The Social Responsibility of the Academy
and Its Academicians
George R. Garrison
Kent State University
The April 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City rang every bell in every head in America that is conscious, sufficiently mature, rational, and intelligent. It has reduced most of us to the most common denominator moral agents, sensitive human beings and citizens with a common ideal and ethos.
I commended the American Council of Learned Societies for raising this issue, even before this tragedy struck. The topic, Beyond the Boundaries of the Academy: What is the Scholars Obligation to the Larger Public, is certainly apropos. It is certainly no longer merely an intellectual exercise, if any one ever thought such, to raise that most important and timely question.
Hate has always been with us and on a large scale, but did not impact the majority of population to a significant degree. And for whatever reason, the Academy in general has not adequately dealt with the truth about this phenomenon in our midst. Because of this, and the other things, we have lived under the shadow of illusion rather than that of reality, subjectivity instead of objectivity, social remoteness and isolationism, as opposed to fraternity and neighborliness, apathy and noninvolvement, over and above empathy the human solidarity.
The hatred and violence that have historically manifested themselves through the institution of slavery and segregation, and the unimaginative violence of lynching, castrations, the bombing of churches and the killing of students by law enforcement agents on the campuses of the Black Academy, has struck with all the force of its deepest and most uncompromising, insensitive and indiscriminate ugliness, in the heartland of this nation.
No society can continue to exist as a highly developed civilization if its supports, or allows to exist unchecked, high levels of violence, hate, confusion, and misunderstanding. There is more rhetoric and polemic directed at the minds of people today than ever before.
- It has removed the clarity in our thought processes and replaced it with confusion;
- It has suppressed the growing buds of harmony among our citizenry, and replaced it with friction in internecine conflict;
- It has attacked and begun to dismantle an educational system that, despite its flaws, was both the envy of the world and the hope of the nation, because of the access it provided all citizens at all levels.1
This rhetoric and polemic, and the ugly politics from which they came, have thrown our society into a mode of social decay and devolution, where the very fabric of our national community, including the idealism that has been one of our greatest sources of inspiration, has begun to unravel.
This has developed, to a large extent, because of the inaction, apathy, preoccupation with other matters, and, in some rare instances, complicity of members and segments of the Academy. I do not want to be guilty of over-generalization, so let me be clear in saying that I know that many from our ranks have represented us well on the front, and near front, lines of this struggle. My point is simply that they have been the exceptions and not the rule. There needs to be a conscious effort with a deliberate strategy by the Academy as a whole, to assume what I think is its social responsibility.
In this brief discussion, I would like to discuss what really amounts to the social role and mission of the university and the Professor/Scholar. There are three parts to this short paper. First I lay out the basic assumptions of my argument, which really undergirds what comes later. Next is a discussion about the role, purpose and mission of Liberal Arts Institutions of Higher Learning. And lastly, I examine the civic and social responsibilities of those researchers and teachers who work in the Academy
There are certain presuppositions or basic assumptions in this paper that I think it best to disclose immediately, viz.:
- All human beings have inalienable/human/natural rights, among which are LIFE, LIBERTY and the PURSUIT OF HAPPINESS.
- All rational creatures are bound by the IMPERATIVES OF CIVILITY.
- All mature rational beings, individually and collectively, have SOCIAL RESPONSIBILTIES toward each other.
- Human beings have a MORAL OBLIGATION to participate in the historical struggle for social development and progress.
- Institutions in our society exist, among other reasons, to empower individuals toward self-sufficiency, to promote the general welfare, and to aid in the process of social preservation, development, and progress.
Society as we know it, and that which we hope for, cannot exist without its institutions. The entire range of human activities occur, generally, within the scope of these societal entities or edifices that we call institutions financial, marital, religious, military, educational, etc. Society does not, contrary to the views of the nineteenth century sociologist/historicist Herbert Spencer and others who think like him, improve itself or progress inevitably. It requires the active participation of its best minds and most energetic members, along with institutions that function efficiently, effectively and justly. If we conceptualize the Academy, generally, as an institution, we can identify its purpose as being primarily to: educate and train the citizenry; discover and disseminate new knowledge; monitor, record and analyze the human condition; encourage and facilitate human creativity and intellectual production through the ARTS, HUMANITIES, SCIENCES and TECHNOLOGY; and aid in the search for, and discovery of, solutions to the pressing problems that threaten the existence and undermine the well-being of humanity.
The Academy has a unique responsibility and opportunity to be a major force in the process of civilision the art and practice of civilized living.2 Moreover, it must play a role in the creation of a better society. It does this in sundry but connected ways. Furthermore, it must be conscious of the critical role it plays in the maintenance of a free, open, and just society.
Under this broad umbrella called the Academy are found professional, vocation, and other types of institutions that do not embrace the traditional role and mission of the Liberal Arts Institution. Hence, what is being claimed here would apply to them to a much lesser degree. It is, therefore, the Traditional Liberal Arts Institutions that embody, more than any of the others, what we mean by the Academy.
To achieve its highest purpose the Academy must embrace a mission that grows out of its true raison detre and that is significant and meaningful to the human experience. Additionally, it must provide a curriculum that not only adequately covers the content areas of traditional disciplines, but one that has meaningful connections with, and relevance to, the real world of everyday experience as well. Furthermore, this curriculum must develop in the student a critically reflective mind, a sense of connectedness to others, and a social consciousness, as well as being a holistic educational experience that is interdisciplinary, multidisciplined, and multicultural in scope.
Graduates with this type of education will, to a much greater degree, in all probability, become contributing members of society and good neighbors; exhibit sensitivity to the human condition; and possess a sense of moral responsibility. The overall quality of humanity will be enhanced, and the individuals will, untimately, aid and abet the positive development and progress of society.
The Academy must also provide a general curriculum, and specific curricula areas, that disclose the actual truth, as we know it, about human experience. Without this the knowledge base of students will be seriously flawed and a source of error and confusion.3
The Academy must also hire professors who are not only experts in their particular fields, but who are good teachers, open-minded to the pluralism that exists in our society and global village, dedicated to the truth, socially conscious, and willing to engage in meaningful service activities. This will make it easier for the Academy to engage in the critical work of building bridges, establishing liaisons, and creating good will between itself and local communities, especially those with the greatest needs.
Those institutions that make up the PUBLIC ACADEMY have an absolute obligation to keep their doors open to all who desire and are capable of pursuing learning. Accordingly, they must remove all artificial barriers that stand between members of this society across racial, cultural, and class lines, that are clearly blocking the matriculation of some groups, disproportionately, into the university and their preferred career fields. Moreover, the PUBLIC ACADEMY must inform itself sufficiently about the various and specific resources that are necessary to ensure maximum success with its students. In so doing it will be an important partner in the process of plucking diamonds in the rough from the various communities, and returning them as polished stones, and thereby increasing the overall wealth of society, and contributing to the common weal. It is public education and the Academy that will ultimately ensure that this nation remains a leader and global competitor, and that will adequately and effectively prepare individuals for peaceful and harmonious coexistence.
Let us turn our attention now to the off-campus role of the Professor Scholar.
No institution as important and pivotal as the Academy can exist in isolation from the body of humanity. Likewise, no resource as critical as a teacher/scholar can withhold its experience, intelligence, talents, training, and education from the many processes involved in social, civil, and/or human preservation, development, and progress, without serious consequence.
What, after all, are the legitimate and fundamental purposes of institutions, of which the Academy is included, and the social responsibilities of the gifted, talented, trained, educated, and experienced? Certainly, in each and all of these instances, as has been indicated above, it is not for purposes and acts that are exclusively private and/or individual in nature. Individuals and institutions that would adopt such narrow and self-regarding, and in some cases selected group-regarding, parameters, in effect, withhold from or deny society that which it needs in order to develop, progress, and evolve. Humanity as a whole, has a legitimate claim on its institutions and the service of those who have benefited the most from the existence of such institutions. In short, professors and scholars, like other professionals, carry with them, as they live and work in this world, inalienable social responsibilities.
Needless to say, not everyone shoulders these responsibilities equally or in the same way. I am not suggesting, as some might, that those who devote the lions share of their professional lives to the pursuit of research, or that those universities and colleges that give greater rewards to those academicians with a larger research agenda, are making bad use of their time and resources, or are promoting the wrong institutional goals and mission. However, scholars and institutions that vigorously promote research agendas do have an inescapable obligation to ensure that a meaningful and significant, though not total, part of the overall program of research must, in crucial and vital ways, positively enhance the quality of life for individuals, communities, and the society as a whole.
The extra-campus responsibilities of professors include helping communities find solutions to the myriad of problems they face, and assisting in the development of a sound and effective public education system that serves all equally as well. Furthermore, to those whom it applies, it is necessary for trained academicians, researchers and/or scholars to: 1) aid in maintaining an optimum level of public health; 2) help sustain an environment that is conducive to the preservation and health of all life on this planet; and 3) assist in the task of maintaining and promoting peaceful co-existence between individuals, communities, and nations, especially in the development of fair and equitable public policy. Of necessity this means not only making the usual and expected contributions from members of the Academy, but to engage in intellectual and physical labor that will cause to exist a world that is free of racism, classism, sexism, xenophobia, economic exploitation, deprivation, unwarranted violence, bigotry, and hatred of all kinds.
More than at any other time, perhaps, it is required of the scholar to maintain contact with the day-to-day lives of the average citizen, and to travel abroad, sufficiently, in order to get an objective view of the global impact of our domestic, economic, geo-political policies, and military interventions. The residential community of scholars of the Academy must begin to see itself as a part of, in an important and vital way, the larger communities within which each resides. It is incumbent upon the scholar, therefore, to contribute his/her energies, labor, and talents to the positive endeavors and causes of those localities.
Scholars are members of communities and citizens of nations. Going to work on the proverbial HILL in the IVORY TOWERS does not relieve us of the responsibilities associated with that status. University professors and/or scholars are among the intellectual elite and members of the privileged class. We have acquired that status either by inheritance or through the utilization of the institutions of our society. As pointed out earlier, a fundamental postulate of my discussion is that institutions, whether social, economic, political, educational, religious, or otherwise, exist primarily to meet the needs of the general citizenry and to help society develop, progress, and positively evolve.
This being the case, then, no one arrives at the status of THE PRIVILEGED, or ascends to the class of THE ELITE, absolutely on his/ her own. Moreover, no one has a prima facie right to the rewards, opportunities, assistance, and advantages provided by the institutions of society. If this is true, it follows that those who use and profit from the institutions of the commonwealth incur obligations to those who are less fortunate, but who possess, nevertheless, the same claim on the life-enhancing elements of those institutions. Professors and/or scholars, hence, have a CIVIC RESPONSIBILITY and MORAL OBLIGATION to help in the construction of bridges across the chasm of disparity and despair, between the privileged and the underprivileged.
What I have said about the residents of the Academy applies equally to those scholars that live and work off-campus, beyond the boundaries of the Academy. Both groups are compelled by the same imperatives toward improving the human predicament.
I am aware that some critics may argue that there is an unbridgeable gap between certain groups, established by Nature, God, or some other Higher Principal. Most recently this view has been espoused by Herrnstein and Murray in their massive pseudo-scientific study, in that notorious book, The Bell Curve. However, one has merely to undertake a cursory investigation of this misguided and ill-intended intellectual tradition, covering more than two centuries, in order to comprehend why many of us have consigned such research and publications, with all their implications for public policy and the role of the Academy and academician, to the intellectual heap of the obsolete, the false, the flawed, and the discarded.4
In conclusion, let me say that living in a Constitutional Democracy, in a society that is open and free, creates civic duties for us all. Those who understand the theory and philosophy behind our form of government, who are free of demagoguery, deception, and disingenuousness and who are capable of understanding the deep complexities, competing demands from individuals and groups, and who have the skills, talents and means, are at increased obligation to protect this way of life. The great English philosopher, John Locke, explained centuries ago that government and society can be dissolved either by external or internal forces.5 As we have seen in recent years and by way of recent events, negative forces when left inadequately challenged can mushroom to such an extent that the very pillars of society can be shaken and placed in jeopardy. It is the Professor and/or Scholar, when fully actualized and properly focused, who is amply able to respond to those challenges that, if left unchecked, will undermine our way of life. At all times, members of the Academy must participate in the role of overseer and keeper of the gate.
A free, open, and just society, if it is to work well, must operate like a finely tuned and well-oiled machine. Scholars have a role to play in the area of social maintenance. They must, through their research, publications, and civic involvement, provide local communities and the nation with continuous positive input into the discussions and work that are taking place.
1. The Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, recognized the essentiality of public education. He believed it to be part of the conditio sine qua non for a well-run democratic system of government. The following extended quotation will lay out Jeffersons views on universal public education. In his second proposal, titled A Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, to the Virginia Legislature for public education, he wrote:
Whereas it appeareth that however certain forms of government are better calculated than others to protect individuals in the free exercise of their natural rights, and are at the same time themselves better guarded against degeneracy, yet experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms, those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny; and it is believed that the most effectual means of preventing this would be, to illuminate, as far as practicable, the minds of the people at large. . . . Whereas it is generally true that people will be happiest whose laws are best, and are best administered, and that laws will be wisely formed, and honestly administered, in proportion as those who form and administer them are wise and honest; whence it becomes expedient for promoting the publick happiness that those persons, whom nature hath endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens, and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance. . . . It is better that such should be sought for and educated at the common expense of all, than that the happiness of all should be confided to the weak or wicked.
In his well-known book, Notes on the State of Virginia, Jefferson explains:
The first stage of this education being the schools of the hundreds, wherein the great mass of the people will receive their instruction, the principal foundations of future order will be laid here. Instead, therefore, of putting the Bible and Testament into the hands of the children at an age when their judgments are not sufficiently matured for religious inquiries, their memories may here be stored with the most useful facts from . . . history. The first elements of morality too may be instilled into their minds. . . . History, by apprising them of the past, will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations; it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views. . . . Every government degenerates when entrusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. . . . An amendment to our constitution must here come in aid to the public education.
Gordon C. Lee, Crusade Against Ignorance: Thomas Jefferson on Education (New York: Bureau of Publications, Columbia University, 1962) 8197 passim.
[Return to text]
2. This term was coined and explained in a paper, Genetic Engineering: Some General Reflections, that I read at a colloquium at Howard University, June 20, 1984. In that paper, I wrote:
Let me introduce at this point a new term, Civilision, which is the art and practice of civility. In its passive sense it is the homeostatic state of civilized existence. Civilision presupposes the following conditions:
a) A set of universal moral principles that would be acceptable to most rational and reasonable persons.
b) A moral commitment to the development of human potential.
c) Global egalitarianism.
d) Universal respect for the dignity and worth of persons.
e) The treatment of all natural resources, including scientific knowledge, as one global reserve to be conserved and shared by all.
f) A commitment to achieving for all humans, the highest possible standard of living that the current technology is capable of producing.
g) Dissolution of all systems of caste and class.
h) Commitment to the task of universal intellectual enlightenment.
i) Minimization of killing and the production of harm.
j) Recognition of the creaturehood of all sentient life (natural or artificial), and respect for nature generally, as a single organic ecological system, upon which all life ultimately depends.
Civilision ensures that the appropriate humanitarian constraints are placed on all human behavior, conduct, and mechanisms.
[Return to text]
3. Concerning the importance of scholars telling the truth, Dubois wrote:
If history is going to be scientific, if the record of human action is going to be set down with that accuracy and faithfulness of detail which will allow its use as a measuring rod and guidepost for the future of nations, there must be set some standards of ethics, in research and interpretation. . . .
Nations reel and stagger on their way; they make hideous mistakes; they commit frightful wrongs; they do great and beautiful things. And shall we not best guide humanity by telling the truth about all this, so far as the truth is ascertainable?
. . . If we are going, in the future . . . with regard to all social issues, to be able to use human experience for the guidance of mankind, we have got clearly to distinguish between fact and desire.
In the first place, somebody in each era must make clear the facts with utter disregard to his own wish and desire and belief. What we have got to know, so far as possible, are the things that actually happened in the world. Then with that much clear and open to every reader, the philosopher and prophet has a chance to interpret these facts; but the historian has no right, posing as scientist, to conceal or distort facts; and until we distinguish between these two functions of the chronicler of human action, we are going to render it easy for a muddled world out of sheer ignorance to make the same mistake ten times over.
W. E. B. Dubois, Black Reconstruction in America 18601880 (New, York: Atheneum, 1973) 714, 722.
[Return to text]
4. For earlier research into this area, see Louis Ruchames anthology, Racial Thought in America, Vol. 1. (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1969). The essays in this work cover the period from 16741858. They deal with pro- and anti-slavery arguments, the origin of the races, racial endowments, etc. It is in these essays that we find the range of opinion within the political, religious, and scientific communities, regarding non-White people in general, and Blacks in particular. The apologia for slavery, segregation and other forms of social, political, and religious stratification permeates the writings of these authors. The research of Herrnstein and Murray, in The Bell Curve (New York: The Free Press, 1994), fits solidly within that pseudo-scientific tradition which assumes the natural superiority of Whites over Blacks and other Non-whites, seeks explanations and evidence to prove what has already been presupposed, engages in the wildest type of speculation, and utilizes seriously flawed methodology. Let us compare the views of some nineteenth-century scientists with those of Herrnstein and Murray on the question of racial hierarchy. Samuel G. Morton (17991851) was a physician and naturalist who did pioneering work in the areas of medicine, paleontology, anthropology, anatomy, and zoology. Louis Agassiz was a distinguished naturalist, who worked in the areas of zoology and geology. Morton explains:
The grouping of mankind into Races, has occupied the ingenuity of many of the best naturalists of the past and present century. . . . The Caucasian Race is characterized by naturally fair skin. . . . This race is distinguished for the facility with which it attains the highest intellectual endowments. . . . [The Mongolian] division of the human species is characterized by a sallow or olive colored skin. . . . In their intellectual character the Mongolians are ingenious, imitative, and highly susceptible of cultivation. . . . The Malay Race is characterised by a dark complexion. . . . This race is active and ingenious, and possesses all the habits of a migratory, predaceous and maritime people. . . . The [Native] American Race is marked by a brown complexion. . . . In their mental character the [Native] Americans are averse to cultivation, and slow in acquiring knowledge; restless, revengeful, and fond of war, and wholly destitute of maritime adventure. . . . The Ethiopian Race [is] characterised by a black complexion. . . . In disposition the Negro is joyous, flexible, and indolent; while the many nations which compose this race present a singular diversity of intellectual character, of which the far extreme is the lowest grade of humanity. (Ruchames 445447 passim)
Similarly, Agassiz asserts:
And it seems to us to be mock-philanthropy and mock-philosophy to assume that all races have the same abilities, enjoy the same powers, and show the same natural dispositions, and that in consequence of this equality they are entitled to the same position in human society. . . . In [the case of the Africans] we have a most forcible illustration of the fact that the races are essentially distinct, and can hardly be influenced even by a prolonged contact with others when the differences are particularly marked. . . . There has never been a regulated society of [B]lack men developed on that continent [Africa]. . . . Do we not find, on the contrary, that the African tribes are today what they were in the time of the Pharaohs, what they were at a later period, what they are probably to continue to be for a much longer time? And does not this indicate in this race a peculiar apathy, a peculiar indifference to the advantages afforded by civilized society? . . . The indomitable, courageous, proud Indian in how very different a light he stands by the side of the submissive, obsequious, imitative Negro, or by the side of the tricky, cunning, and cowardly Mongolian! Are not these facts [emphasis added] indications that the different tendencies which characterize man in his highest development are permanently brought out in various combinations, isolated in each of the races, in a manner similar to all the developments in physical nature. . . . (Ruchames 458459 passim)
In the twentieth century, Herrnstein and Murray claim:
Despite the forbidding air that envelops the topic, ethnic differences in cognitive ability are neither surprising nor in doubt [emphasis added]. Large human populations differ in many ways, both cultural and biological. It is not surprising that they might differ at least slightly in their cognitive characteristics. That they do is confirmed by the data on ethnic differences in cognitive ability from around the world. One message . . . is that such differences are real and have consequences. (269) [Return to text]
5. Thomas Jefferson received much of his philosophical inspiration and insights from John Locke, especially those found in the Declaration of Independence. Concerning the social contract that exists between individuals in society, Locke wrote:
. . . Laws [are] not . . . made for themselves, but to be, by their execution, the bonds of the society to keep every part of the body politic in its due place and function. When that totally ceases, the government visibly ceases, and the people become a confused multitude without order or connection. Where there is no longer the administration of justice for the securing of mens rights, nor any remaining power within the community to direct the force, or provide for the necessities of the public, there certainly is no government left. Where the laws cannot be executed it is all one as if there were no laws, and a government without laws is . . . a mystery in politics inconceivable to human capacity, and inconsistent with human society. . . .
When men, by entering into society and civil government, have excluded force, and introduced laws for the preservation of property, peace, and unity amongst themselves those who set up force again in opposition to the laws, do rebellare that is to bring back the state of war, and are properly rebels. . . .
For if any one by force takes away the established legislative of any society, and the laws by them made, pursuant to their trust, he thereby takes away the umpirage which every one had consented to for a peaceable decision of all their controversies, and a bar to the state of war amongst them. . . .
The body of the people may, with respect, resist intolerable tyranny, [but] when it is but moderate they ought to endure it. . . .
To conclude. The power that every individual gave the society when he entered into it can never revert to the individuals again, as long as the society lasts, but will always remain in the community; because without this there can be no community no commonwealth, which is contrary to the original agreement.
Britannica Great Books, vol. 35, Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay, John Locke (Chicago: William Benton Publishers, 1952) 7581 passim.
[Return to text]