Scholars and Public Debate

Scholars and Public Debate

In her excellent, tightly reasoned “Against Academic Boycotts” (Summer 2007), Martha Nussbaum notes that the “main force of the boycott” is directed against “individual members of the [Israeli] institutions,” who are accused of not condemning their “government as much as they might have,” among other faults. Although Nussbaum finds this rationale and the boycotting of individuals “both implausible and deeply repugnant to the values of academic life,” she also notes “that we can only debate this questioning in a philosophically responsible way if we first offer a principled account of the responsibilities of scholars to engage in public debates.” What follows is an attempt to answer Nussbaum’s implicit question about the responsibility of scholars; an answer that also provides a footnote to her critique of the proposed boycott from a somewhat different perspective.

To be recognized as a “scholar” or “academic” means that a person occupies a specific occupational or professional status or position in the structure of a society. But people in all societies occupy more than one status: a professor of English or a plumber, for example, may also be a parent, a member of a religious denomination, a coach of a little league baseball team and, most salient for the present discussion, a citizen. This suggests rephrasing the question: are the responsibilities of academics to engage in public debate different from their responsibilities as citizens?

This distinction between the status of a person as scholar and as citizen is a purely analytical one. In terms of actual behavior the roles of scholar and citizen often overlap. For example, in the current public debate about the teaching of evolution, many citizens will actively oppose the inclusion of “intelligent design” into lessons about evolution as an inappropriate introduction of religion into a science curriculum. Scientists may join these protests on those grounds or on the grounds that inclusion of intelligent design is in reality an attack on science itself or for both reasons. In any given instance it is difficult to tell whether the scientist is speaking as a scholar or as a citizen. Still, it is a useful distinction in attempting to see whether scholars qua scholars have responsibilities different from those of citizens.

According to conventional democratic theory, a democracy requires the active participation of its citizens in the affairs of the society. Thus, the ideal-typical “good citizens” are those who keep themselves well informed about the current public issues and actively participate in the debates on those questions by, for example, joining civic groups, attending meetings, writing to politicians; all this, and more, at least to the extent that the obligations entailed by their other statuses allow them the time and energy to be good citizens. Democracies also have “bad citizens”: individuals who are co...

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