Academics: It's Not All About You!
By John von Heyking, March 17, 2011 in Uncategorized

“The desire for applause tends to inspire servility in anyone subject to it—and it is a short step from flattering one's public to flattering monsters who wield influence and power.”  So concludes Hillsdale College historian Paul Rahe, in his reflection on the obsequiousness of Benjamin Barber, well-known author of Jihad v. McWorld, toward Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.  Barber once described Qaddafi as a complex and adaptive thinker as well as an efficient, if laid-back, autocrat"; Qaddafi’s recent bombing campaigns against those rebelling against his complex autocracy seem to have led Barber to back-pedal on his previous views.


Rahe hints that all academics, or nearly all, seem to be implicated in some form of flattery or another to those who wield power.  Barber and other intellectuals who have been attracted to powerful tyrants represent the extreme of the intellectuals’ love of honor.  Rahe might be an exception, as Hillsdale College is one of the few institutions of higher learning in the United States that does not accept funds from state or federal governments.


His observation, though, is not meant to score points against his colleagues at other institutions.  Rather, he reminds academics that at some level, their activities are mortgaged by some effort to flatter power.  This flattery takes many forms:  in bending one’s research agenda to fit the imperatives of funding agencies, to appeal to donors, ideological and academic fads, in flattering students in order to seem “relevant,” or simply in their incessant and wearying demands on their friends and colleagues to hear about their professional successes. 


I know of one scholar who is such an “academic diva” in the way he inundates those around him in the office with his professional achievements and the public and media recognition he receives, that one day he was oblivious to the fact that one of his office neighbors was grieving on account of his wife having passed away.  When he learned of his colleague’s grief, he apologized for the noise the media made in the office, no doubt celebrating his celebrity status, and how it made his neighbor’s grief difficult.  Even when faced by the grief of another, the world still revolves around him.


Contemporary academics are particularly desirous of flattery.  On the one hand, they are attracted to the academic life by the ideal of research and thinking on its own sake.  There is something liberating about following the logos wherever it goes, as Socrates might say.


On the other hand, few understand how rigorous this life actually is.  Compounding the challenge of that Socratic idealism is the fact that contemporary research demands such a high degree of specialization that even the individual academic has to strain to understand the political, social, and cultural significance of his own research agenda.  Specialization demands what Max Weber referred to as the “ethic of supercession.”  The counsel that nineteenth-century German chemist Just von Liebig offered to a friend is illustrative:  “If you wish to become a chemist, you must be prepared to sacrifice your health.  Whoever does not ruin his health by studying will not amount to much in chemistry these days.”  Specialization requires one to destroy one’s sense of self for the sake of one’s research.


The intellectual’s love of honor is thus analogous of a puritan who, never having learned to practice the virtue of moderation, goes on a bender in reaction to his failed attempt at asceticism.  Put another way, the way the modern university establishes incentives for research, which reflects modernity’s drive for specialization according to Weber, demands a level of asceticism few human beings are capable of maintaining.


It is possible, however, to avoid the pitfalls of the academic’s ethic of supercession.  This is generally achieved by a genuine liberal education and a life dedicated to thinking about the great questions therein.  Yes, an academic may specialize, but specializing in the great questions opens the world up to one. 


Finally, academics need constantly to remind themselves that if they pursue the academic life because of hoped-for prestige, then they are in the wrong business.  Prestige comes as a byproduct of excellence, and can only be meaningful when bestowed by those who themselves are excellent.  And even then, you only appreciate the praise received from another because it happens to agree with your own high (and well-deserved) regard for yourself.  Until an academic can genuinely love excellence more than honor, he is well-advised to die unto the world so that he can gain life.

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Lee Trepanier on Mar 18, 2011 at 3:59 am

Besides the love for honor as something that distracts our attention from excellence, I would also add the love for money, although I suspect this applies more to those in the natural sciences than the social sciences and humaniteis.

John von Heyking on Mar 18, 2011 at 8:17 am

Lee: That's true, but that also reminds us of all the loves that distract academics from their alleged love of wisdom. As the Epstein article reminds us, love of sex is one of them. The question is which of those loves is particularly odious in being closely confused with the love of wisdom. My reading of Plato's Republic is that the love of honor, and of victory, easily gets confused with the love of wisdom - at least from the perspective of students.

about the author

John von Heyking
John von Heyking

I teach political philosophy at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, as well as religion and politics. I received my Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame in 1999.

My publications include Augustine and Politics as Longing in the World (Missouri, 2001), Civil Religion in Political Thought:  Its Perennial Questions and Enduring Relevance in North America (coeditor; published by CUA Press, 2010), Friendship and Politics: Essays in Political Thought (coeditor, published with U. of Notre Dame Press, 2008), two edited volumes of The Collected Works of Eric Voegelin (Missouri, 2003), as well as articles on Aristotle and friendship, political representation, citizenship, republicanism, just war, Islamic politics, politics and prophecy, leadership, the place of America in contemporary political thought, religious liberty under Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and the political philosophy of rodeo. I am also at work on a book-length study on the relationship between friendship and political order. My editorials have appeared in the Globe and Mail (Toronto), Calgary Herald, C2C: Canada’s Journal of Ideas, and the Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs. I am currently Associate Editor for History, Theory, and Law of the journal, Politics and Religion, published by Cambridge University Press. His work has been translated into Italian, German, and Chinese. I have delivered invited lectures to audiences throughout Canada and the United States, as well as in Germany, France, Switzerland, and Russia.