Academy Serving the Public Good?

Does or should the academy serve the public good? Three personal experiences inform this blog. (1) A good friend recently passed along an article from the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/opinion/sunday/kristof-professors-we-need-you.html?_r=2). The premise of the article was simple: professors have a responsibility to disseminate their knowledge in the public arena. (2) I am nearing the end of teaching a Capstone course with 28 graduating students in the Behavioural Science program. Two recurrent questions: what is the ‘common good’ and what is the purpose or value of science? (3) I am preparing to visit seven cities/towns in the next three weeks to share my latest research on religion in Canada with religious leaders.

Under ‘Teaching Philosophy’ on my website, I articulate why I am vehemently opposed to the academy remaining trapped in the ivory tower. For me, university professors ought to guide students to apply their learning to the everyday world and professors ought to research, and where applicable, disseminate those research findings beyond the academy. Some will (and do) debate me on these ideas – debate is good and healthy and I welcome such discussions.

Some professors, and many budding students, believe that science and knowledge generally speaking should be used to help others toward the public good. This is a noble goal that often comes from a good motivation. Questions emerge however. What do we mean by the public good and who gets to decide the answer to this question? Who are we helping? What gives ‘us’ the right to help? For example, if I study homelessness, am I in the position to use my knowledge to help the homeless? What gives me the right to do so? Can I truly understand another’s experience to the point that I can and should meet with government officials, policy makers, social agency administrators or front line workers and then share my research findings toward generating change elsewhere? Is it possible that as an academic I could do more harm than good to those that I am supposedly trying to ‘help’? What biases do academics bring to the discourse? Are such efforts just an extension of those in positions of power furthering their voice at the expense of another’s voice? These might seem like ‘academic’ questions (as if this is inherently a bad thing), but are critical questions that must be asked if professors (and emerging students entering the workforce) wish to interface with the public with any degree of credibility and intellectual integrity.

I agree with the author of the New York Times article that faculty have a responsibility to dialogue with and educate the public; to me, it is pointless if professors get stuck in their own heads and those of other academics and students. I encourage our students to think about the intersection of what they learn and what they invest their time and efforts in outside of the classroom. I eagerly look forward to sharing my research findings over the next few weeks with religious leaders in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, and Ontario. At the same time, let us not naively assume that these efforts alone are enough – we must think carefully and critically about the underlying assumptions that, if taken seriously, should inform who we dialogue with, how we share information, and the ultimate aim and objective of such endeavours.

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