In his recent book, Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, sociologist Frank Furedi argues that genuine intellectuals have largely disappeared, resulting in a “dumbing down” of society - and in particular our university students and academics.
The furore caused recently by Deakin University Professor Mirko Bagaric and Julie Clarke’s forthcoming paper, advocating the use of torture as a last-option form of defence, has made me even more convinced of the accuracy of Mr Furedi’s observation. The elementary attack on Bagaric and Clarke’s heavily researched piece by a wide range of individuals and groups, including a prominent law professor and a former prime minister, leads one to ask whether we have forgotten about the proper role for a university, and academics working in universities.
We once understood the role of academics in society was to raise ideas in a critical manner - to foster discourse, engender debate and enrich the community. The great academics fit the role of a classical intellectual. They were individuals with a genuine love of learning, knowledge on a wide range of matters, and an interest in the direction of public policy. In his book, Furedi contends that in the halls of academia, such intellectuals have become an endangered species.
Along with myself, many others agree with Furedi’s assessment. In a review of Furedi’s book in New Statesman, Manchester University Professor Terry Eagleton argues that in contemporary society, the definition of an intellectual is “more or less the opposite of an academic”, and that in universities today “the promotion of ideas plays second fiddle to the provision of services”. While I believe Eagleton’s view is a little extreme, if genuine intellectuals like Bagaric and Clarke are held up to public ridicule for putting forward their ideas for discussion and debate, i.e., doing their job, there is a real risk that Eagleton’s comments will prove prophetic.
As a young academic working in a law school, I am frustrated by the lack of - indeed resistance to - fresh and challenging ideas in my discipline. There is a clear and well-positioned elite who dare not depart from their conservative, ultra-safe views. Many full-time academics in university law schools simply do not publish at all. When others, like myself, attempt to live up to our desired role as genuine intellectuals, we are often criticised, or at least conveniently sidelined.
As in any other job, academics are paid to perform particular tasks. In law schools, the typical requirement for an academic - in addition to teaching responsibilities - is to publish a certain amount of scholarly research as a journal article or book, annually. It is fair to say that a sizeable number of academics do not fulfil their responsibilities in this regard. Put simply, they are not doing their job. Commitment to teaching is usually put forward as the reason for this neglect.
Teaching is a fundamentally important duty of academics, particularly in the current university environment where there is increasing competition between institutions, with the quality of teaching becoming a distinguishing feature. It is also a highly satisfying and rewarding feature of working in higher education.
But it is simply wrong to suggest that commitment to teaching requires neglecting serious and sustained academic research. Indeed, from my experience, engaging in quality research enhances and enlivens the teaching. We must not allow the Bagaric and Clarke episode lead to a view that serious research in universities is a secondary commodity - and one that is potentially dangerous to academics’ career prospects. Academics who propound this view should hand in their resignations and join the staff of one of the local TAFEs. Universities would be better off for it.
Genuine intellectuals like Bagaric and Clarke must be embraced and celebrated. We should take the time to truly understand the position they are putting forward as a piece of academic research. Once understanding their views, we are of course free to disagree - even strongly. But it should be done in the same considered and reflective manner as Bagaric and Clarke sought to do. They deserve nothing less.
I fear that the attack, still ongoing, against Bagaric and Clarke will provide another justification for academics to abstain from meaningful research, clinging tightly to a culture of mediocrity - crying into their soy decaf lattes. The role of the critical intellectual must be recognised and respected, rather than being allowed to decline to the point of becoming an endangered species.
If, as Eagleton warns, the role of the university as a forum for intellectual discourse is usurped by that of a service-provider, I may as well return to practising law - rather than continuing on as an academic at an excellent university law school. In my farewell speech, I will be sure to ask, “Where have all the intellectuals gone?”