Thursday, May 11, 2006

Specialization and Society

A few weeks back there was a discussion over at the Leiter blog (the place for philosophy professor "inside baseball" chats) "In Defense of Baroque Specialization". Jason Stanley argues that we should let technical philosophers be technical philosophers and not insist that they be public intellectuals. Their job is to crank out this generation's contribution to philosophy and that is contribution enough. The argument is set out in terms of philosophy, but could just as well be physics, biology, psychology, or any other field. The argument runs like this:

(1) Great philosophy sometimes has an effect on society.
(2) Great philosophy is extremely subtle and complex and not entirely translatable for non-specialists.
(3) Great philosophers are often good only at complex philosophy, not good at the translation of complex philosophy into publicly accessible language and the process of this translation is distracting and time consuming for great philosophers and takes away from their ability to do great philosophy.

(4) Therefore, in order to allow philosophy to have its maximum long-term impact on society, we should not saddle philosophers with the need to be public intellectuals.

While I am perfectly willing to buy 1-3, 4 would only hold for great philosophers -- and there ain't many around. Most of us are hacks who churn out a few adequately insightful bits filling in corners of corners of corners of some question that our graduate advisor found interesting because his graduate advisor found it interesting because...

The result is much like what happens when a colleague of mine asks about a top tax rate of 100%. When he asks his students, "Isn't there some amount of money that is enough? Some annual income, say $100,000,000, that beyond which we say, you now have more money than you can spend, additional income will help society?", the response is almost uniformly, "no." The reason he often gets is, "But I might be that person someday." Now, it is fair to say that it is incredibly unlikely that any of our students are going to be that person, but the hope that drives one to buy a lottery ticket is there. And so it is with academics -- not just philosophers -- that this next paper could be the one. I'm smart, I could stumble upon the next great breakthrough and having to be a public intellectual in addition to teaching could keep me from doing my great work.

This, in addition to the fact that baroque, technical work and not one's place as a public intellectual, is what gets you job offers, raises, and promotions has led to a significant disengagement of academics in general from the broader world. We are too busy. Lawyers may have to do pro bono work as a public service, but grading seminar papers is supposedly sufficient for us. Of course, when we aren't there, political and religious charlatans and charismatics are more than happy to step in as authorities to shape public discourse and sentiment. But with some exceptions, Michael Ruse, Daniel Dennett, Barbara Forrester, PZ Meyers, the minor of us are putting out the effort to do it.

Nicholas Maxwell, from University College, London, on the other hand, has an argument that this is because of the structure of the university and that a radical change needs to occur. We need to refocus the aim of higher education from knowledge to wisdom. The search for knowledge has been seen as an end in itself and , arguing much along the same lines as Husserl and Heidegger, science without a clear eye on its social implications is a recipe for disaster. As such, Maxwell argues that we need to re-organize what and how we teach.

"There needs to be a change in the basic intellectual aim of inquiry, so that it becomes, not just the search for knowledge, but the search for and promotion of wisdom -- wisdom being the capacity to realize what is of value in life, for oneself and others, thus including knowledge, understanding and technological know-how, but much else besides."
Maxwell argues that economics, political science, and sociology need to go back to their focus on social advancement and natural sciences need to change "so that it includes at least three levels of discussion: evidence, theory, and research aims."

I would argue that there is a middle path here. The current hyper-specialization of contemporary research is the result of incredible advances in all fields. One of the effects of it is the alienation of the academic from the broader community. Maxwell's approach is designed to fecous efforts, but my fear is that it would retard their advance in the way that Stanley argues. The key is to realize that not every academic will be making that great advances. I am more than happy not to have Saul Kripke out there as the leading public face of philosophy. We do need a division of intellectual labor, the problem is that like my colleague's students, all of us think we are the ones who should be in the class excused from the responsibility to be public intellectuals. For those of us who make up the bulk of academic mass, we need to re-think things in two ways:

1) We need to restructure colleges in much the way that Maxwell is envisioning so that we teach rather than train. This is especially true in the sciences. Some incredible thought has been going into reshaping science teaching in the last decade and it needs to be given priority. Carl Sagan, in his last book the Demon Haunted World, was exactly right when he wrote,
"We have designed our civilization based on science and technology and at the same time arranged things so that almost no one understands anything at all about science and technology. This is a clear prescription for disaster."
We need to restructure our high-school and college curricula in such a way that we not only allow a broader swath of people to understand science, but enable them to participate meaningfully in public debates concerning them, e.g., global warming, stem-cell research,...

2) We need to retool training and reward structures for academics to encourage them to be public intellectuals. the normal scientist ought to be able to step up on a stage and know how to effectively take on cranks. They ought to be rewarded for playing roles in broader scientific discussions. blogs and other mechanisms can be effective. But they need to be sources of professional status, not just fun little play toys.