Parliament? These days we are more likely to find a medical doctor in those halls than a doctor of philosophy.

How many SFU academics participated in the Romanow commission? In the last five years, how many have submitted personal briefs to any federal commission? Which of us has written a letter to the newspaper, or participated in a Philosophers' Café? Where are the academics on the myriad issues that confront us in B.C.: health care changes, privatization of public resources, education?

The university is a brain trust, a resource for the community at large. Tenure assures we can speak freely and argue critically whatever our views. But the trust is rarely drawn upon because so many of us see the public sphere as a source of funding (granting agencies or clients) rather than as a common ground.

The result is while we cavil in private against this or that policy (federal, provincial, regional or local) we do not publicly speak to it or try to correct it. We are reduced to complaining about the politicans we elect and the experts (not us) they appoint.

It wasn't always this way.

Michael Ignatieff's biography, A Life: Isaiah Berlin, reminds me of a different day, a different academic perspective. In the 1940s academics like Berlin joined the government's war effort. British university dons served first in the public debates about a potential war and later, served the war effort.

In the post-war period the trend continued as academics served both in official posts and as unofficial critics of a range of government policies. Some - W.W. Rostow, for example - became famous for their acts as government officials seconded from a university to an official post. Others on both sides of the ocean (think Noam Chomsky) became equally famous for their critiques of government policies. Either way, academics spoke-up and out in a public way, offering their expertise to the commons.

Since the 1970s, however, most of us have become quiescent. Either the public is a client that hires us through a federal ministry or provincial agency or it is not our concern.

We are no longer voices of conscious or critical thought, but a labour pool that awaits official jobs that will supplement the income we receive for teaching. We speak, but mostly to each other at conferences where real debate is typically discouraged and safely collegial discourse the rule.

What happened?

First, I think, public monies for public commentaries dried up. In the early post-war period in Britain the BBC's intellectual programs set a model for post-war public commentary by men such as Berlin. The expectation of informed, public engagement that followed diffused, for a time, to this side of the ocean. The idea of that public voice nearly died in the 1990s. Federal cutbacks to public broadcasting cut as well the vocal chords of the informed, public voice.

More importantly, perhaps, we lost the sense of participation that came in the 1960s with the Viet Nam war. The teach-ins that were a part of that era, the dialogues that arose over the international changes in post-modern society, ended with the war. Somehow, our role as educated citizens in the public sphere ended, too.

Finally, academics changed. Friends in the game far longer than me put the date around 1985 or 1986. Technocracy came to rule. Grantsmanship, always a factor, became king. We came to define ourselves not by our ideas, our lectures, or the work we advocated but by the grants we scored. This required a turning from public to specialized venues, from our role as citizens to our role as providers for well-healed companies and wealthy government agencies. Neither sought to support the critical voice, the independent, public persona. Why waste the time required by involvement in messy local issues, provincial controversy, or the federal quagmire when that time could be spent at a high level of pay working for a client who did not ask us to think, only to perform?

One result is that many academics have become conformists. At conferences one rarely hears the radical vision, the exceptional, angry voice. It doesn't pay and it isn't welcome. We want our debates safely packaged, held within the collegial bounds that let us feel good about doing too little.

There are exceptions, of course. McGill University ethicist and lawyer Margret Sommerville has been tireless in her commitment to public debates on issues such as euthanasia and genetics. UBC's Patricia Baird has also been a public resource in the new debates over genetic issues.

At the local and regional level the University of British Columbia's professor of geography, Ken Denike, spent almost two decades as a B.C. school trustee and before him was another UBC geographer, Vancouver city councilor Walter Hardwick.

At Simon Fraser University we have the centre for dialogue and Yosef Wosk's Philosophers' Cafés. These are exceptional public initiatives creating a structure of involvement but the greater academic participation has been lamentably small. There are SFU faculty - Mark Winston and Neil Boyd, for example, who write publicly. And others such as Hal Weinberg, the mayor of Anmore, and Marjorie Griffin Cohen who are involved with public policy. But these are the exception, alas, not the rule. Publicly supported education assures in theory both the education of citizens and a pool of public experts. What we get these days is an educated squad of consultants-for-hire that too rarely speaks publicly at all.

Nobody is served in the end by this trend. Nobody gains in the long run.

What we have lost in the rush for grants is our role as citizens. It is the last layer of our personas when it should be the first. If we are not first participants in the issues of our communities we are, in the end, merely ciphers in someone else's game. In that event we, too, will endure outcomes we knew were neither optimal nor inevitable. They will be no more than the result of our non-performance in the one arena where all should perform.

Tom Koch is adjunct professor of gerontology and a forum associate at the David Lam centre for international communicaton. His web page can be found at (kochworks).

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