Academic Activism: Where Has It Gone?

20120918-083113.jpgAcademic activism, the noble pursuit by the literate and connected to advocate for those who lack the resources to do so for themselves, is largely dead. Though I recognize that there are all sorts of activism, some of which do not necessarily work to the benefit of the disadvantaged, the activism I speak of here is of a particular variety.

I have long wrestled with the subject, often at odds with those around me, but a read of an opinion piece on the NYT provided this revealing quote from Harvard faculty member, Matthew Desmond:

If exploitation long has helped to create the slum and its inhabitants, if it long has been a clear, direct, and systematic, cause of poverty and social suffering, why, then, has this ugly word – exploitation – been erased from current theories of urban poverty?

It is true that academics seek intellectual integrity. Part of the pursuit of integrity is to eliminate potential sources of bias. Academics encourage each other to work towards the goal of becoming a fully impartial observer. Certainly , this is a laudable goal. In evidence based science, the data should speak for themselves.

Conflict naturally arises when the data do indeed speak to grave social problems. The conclusions presented may be so compelling and so inherently subversive, that,despite speaking the truth given the data, the presenter may be accused of being overly political, passionate or even blindly obstinate.

Discussions of poverty and exploitation, domestically and internationally, are just one example. The data certainly indicate that the presence of poverty benefits the wealthy, and that there is a vast worldwide market for human suffering. A tenure seeking academic, desperate for continued employment and funding from public and private sources, will have a hard time making this point loudly known in a public forum. I’ve personally seen academics marginalized for making such claims. Certainly, though, there must be a balance.

To me, this is a travesty. We, as literate, connected individuals with access to policy makers and forums for information dissemination have a duty to speak for those we study. Science is inherently political. Socrates was killed for stating the truth. Galileo was put on trial and confined to his home. Hitler’s Germany would have loved to have seen Einstein killed. The world would be a vastly different place had these people towed the official line.

We have an opportunity, though I have yet to see my institution broadly encourage activism amongst its graduate students. Though the existence of Desmond’s quote is encouraging, It is sad to think that smart people have to cower in a corner in a corner.

(Paul Farmer, in the picture above, is certainly not afraid, long acting on behalf of the world’s poor.)

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

One response to “Academic Activism: Where Has It Gone?”

  1. mikey2ct says :

    I have a lot uf respect for academics but I think the institutions of learning are to busy fund raising and are as entrenched in the bottom of the ledger as any other big company.

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