On Saturday, Ross Douthat wrote about the conflict between a neutral and impartial press and a press out to advocate for social justice. I was reminded of those who have what I think is a shriveled sense of the role of academics and the nature of scholarship.
There are many, but Larry Alexander (77 U.Colo.L.Rev. 883 (2006)) has an excellent statement of what might be the dominant view (though his essay is marred by a myriad of unsupported or thinly supported conclusions about political advocacy in the contemporary university, conclusions that may or may not be correct). Alexander maintains that an academic follows arguments and evidence where they lead regardless of whether they support his political goals. He contrasts this with the political advocates who know the conclusions they wish to reach and cast about only for arguments and evidence that supports their views. These characterizations are framed by a guarded (if I read him correctly) admission that normative scholarship is properly a part of university life.
Alexander describes normative argument as a branch of philosophy and asserts that there are well established standards for judging normative discourse that do not depend on one’s normative commitments. I agree that normative discourse generally can and should be evaluated without regard to one’s normative commitments and that there are well established standards for doing so, but I do not agree that normative arguments are a branch of philosophy. Rather philosophy as a discipline has a certain style of normative argument. Law school scholarship is filled with normative argument; it usually is not philosophic in character; and philosophers would be less competent to judge it than law professors. The same is true of other disciplines though I think a significant problem with the university is that there is not enough normative argument particularly in political science departments.
I have given Alexander a narrow reading on the role of normative argument in the university, and he might well agree with what I have said. My main issue is what appears to be a narrow reading of academic. I do not deny that the impartial academic described by Alexander is one form of academic. I also agree that professors who employ only arguments that support their position while ignoring arguments on the other side are engaged in shoddy scholarship. But political advocacy can be excellent scholarship when it is good advocacy. It simply does not matter whether the scholar started out with a political conclusion in mind or got to the conclusion in the course of solving a puzzle. Indeed, I suspect that most of the best normative scholarship has been produced by the committed rather than the puzzle solvers, mainly because I think most scholarship gets started by a strong commitment or intuition rather than by a scratch of curiosity – though I have started projects from both perspectives.
Alexander argues that political advocates do not deserve academic freedom. But this loses sight of an important argument for academic freedom. It is highly desirable for scholars to publish their work based on their independent views rather than to have it controlled by a central administration. In a democratic society, it is particularly important to have political arguments developed in an independent way. Alexander wants depoliticized scholarship and hiring. I agree that scholars should generally be hired regardless of political view, but in a society where sound bites and televised shouting pass for political discourse, we need more well-argued political advocacy – not less.