Sunday, September 9, 2012

On the Academy and the Public Good

[NOTE: This post was originally published on my 'non-academic' blog - The Organic Intellectual: Tribute to an Ideaon September 20, 2010. I wrote a number of reflective pieces for my doctoral seminar which I have decided to share here on this website in the coming weeks.]

The acclaimed American geographer Gilbert F. White always believed that "the role of higher education and research is to serve the public" (B.L. Turner II, "Contested Identities," 2002: 59). It is often suggested that academics play a role in changing the world by serving the public. We hear it all the time, and for the most part we don't disagree. Serving the public is a humble, perhaps noble, cause. It sounds right, and it feels right. But upon further thought, it is not entirely clear how higher education and research accomplishes this goal... especially in this day and age. Do professional academics really serve the public by publishing articles in journals catering to the distinct needs of a small research community? Is the public good really served when throngs of first year students trudge in and out of the lecture hall each week, to sit amongst hundreds of peers whom they view as competitors for those few 'A's the professor has promised to dish out?

Those of us in the academy who think we serve the public need to take some time to consider how it is that we do so. It may be important enough to continually revisit this question: How is it that we are contributing to the public good? In doing so, I believe it is inevitable that we will come across various structural pressures stemming from our contemporary political economic setting that cause us to go about the motions while losing sight of our goal of serving the public. For students, a university education is more and more becoming a commodity. For academics, teaching and researching is more and more becoming merely a means to an income and a semblance of job security. In this way we often feel powerless when we ask ourselves how we can do a better job of serving the public. We'd like to attend that community event, but we don't have time; We'd like to write that meaningful opinion piece, but it's not recognized as a respectable, refereed publication; We'd like to spend one-on-one time with our students and have them work in partnership with local organizations, but the university has implemented rigid grading standards with hopes of beating other institutions in the annual post-secondary rankings - not to mention we have multiple classes to teach. There is pressure to treat our roles in the academy as just any other day job, and oddly enough that pressure seems to correlate with rising tuitions...

Perhaps it's just a coincidence, but it seems that the more private our universities become, the harder it is to see how academics are able to serve the public. In this way, perhaps the best way to ensure that researchers and educators in the academy serve the public is to focus their efforts on keeping the influence of privatization out. Perhaps the answer is to make our universities truly public spaces - welcoming places with distinct attainable goals of societal contribution. Perhaps we should make tenure dependent upon the impact academics have in their communities, not how many publications they have ... just a (heretical) thought. Either way, the suggestion that academics play a role in the public good shouldn't be just another meaningless and hollow mantra - it would be nice if it was the truth.

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