Theology professor Charles Marsh (Univ. of Virginia), in a 2012 issue of The Cresset, considers the lot of scholars committed to social justice and concludes that “(t)o speak of the audacious hope of the engaged scholar (in this context) is to commit ourselves to sober judgment and forthright speech.”
Dr. Marsh writes primarily about academicians from Christian faith traditions, but his wise words should be of interest to any scholar who sees his or her role as connecting to broader social, economic, and political concerns. Indeed, in that one sentence, he captures what I believe to be the core responsibilities of a socially conscious academician: Sober judgment and forthright speech.
Ideally, the former should lead to the latter. Sober judgment is about research, analysis, and reflection. Forthright speech builds on that judgment and says something meaningful to the world.
One would think this intellectual and educational process occurs all the time in academe, but that’s not necessarily the case. Some academicians skip the sober judgment and jump right into forthright speech. They let their biases and untested beliefs substitute for careful research and evaluation. Professors who yammer away in an opinionated yet fact-free manner fit this mode.
Others immerse themselves in sober judgment, but then dodge the forthright speech. Instead, their erudite analyses lead to softer generalizations and platitudes that foreclose sharp review. They want to sound intelligent, measured, and intellectually respectable, but they fear sticking out their necks too far.
If the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson has read Dr. Marsh’s essay, then hopefully the great New England philosopher is nodding with approval. In an 1837 address titled “The American Scholar,” Emerson stated:
There goes in the world a notion, that the scholar should be a recluse…as unfit for any handiwork or public labor, as a penknife for an axe…. Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.… Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind.
To put it another way: Emerson, too, believed that scholarly thought can and should lead to something more.
I’ve collected a lot of ideas, reflections, and experiences on the relationship of research and analysis to social change initiatives in a forthcoming law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice). In the piece, I discuss my work on workplace bullying and on unpaid internships, as well as my collaborations with the therapeutic jurisprudence and human dignity communities. The article also includes a short annotated bibliography of 40 (mostly non-legal) books related to intellectual activism.