Reflections on the role of the academic in fostering critical debate in society: from “Scholar” to “Expert”?

A common phrase once applied to those serious on embarking on a “scholarly” career was “publish or perish”. In other words, all that mattered to foster a successful academic career was to get articles (typically “double-blind” refereed peer-reviewed) accepted into so-called “leading/international journals”. Now it appears that this is no longer enough. The ever-present pressure on academics to promulgate their ideas into “quality” outputs has now become superseded by a much more pressing imperative to make their research more immediately relevant to by being disseminated asap into a wider public space, or in other words, to a disparate groups of non-academic stakeholders, so as to demonstrate the economic utility of their work. As such, the timelines for academics to put their work out into the public domain have become indelibly shortened; and the pressure to attain impact before the final approval of a peer-reviewed publication are paramount. These pressures in turn serve to shorten the time to attain outputs.

Today’s “academic” then, in order to thrive, must be part researcher, part entrepreneur, and part communicator par excellence. Notwithstanding this, there is a conundrum that such attributes are to a large extent mutually exclusive, calling as they do for extremely disparate skill sets and attributes – or indeed temporal orientations (i.e., whether one’s focus is on short-term gains or long-term insights). This is because the demands on today’s academic in effect call for integration of the traditional Jungian psychological opposite types of introvert and extrovert, and empiricist and intuitive – all to be combined within one persona, which is challenging at the best of times.

This stands in stark contrast to the traditional image of the academic as an introverted thinker depicted in the archetype of the “scholar” – someone who almost literally sat in an “ivory tower” locked away from the mundane world (and for whom it might be argued found teaching – particularly to large cohorts of “non-specialist” students, stressful or otherwise a digression from their main interest). This individual largely conversed to contemporaries skilled in their own (largely cognate) subject areas. In the Middle Ages, this scholastic community in the Western world was defined amongst other things by their use of Latin as a lingua franca for common correspondence – at the exclusion in effect of the vernacular.

As an example of this, consider the career of Anglo-Italian academic economist Piero Sraffa, who is widely credited as having provided a robust critique of neoclassical economics that instigated the so-called “Cambridge Capital Controversies”, and was seen as the progenitor of the “Neo-Ricardian” school of thought in economics.  Sraffa is attributed as only having published a handful of works in his life-time, famously including: “The Laws of Returns under Competitive Conditions”, Economic Journal, 36 (144): 535–50; an editorial compendium with M. Dobbs on “The Works and Correspondence of David Ricardo” (Cambridge University Press); and his Magnus Opus, published in 1960: “Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities: Prelude to a Critique of Economic Theory” (Cambridge University Press). This latter work took some 30 years to produce (in this context, note the use of the term “prelude”) and was widely seen as an attempt to refute the axioms of neoclassical economics and resuscitate the “labour theory of value” utilised in classical economics.

The “expert” in contrast is a distinctly modern characterisation of someone who must be capable of immediately grasping the essential details of contemporary phenomenon (most prescient in the social sciences) and distilling them to “explain” the salient features to a non-technical audience, to make things accessible in the vernacular. Thus, by definition, the “expert” is grounded in the vernacular. In extremis, such individuals can have this tag denoted on them by simple virtue of their profile in the public domain; for example, those professionals working in the City of London financial services sector who are denoted in public discourse as “economists”, even though they might not have an economics degree per se (and generally not the academic qualification of the Doctorate that would earmark them as a genuine specialist in a particular branch of their special subject).

That many of these individuals simply repeated conventional nostrums about “free markets” and their purported “efficiency” only exposed the fragility of their expert status in failing to predict the 2008 financial crisis. The low point of the economics “profession” here of course was famously encapsulated by the Queen at a visit to the London School of Economics in 2008 when she asked “why no-one saw the financial crisis coming”. Thus in this fashion was the status of a subject area so comprehensively trashed that it would be easy for individuals such as Michael Gove to come along some ten years later and further deride the status of “experts” during the 2016 Brexit referendum.

This brings us back to an important point about the dissemination of “objective” knowledge, rather than just opinions, or propaganda. Edward Bernays, regarded as the “Father of Public Relations” back in the 1940s, argued that propaganda could have a positive role in a democratic society, by providing a plurality of “guiding thoughts” for “the masses” (as opposed to one stream of guiding thought in a dictatorship). However, academics are defined as credible by grounding their arguments and “guiding thoughts” in some type of robust evidence base – or at least an internally consistent system of logical thinking and assumptions (though this is not without criticism, as those who point out that abstract economic systems such as those based on “perfect competition” might demonstrate hypothetico-deductive consistency but cannot be verified in the real world attest).

In the realm of human interaction characterised by social sciences, though, separating the “objective” from the “normative” is a difficult activity at the best of times. In the 21st century context of all-pervasive multimedia and multiple information sources available instantaneously, the academic function of inquiry, testing, review and publishing research becomes ever more pressurised by the need to contribute to (and influence) public debate. It is this dilemma that leaves one wondering if a balance between “scholar” and “expert” can be achieved. A simple answer to this might be more in the use of cross-disciplinary teams, and less emphasis on the individual as a sole author of significant works – thus enabling the harnessing of a wide range of talents and aptitudes (sic my earlier reference to Jungian psychological types); and crucially engaging practitioners to co-create impact and dialogue with the “mundane world”.

However, the urgency of this in a political climate where democratic norms themselves are increasingly coming under attack demands it. There is a particular poignancy in trying to ensure that one’s work is not cited selectively, or otherwise used for purposes other than that of objective inquiry (i.e., distancing one’s work from questionable citations) – although, again difficult to ensure when “research findings” can be so easily disseminated, or “tweeted” in an exponential (or even viral) fashion. A salutary warning from history is provided by John Maynard Keynes, who noted back in 1936 that “[m]admen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back” (Keynes, 1936, p. 383). Or as the Australian pop band INXS sang in the early 1990s, “I was thinking, got the feeling, the gift you give is going to last forever…” Keynes, J. M. (1936). The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money London: Macmillan & Co.

This piece is an extended version of the blog published on the Times Higher Education on 7th August 2018.

Article Details

Alex De Ruyter,
Professor and Director,, Centre for Brexit Studies, Birmingham City University

Date Published:

September 14th, 2018

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