Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Ivory Towers and Productive Engagements

The ivory tower.  We frequently hear the phrase invoked these days in popular discourse, but most often dripping with disdain.  It is not the real world, but the distant, removed, elitist Ivory Tower, inhabited by Mandarins who think they know better than the common folk.

Sure, the academy is in some ways removed from contingencies of daily life (although less so than many imagine).  But this is not so much a liability as an asset, perhaps our greatest asset.  Removed from the so-called real world, we are able to examine that world with a bit more distance, judicious distance that allows one to question suppositions and assumptions, to speak what may be left unspoken, and so spur creativity and new ways of looking at things.

As Derek Bok has persuasively argued, universities are becoming more vocational, responding to pressures to show their value added to society and to individual students in directly instrumental ways.  In this way they are becoming less ivory tower-like.

An existential crisis can result if scholars stray too far for too long from the ivory tower, at least in the humanities and social sciences.  We can find an analogy in business consulting: consultants are sometimes hired to justify an a priori position, but their most productive use is to get an unbiased yet informed outside opinion.  Being too embedded within the organization becomes a liability.  Writ large, scholars' value comes from critical distance.

AT THE SAME TIME, it also seems that scholars should weigh in on the problems of the real world-to use their critical distance toward productive ends when possible.  The paradox is that that requires engagement and engagement can lead to compromising the very critical independence that gives value to our position.

Directing a Center for Latin American Studies, I spend a lot of time engaging folks outside of the academy.  I find it rewarding, the attempt to nudge people to look at issues from a slightly different angle, to inform them about the impressive work my colleagues are doing.  But there is always linguistic, semantic, and even moral compromises involved in talking across these boundaries.  One cannot convey the full complexity of problems, the nuances of arguments-something gets left out when translating to non-specialist audiences.

Where does one draw the line between engagement and collusion, between putting our ideas into practice and compromising our critical distance?  That there are no easy answers was brought home to me recently after I led a panel discussion for a military audience.  Florida International University hosts a number of applied academic seminars on Latin American countries aimed at the US military leadership at the Southern Command.  At the seminars, academics, scholars and pundits working at places like the Inter-American Dialogue and the Washington Office on Latin America as well as more obscure, neoconservative think tanks, meet with current and former military area specialists.  I led the seminar on Guatemala, and there was a lively discussion and clashing of views as well as many points of consensus.

It is not easy talking to folks who hold different worldviews, with whom one fundamentally disagrees on certain key points.  Preaching to the choir is much more comfortable.  (Indeed, I have spent the last few years getting to the point where I can have meaningful scholarly conversations with economists about anthropological critiques of economic models.)

Writing the Guatemala report was difficult, summarizing a wide range of opinions and yet putting my editorial and analytic stance forward.  In fact, I thought I might catch flack for the report, but my fear was that it would come from the Guatemalan oligarchy, military and police, and narcos, of whom the report is highly critical.

But, alas, the rebuke came from the left, which presents much less bodily danger but far greater moral bite.  A fellow anthropologist saw in my engagement a sort of nefarious collusion, aiding and abetting a military guilty of countless atrocities in Latin America.  This bloody collusion was nowhere more apparent than in the violence of Guatemala's civil war, determined by a U.N. commission to be officially a case of "genocide."  I discuss this in the report, although the seminar was more focused on the broad historical sweep and social landscape-the 50,000', 2000 year perspective.  The report was focused on the social and power structure of Guatemala over time, showing how the colonial legacy, military dictatorships, and elite interests have led to the current power structure of narcos and organized crime (with close ties to the military) exerting the most influence in a weak and corrupt state.  (For the critique of this report and a link to the original see here ; for a more journalistic summary see the posting below and link to The Guatemala Times article.)

I appreciate the stance of moral purity, of a distancing and opposition that refuses to compromise.  Indeed, I think we have too little substantive opposition in this country and think we are all richer for its existence.  Yet, I also see a space and a need for engagement.  There are major inequalities and problems with the way things are and I can easily imagine a better world order.  We should not lose sight of our utopian dreams.  At the same time, being a realist, it also behooves us to make things even incrementally better.  We have to maintain a dual consciousness (and conscience): dreaming of the possible and supporting that end while also working on the practical, taking modest gains where we can.

1 comment:

  1. I am with you - distance in order to support objective analysis is good, distance for the sake of distance is useless. Perhaps this makes me a bad academic, but I have rarely seen the benefit of the insularity academia permits/celebrates. The bubble cannot be constant nor should it always be defended. Your moral absolutist colleague may see you as part of the problem, but I am pretty sure he (or she) is not part of the solution.