by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
… [H]e described the proper role of a faculty member as one of “scholarship first, activist second.” I greatly appreciated Dr. Rojas’s article; I believe he made a sincere and nuanced attempt to navigate the potential minefield of the scholar-activist distinction that is at the heart of the debate.
I found it especially encouraging that Rojas, who teaches sociology (a field whose participants often regard political activism as a legitimate use of classroom time) is in favor of limiting faculty members’ classroom activities to a considerable degree. Going against the prevailing winds of conformity is never easy in an academic environment.
But I also believe his attempt to find a third way by triangulating the distinction inevitably fails. Diminishing the strict distinction between activist and scholar, as Rojas allows, creates confusion where the goal should be to create clarity. And it denies the fundamental conflict between the two activities.
Rojas suggests that his vision begins with the need to “balance two competing values.” One is that “academia is a profession with unique goals and a mission that should not be tainted by partisanship.” Rojas expresses concern that “blurring the boundaries between scholarship and partisanship encourages classroom instructors to turn their seminars into political rallies.” He expresses disagreement with the belief that “scholarship and activism can be seamlessly blended,” and admits that being a scholar “is a full-time occupation.”
On all of that, we are in complete agreement.
It is the other need that requires closer scrutiny. Some degree of activism must be permitted professors, Rojas suggests, since they “can make valuable contributions to the body politic” and because “there are many social problems and that scholars are in a position to educate people about these problems.”
Such reasons for permitting some degree of activism in the classroom are at least insufficient and perhaps superficial. Real understanding of the scholarship-activist distinction requires a deeper look into the nature and definitions of the two activities, including discussion of how they are in conflict.