Scholars in the Tank

Few top ranked scholars are going into government or academic professions; many are going into Think Tanks, which are supported by private interests that are guided often by ideological self-interest.

“More than 1,200 think tanks in the United States provide not only ideas but also experts ready to comment or consult at a moment's notice. Some of these new transmission belts serve as translators and additional outlets for academic ideas, but many add a bias provided by their founders and funders.”

A recent TRIP (Teaching, Research and International Policy) poll noted that few top rated scholars held policy positions in government. The blame for this rests with the fact that not only are the think tanks absorbing all of the talent but that the talent that goes to academia are often supported in research through funding by industry directly or by the think tanks controlled by industry.

One might expect that as citizens, academics would show a bias toward improving public policy when they can. Also one might expect them to be concentrating on preparing young people into becoming well informed Critical Thinking citizens with the sophistication required to make valid judgments in our very high tech culture.

“As former undersecretary of state David Newsom argued a decade ago, "the growing withdrawal of university scholars behind curtains of theory and modeling would not have wider significance if this trend did not raise questions regarding the preparation of new generations and the future influence of the academic community on public and official perceptions of international issues and events. Teachers plant seeds that shape the thinking of each new generation; this is probably the academic world's most lasting contribution." Yet too often scholars teach theory and methods that are relevant to other academics but not to the majority of the students sitting in the classroom before them.”

Our culture has tended to channel intellectuals, or perhaps more properly those who function as intellectuals, into academic professions. Gramsci makes the accurate distinction that all men and women “are intellectuals…but all do not have the function of intellectuals in society”.

The subordination to power is not just at the individual level but also at the institutional level. Government funds are made available to universities and colleges not for use as they deem fit but for specific government needs. Private industry plays even a larger role in providing funds for educational institutions to perform management and business study. Private industry is not inclined ‘to waste’ money on activities that do not contribute to the bottom line. ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune.’

Each intellectual is spouting a different ideology, how does the individual choose what ideology? Trotsky once said “only a participant can be a profound spectator”. Is detachment then a virtue? To suggest that intellectuals rise above ideology is impractical. Explicit commitment is preferable to bogus neutrality. But truth is an indispensable touchstone.

I think that the proper role for the intellectual is commitment plus detachment. Do you think many of our present day intellectuals qualify as committed and detached?

Quotes from Scholars on the Sidelines By Joseph S. Nye Jr