Part I: A Preliminary Note on Five Scholarly Ideals

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Here I briefly describe five ideals or forms of scholarship. The next several posts will seek to add some detail. I am not arguing a priority for any single ideal at this point and recognize that different disciplines conducted by varying scholarly schools of thought or methodology would consider some of the ideals irrelevant or even illegitimate. Nonetheless they are being offered as one way to look at what scholars do in the pursuit of knowledge or in the attempt to persuade and implement what they consider to be reform of social conditions they consider unjust. I also want to make it clear that the dividing lines between the ideals are not entirely neat or that there is a mixing of forms in some contexts. Yet I do think that, as expressed, the five ideals represent a set of distinct orientations that produce a different kind of scholarly behavior and output as the primary characteristic of what the particular scholar or collectivist school is doing.


Each of the five scholarly ideals can offer a legitimate orientation depending on the degree of bias and the context of their use. The problems arise when the ideals are confused and inappropriately commingled. When this occurs the result is an incoherent muddle. This is because even when operating at its best each ideal serves a different scholarly mission and generates a distinct product and arguably in some instances requires a different kind of person filling the role of the scholar. A consequence is that there are no consistent intellectually based standards by which to judge the merit of a scholar’s work when it is being done in service of a different form of the university ideal than that possessed by evaluators who are not part of a school or collective.   Serious problems also emerge when scholars are activists and advocates who tend toward the extremes of a strongly held “cause” because effective advocacy almost invariably involves degrees of overstatement and distortion as part of seeking to influence others and advance agendas.


At the beginning it is helpful to realize that the five versions of the scholarly ideal produce different forms of intellectual work with distinct goals and motivations. The scholar engaging in such activity can vary dramatically in terms of what the individual is seeking to achieve through his or her research output and actions that might be taken related to the findings reflected in that product. Similarly, there is a diverse set of targets at which the work is directed. These targets include communicating ideas and knowledge to other scholars who are invested in a specific sub-discipline. They also include overt (and covert) attempts to influence and reshape the behavior of institutions the individual scholar or scholarly collective considers to be a means through which changes thought necessary can be achieved. The five ideals are:


1. Development and pursuit of original knowledge for its own sake


2. Preservation, refinement and transmission of the best forms of knowledge


3. Objective social critique


4. Individual activism


5. Collective activism.


These ideals are not simply a reflection of what has been traditionally thought of as the dichotomy between “pure” and “applied” research. Nor are they necessarily on a linear continuum in which each is a variant or extension of the other. The simple fact is that each ideal in its most strict sense is different in kind and not only degree. Each represents different values, assumptions and commitments as to what is involved in the central role of the scholar.


Each ideal, including the two long-cherished ideals of the discovery of new knowledge and the refinement, preservation and extension of existing knowledge, has often been honored more in lofty rhetoric than in the reality of what most scholars actually do. [1] Even our supposed core paradigm of the pursuit of “pure” scientific knowledge is not quite as pristine as some would have us think. Robert Wolff reminds us, for example, that:


Orthodox science is “established” in our society in just the way that particular religious creeds have been established in earlier times. The received doctrine is taught in the schools, its expounders are awarded positions, fellowships, honors, and public acclaim; dissenting doctrines … are excluded from places of instruction, denied easy access to media of communication, officially ridiculed, and—in the case of medical practices—even prohibited by law from translating their convictions into action. [2]


Regardless of academic rhetoric, universities are powerful institutional systems that are as doctrinaire and hidebound in their behavior as any other institution whose beneficiaries are seeking to protect vested interests or simply defend that with which they are most familiar and on which their training is based and reputations sustained. This is consistent with Keynes’ conclusion that most university faculty are little more than “academic scribblers” who live their lives content to operate within the safe confines of the ideas and reward system in which they were initially indoctrinated and from which they extract benefits. [3] While the ideal of the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is frequently offered as a justification for independent research and scholarship, the likelihood of individuals behaving in full accord with such a strongly principled norm depends on the incentives and disincentives to which they are subject.


The University as a Simultaneously Symbolic and Adaptive Institution


Richard Hofstadter reminds us: “the university is only a symbol of a larger and more pressing problem of the relationship of intellect to power: we are opposed almost by instinct to the divorce of knowledge from power, but we are also opposed, out of our modern convictions, to their union.” Hofstadter also concludes that scholars have increasingly sought the solace of celebrity and “relevance” as a substitute for independence and originality. [4] Peter Drucker offers a vital point in his explanation that what is happening represents the “new reality” of an increasingly pluralist democracy, concluding that: “The new pluralism … focuses on power. It is a pluralism of single-cause, single-interest groups—the “mass movements” of small but highly disciplined minorities. Each of them tries to obtain through power what it could not obtain through numbers or through persuasion. Each is exclusively political.”[5]


Think about the effects such “realities” have on the scholarly activity of individuals and groups determined to advance causes they hold most dear. Nor is this in any way a defense of how scholars have behaved before now. My point is that many of those engaged in the scholarly function, particularly in the disciplines Crane Brinton defined as non-cumulative, have changed into a set of people whose agendas are more political than intellectual and whose interests are being defined by the aims of a collective movement rather than independent thought. [6]


Then and now, within the institution of the university whose scholars claim a commitment to the pursuit of “pure” knowledge and full intellectual honesty, there is very little purity, honesty or even self-awareness about how the mission of the scholar is corrupted.Richard Hofstadter may have identified the root of the problem in his explanation of the inherently non-intellectual nature of the modern pursuit of knowledge, including the work of most university professors. He concludes:


[T]he work of lawyers, editors, engineers, doctors, indeed of some writers and of most professors—though vitally dependent upon ideas, is not distinctively intellectual. A man in any of the learned … professions must have command of a substantial store of frozen ideas to do his work; he must, if he does it well, use them intelligently; but in his professional capacity he uses them mainly as instruments. The heart of the matter … is that the professional man lives off ideas, not for them. His professional role, his professional skills, do not make him an intellectual. He is a mental worker, a technician. [7]


The Increasingly Ideological Nature of the University


Much of what is going on among academics working in the “soft” disciplines of law, philosophy, social studies, political theory and literature is ideological. As such, it seeks to influence social behavior and has an impulsion toward taking action at its core. In that world it is fair to describe the use of ideas as “weapons” fashioned to overcome opponents.[8] For scholars operating from an ideological base they have already decided that change is needed and their work aims at achieving what they consider necessary. But since it is far more likely that the coordinated efforts of groups will be able to mobilize the pressures and momentum involved in strategies for social change, activist scholars inevitably tend toward enlisting in a collective rather than engaging in individual action. For those possessed by an ideology this behavior seems natural because it is change they are seeking rather than knowledge.


Daniel Bell reminds us: “Ideology is the conversion of ideas into social levers.” He adds: “For the ideologue, truth arises in action, and meaning is given to experience by the “transforming moment.” He comes alive not in contemplation, but in ‘the deed.’” [9] In our modern academic culture, interest groups of all persuasions are engaging in exchanges based on propaganda and stereotypes and increasingly, activist scholars who are allied with specific identity factions and who are skilled at using words as weapons, are central participants in the conflict. In that intensified context legitimate criticism of the flaws in our social institutions easily slides toward fanaticism and resistance to the ideological critique is scorned as ignorant bigotry. Some of our most important social disputes have drifted toward the extremes. I am, for example, still waiting for the so-called “dialogue on race” to begin, as opposed to the “slings and arrows” thrown about by bigots and radicals of all ethnic backgrounds. Whether we are even capable of actually discussing issues in the “tinderbox” of modern discourse is questionable to the point where everything of consequence is a matter of political power struggles and very little that scholars say is free of an ideological “taint”.


The consequences of the clash of ideologies have been unfortunate from the perspective of the integrity of the university and its scholars. Maxine Greene warns that slogans and propaganda have replaced real dialogue. She describes slogans as, “rallying symbols” that “in no sense describe what actually exists, yet they are taken—wishfully or desperately—to be generalizations or statements of fact.”[10] Consider Camus’ observation about the need to keep sufficient distance from the heated conditions of society in order to retain a clear perspective. He writes: “[I]t is not possible to be a militant in one’s spare time. And so the artist of today becomes unreal if he remains in his ivory tower or sterilized if he spends his time galloping around the political arena…. [T]he writer must be fully aware of the dramas of his time and that he must take sides every time he can or knows how to do so. But he must also maintain or resume from time to time a certain distance in relation to our history.” [11]


The Search for Security and Power Is Easier Than the Creative Pursuit of Knowledge


If one lacks the courage or insight required for original thinking true intellectual freedom can be a curse rather than a blessing since it forces you to become aware of your limitations. The “solution” for some is to work in a system characterized by a received orthodoxy that takes its own legitimacy for granted, lacks self-awareness and never tests itself against its lofty rhetoric. This allows a university intellectual to “have his cake” of status and lifetime employment through tenure without using his talents in an attempt to create true and meaningful knowledge. True creativity and insight is considerably more rare than we might hope. Even when we manage to do work early in our careers that “shows promise” to other scholars, we often find ourselves pursuing “safe” topics in an increasingly politicized university or find that we have said all we had to say in that early burst of productivity that earned the boon of lifetime job security.


Belying the image of scholars and intellectuals as courageous moral beacons or as deeply committed to the pursuit of truth wherever it might lead, Diekema identifies self-interest as at the core of the problem, reasoning: “Self-censorship is often a matter of personal convenience for faculty. They simply assess the potential costs before speaking out….”[12] Scholars operating in a culture filled with implicit inhibitions against pursuit of a particular strand of knowledge with rewards distributed for following the agenda of the political orthodoxy distort not only how we interpret knowledge but even what knowledge we seek. Such an environment also creates a risk-averse unwillingness to critique colleagues’ work.   I have had law faculty from various institutions tell me that they “hid” positions until they were awarded tenure out of fear that an unpopular position would cost them votes. The same applies to assessing others’ work because academics have long memories and thin skins.


Risk aversion is found throughout American universities.[13]   Scholars fear the consequences of writing something that will displease members of an academic political collective.   This apprehension or “shaping” causes them to either write cautiously or alter their analysis to appeal to one of the more powerful interest groups. There are many topics that are simply taboo and are avoided by any university academic interested in remaining employed. Nor, given the difficulty and risk involved in attempting to achieve original insights rather than being content to fit comfortably into an existing niche, is it surprising that some scholars submerge themselves in intellectual or political groups. For many scholars the situation has become one of risk avoidance rather than intellectual independence and pursuit of deep and creative insights into the human condition. This stifling of intellectual freedom and honesty occurs during a scholar’s most important formative period in which career agendas are being set and a base of intellectual capital created.


Becoming part of a scholarly community with an accepted focus protects a scholar’s employment position and also offers a template for what is considered to be acceptable work. When this occurs, and it is a common element in American law schools, the members of such interest groups automatically praise whatever a member-scholar says. This phenomenon occurs because it is seen as supporting the collective’s agenda, validating and increasing the institutional power of its members. It seems to advance “the cause” even if the actual situation is too often that members of a scholarly collective are mainly talking incestuously with each other by “preaching to the choir”. As to true discourse, it is a victim. As Jacques Ellul tells us: “modern man is beset by anxiety and a feeling of insecurity.… The conflict of propaganda takes the place of the debate of ideas.” [14]


One inevitable effect is that the collective explicitly and implicitly dictates the scope of a scholar’s research agenda and in doing so provides a kind of career “sanctuary” while limiting and foreclosing a full range of inquiry and experimentation. This occurs because some topics advance the collective’s mission while others are taboo because they have the potential to undermine the arguments being made by the group. While this is important for group solidarity it is a contradiction to what we have long considered to be the mission of the scholar.


Stereotypes, Propaganda, Slogans and Collectivist Repression


I equate part of what is going on in the rise of scholarly collectives committed to activist matters as bordering on a form of stereotypical “group think” in which otherwise intelligent people trade their intellectual independence and depth of inquiry for status and security. In Propaganda, Ellul reminds us: “A stereotype is a seeming value judgment, acquired by belonging to a group, without any intellectual labor…. The stereotype arises from feelings one has for one’s own group, or against the “out-group”. Man attaches himself passionately to the values represented by his group and rejects the clichés of the out-groups…. The stereotype, … helps man to avoid thinking, to take a personal position, to form his own opinion.”[15]


Although the names have changed and the interests being advocated by the activist collectives transformed, the problem with university integrity and scholarship is not entirely new. Bernard Meland placed much of the blame for what he saw as the degradation of modern scholars’ intellectual integrity at the foot of universities’ obsessive drive to achieve status, a goal not unrelated to academics’ economic gain, ego, and ambition. He concludes:


[T]he concern for status in the academic world and, by this measure, in the world at large is of more serious consequence. The concern for status, we are told by our psychologically informed colleagues, is one of the basic human traits in the normal human community. To be recognized for what we are worth–this, it would seem, is a human requirement. Yet the concern for status in the academic world rarely achieves this level of restraint. To be recognized for what one is worth would, in many instances where status is dominantly a concern, be tantamount to being publicly disclaimed.[16]


The distorting effects of reward and status systems do not, however, stop scholars from engaging in self-deception as to the professed integrity of their intellectual pursuits or from using idealized rhetoric to defend their own positions regardless of their suspicions about how their work might be biased or corrupted by personal agenda or the power of “group-think”. The self-deception and rationalization become easier when the scholar works within “soft” disciplines such as law, social science, literature, politics or the like, those Brinton referred to as non-cumulative because we are using the same concepts today that were developed and applied centuries ago. This is because those disciplines operate through layers of interpretation and opinion more than hard data capable of being tested through repetitive methodologies.


This criticism of the soft or non-cumulative disciplines does not mean there is any lack of bias, distortion or closed-minded opposition to new ideas and discoveries in the hard sciences. Bernard Cohen reminds us that: “new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”[17] The message is that if bias and control by dominant orthodoxies and “old boy networks” occurs even within the realms of hard science there is absolutely no chance that such biases would not be more pervasive in the “opinion-based” disciplines such as law.


Some Other Implications


Eric Hoffer reminds us that “faultfinding men of words” are the initial step in attacking an existing system. The aim of “faultfinders” is not to offer a full and balanced intellectual analysis of the truth of the system being critiqued but to undermine its stated principles and legitimacy.[18]   As scholars move from detached positions to active and legitimate engagement with the conditions of society there is an increasing risk that the scholar will lose perspective. The active role is one for which many scholars are ill prepared and one capable of changing the people who fulfill it. The activist role comes close to guaranteeing a skewing of perspective as assumption and bias increasingly influence perception and interpretation. The result will often be that the scholar becomes an advocate and rhetorician, even a propagandist, rather than a seeker of truth in the way demanded by the goals of the pursuit of original knowledge, the refinement of existing knowledge or honest and balanced critique of critical social issues. As this occurs, objectivity and detachment lessen and the work takes on a higher probability of being shaped by the scholars’ personal opinions, by collective agendas, and by social goals and allegiances rather than intellectual clarity and honesty.


As Thomas Kuhn remarked, even in the strictest application of the scientific method to the conditions of what we are calling cumulative or scientific knowledge the researcher’s process of observation alters the phenomena being observed. [19] As we move further away from the application of strict methodologies and the measurement of cumulative knowledge phenomena to the “softened” material of noncumulative knowledge the dangers of subjectivity and distortion of the observed (and critiqued) reality due to the researchers’ bias increase. This danger exists even for the scholar seeking to objectively critique society in a balanced way but expands significantly with activist scholarship and dramatically with the work of activist collectives housed within the university. In those activist realms the critique is often so personal that the scholar becomes a subjective element of the data being studied rather than an objective observe.


The scholar who is attempting to generate a balanced and objective critique of society for purposes of its regeneration and reform is not predominantly activist in focus as opposed to critical, explanatory and prescriptive. Social science can, for example, be used to inform our understanding of the truth of the conditions studied. The critical scholar’s hope is that—once understood—this understanding of right and wrong will inform policy-makers and lead to changes that improve the conditions. But the difference is that the scholar’s strategy of intellectual critique is still based on careful use of a shared and accepted methodology and concern for the authenticity of what is discovered. In this context the scholar remains at a remove from the work and while it is political in nature in that it critiques a specific sphere of human activity it continues to retain a significant degree of objectivity.


The identification of injustices and the use of social science and analysis to formulate potential remedies allow the scholar to engage in relatively traditional forms of analysis because the dominant mode of inquiry is explication and testing. But as the detached, critical and evaluative scholar moves from that active but traditional posture toward becoming an activist-scholar who demands the political implementation of solutions that inevitably require the reallocation of social goods, power and responsibility, conflict is heightened.   This is also the point at which the individual becomes less the scholar and more of the political activist—converting the discourse into a form and style that is highly manipulative, goal-oriented and rhetorical rather than balanced, explanatory and illuminating.


The risk is that activist scholars, particularly those who are members of a collective, may have decided on a preferred version of the truth before they offer their conclusions–or even before they initiate their research. Responsible critical scholars offer insights that demonstrate deficiencies or explain paths by which solutions can be created or implemented. They analyze with balance and integrity and demonstrate clearly the pathway followed to reach the conclusions. While the scholar critiques the society and political process, the choice as to whether those criticisms are adopted is left to the society itself. The critical scholar’s work is essentially complete at the point of the critique, including the crafting of effective strategies and solutions.


The argument being made here is not that activism or collective organization within the university is always illegitimate–in fact challenging abuses of power is a key function of an institution responsible for pursuing not only truth but also social justice. The question is about balance and the clear tendency of dominant orthodoxies and ideological collectives to distort and suppress by subtle influences as well as overt sanctions. In a corrupted culture it becomes more important than ever for the university and its scholarly voices to “speak truth to power” and it cannot do this if its scholars succumb to the mania of ideology and the corruptions of those in power who will always try to use scholars’ voices for their own ends.


While activism is an essential element of the modern university in a world increasingly driven by widespread propaganda, economic distortions, abuses of power and lies it also produces consequences for the scholar who, like Icarus risks coming too close to the “sun” of power, ideology and politics and metaphorically falls back to earth as the wings melt from the heat. The “sun” of scholarship was thought to be reason, evidence and an honest analytical process. If one is seeking to break down such long-standing assumptions about how to approach the truth of reality it is not surprising that the foundations of reason and evidence are targets. This of course brings us to the sometimes valid, but overstated, claims of postmodernism’s assault on reason and truth as little more than a manifestation of discriminatory power.


A result of the assault by Hoffer’s “faultfinders” is the weakening and even abandonment of reasoned discourse and the substitution of emotional criteria and political polemic. In this regard Jung warns: “Rational argument can be conducted with some prospect of success only so long as the emotionality of a given situation does not exceed a certain critical degree. If the affective temperature rises above this level, the possibility of reason’s having any effect ceases and its place is taken by slogans and chimerical wish-fantasies.” [20] Honest discourse, or even the attempt to engage in such activity is the victim. In part this is because the intention of the extreme activist “scholar” is to “speak to the choir” of similarly oriented activist-scholars or to support or expand a political movement located outside the university rather than to pursue truths.




[1] I have written a fair amount on the nature of the university and the role of scholars. See David Barnhizer, “The University Ideal and the American Law School,” 42 Rutgers L. Rev. 109 (1989); “A Chilling of Discourse,” 50 St. Louis University L. J. 361 (2006); “Truth or Consequences in Legal Scholarship,” 33 Hofstra Law Review 1203 (2005); “Freedom to Do What? Institutional Neutrality, Academic Freedom and Academic Responsibility,” 43 J. Legal. Ed. 346 (1993); “The Justice Mission of American Law Schools,” 40 Cleveland St. L. Rev. 285 (1992); “The Purposes of the University in the First Quarter of the Twenty-first Century,” 22 Seton Hall L. Rev. 1124 (1992); “The University Ideal and Clinical Legal Education,” 35 New York L.J. 87 (1990); “The Revolution in American Law Schools,” 37 Cleveland St. L. Rev. 227 (1989); “The University Ideal and the American Law School,” 42 Rutgers L. Rev. 109 (1989); “Prophets, Priests and Power Blockers: Three Fundamental Roles of Judges and Legal Scholars in America,” 50 Pitts. L. Rev. 127 (1988).

[2] Robert Paul Wolff, The Poverty of Liberalism 16 (1968).

[3] John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money 383, 384 (1935).

[4] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life 427 (1963).

[5] Peter Drucker, The New Realities 76 (1989).

[6] Crane Brinton, Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought 516, 517 (1950) suggests why we have failed to develop a more integrative form of knowledge about humans-in-community and as individuals: “logical positivism asserts that the only valid kind of knowledge is cumulative knowledge, the kind one finds in natural science.” He concludes, “The logical positivist tends to regard all traditional philosophical thinking, the kind involved in fields like metaphysics, ethics, political theory, even most epistemology … as a complete waste of time.”

[7] Richard Hofstadter, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963).

[8] See, e.g., Max Lerner, Ideas Are Weapons: The History and Uses of Ideas (1991).

[9] Daniel Bell, The End of Ideology 370-371 (1960).

[10] Maxine Greene, Teacher as Stranger: Educational Philosophy for the Modern Age 70 (1973).

[11] Camus, Demain interview, in Resistance, Rebellion, and Death, at 238.

[12] Diekema, Academic Freedom, id.

[13] Consider the comments of Arthur Koestler, in Diekema, Academic Freedom, concerning the defenses raised by what he refers to as academic mediocrities who fear anything new will destroy their intellectual fiefdoms and expose their inadequacies.

[14] Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, at vii (1964).

[15] See Jacques Ellul, Propaganda 180 (1965).

[16] Bernard E. Meland, Higher Education and the Human Spirit 7 (1953).

[17] I. Bernard Cohen, Revolution in Science (1985).

[18] See Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements 120 (1951).

[19] See, Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Enlarged edition, University of Chicago 1962, 1970).

[20] C.G. Jung, The Undiscovered Self, 12, 13 (Mentor 1957). Translated from the German by R.F.C. Hull.

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