December 09, 2003 | Peter

The Inhibited Academic

I alluded in an ealier blog entry to the fact that far too few academics participate in public discourse. One problem is that such activity is either actively discouraged or at best only half-heartedly supported by their institutions and colleagues (I recall an American professor I knew saying that this lack of support for outspoken academics was an Australian phenomenon – it much bemused him).
One reason why speaking out is tricky is because you can rarely do so with the rigour that academics like to claim as part of their professional role. You can’t provide endless references to back your argument up (especially if it is controversial) or take pages to develop your subtle reasoning and refute alternative viewpoints.
Some academics do manage to say things of relevance and importance effectively and succinctly, and OnLine Opinion has published many such efforts. As such it provides a rare forum for information, ideas and opinions to be presented outside the increasingly tight constraints of the mass media.
These blogs are another way to broaden discourse, endeavouring to provide an immediacy and consistency of world view that widens debate. The price is an inevitable weakening in terms of both substance and form, as the blogger has to just get on and say it. Because of its regularity and immediacy, the usual standards of rigour and presentation cannot be maintained.
But the electronic age demands that we think and act fast, and that includes public commentary. The life of current events stories is so short now that if you hesitate the chance to comment meaningfully is gone.
Academics just have to take more risks, and get involved. Society is now so complex and things move so fast that we desperately need clear thinkers and well informed people to have their say. And thinking clearly and being well informed are exactly the core skills academics should have.

Posted by Peter at 8:25 pm | Comments (4) |
Filed under: Uncategorized


  1. I must admit I find view of ‘academics’ and their perceived difficuty in “taking more risks and getting involved” rather puzzling. I am a part time lecturer in an MBA program, based wholly in the ‘practical’ world of consulting and providing legal services, sitting on a board, etc etc as being very much in the real world. I bring this approach to my teaching and discourse eg speaking at industry conferences, local industry body seminars etc.Many academics in my area, corporate governance, engage in a high profile manner in public discourse, on TV, reform bodies etc, eg Prof Ian Ramsay on audit reform, Prof Michael Adams and Prof Baxt on corporate law, and many more. Perhaps it is only some disciplines that aren’t intimately linked into commercial or industry bodies and understand their concerns that can’t or won’t speak about issues beyond a theoretical perspective.

    Comment by Kathleen Clothier — December 11, 2003 @ 5:57 am

  2. Yes, I’ve always found it rather puzzling too, but it is incredibly hard to get academics to accept a consistent public role. I suspect the problem is greater for those who see their work as being more theoretical, but as I used to tell my students (who wondered what, exactly, theory was good for), if theory does not lead to more effective action, it is useless.

    Comment by peter mcmahon — December 11, 2003 @ 11:20 am

  3. I think you’re spot-on with the point about rigour. Public debate requires you to state your best judgement and defend it. The academic norm is to hedge your views with a thicket of footnotes acknowledging every possible contrary view.
    Actually, Australia is not as bad in this respect as most other countries. Academics are more prominent in public debate here than in the US, UK or many European countries.

    Comment by John — December 11, 2003 @ 7:52 pm

  4. Since John Quiggin has been a very successful public academic, I can’t help but agree with him. That’s a depressing assessment about Oz being a leader in open discourse – things must be bad elsewhere!

    Comment by peter mcmahon — December 15, 2003 @ 1:28 pm

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