“Canada’s Political Scholars Fiddle While Rome Burns”

4 06 2013

Lawrence Martin of the Globe and Mail has published an interesting piece on the state of the Canadian political science profession. He argues that political scientists have dropped out of the national debate. Martin’s piece was especially interesting to me because he focuses on the politics department at Queen’s, my old alma mater, as case study of what went wrong. 

There was a time when Canada’s scholars played a more prominent role in national political debates. Queen’s University, for example, had such names as John MeiselGeorge Perlin, Hugh Thorburn and Richard Simeon. They were voices of influence.

Today, although Ned Franks remains at large as a professor emeritus, that kind of firepower no longer exists at Queen’s or elsewhere. Donald Savoie, who specializes in governance issues at the University of Moncton, points out that academics have become less and less interested in our politics and our institutions, leaving journalists to hold governments to account.

Martin also quotes my former colleague Stephen Azzi.

What Martin says about political scientists is largely true. Moreover, it can be applied with at least equal force to other social scientists as well. Fifty years ago, historians such as Arthur Lower and Donald Creighton appeared in the popular press in addition to writing academic books. Most historians of Canada today do not engage with the public in the same way.

However, there are some exceptions to the lamentable trend documented by Martin. There are indeed (relatively) young academics who also work at public intellectuals. Consider Stephen Azzi of Carleton and Emmett Macfarlane at Waterloo. Sean Kheraj’s podcasts are listened to by non-academics and non-academics read Christopher Dummitt’s excellent Canadian history blog. I would also say that the ActiveHistory.ca website has helped to showcase academic research to the general public. Academics aren’t quite as insular as Martin implies. 

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4 responses

4 06 2013
Jonathan Weisman (@JJWeisman)

Perhaps the more interesting point, Andrew, is the article’s quotation from Michael Byers suggesting that academics believe public stances to be bad for one’s career.

Mr. Byers doesn’t seem to agree; but is he right about his colleagues? Is there a sense among academics that a public life damages one’s own position?

If so, why? Is it the idea that a quest for public relevance taints one’s scholarship? If so, who promotes that notion? Is it based on a theory of objectivity or one of profundity?

Is it because of a fear of repercussions from those in public offices, whether through SSHRC or otherwise? Is that of a piece with the alleged “assault on reason” under the current Canadian government, or a long-standing problem?

Or does Mr. Byers simply wish to add a sheen of heroism to his public image?

5 06 2013
andrewdsmith

Hi Jonathan,

I don’t think that writing op-eds and otherwise engaging with the public would hurt a Canadian academic’s chances for tenure and promotion provided they were also publishing peer-reviewed stuff. However, engaging with the public probably wouldn’t benefit a Canadian academic’s career that much either. (The situation is obviously very different here in the UK, where an academic would certainly be penalized for not pumping out scholarly articles).

There is a certain amount of snobbery directed against academics who write books directed at the public rather than fellow academics. I don’t think that this attitude is grounded in any deep commitment to scholarly objectivity, as many academics now subscribe to the theory that scholarly objectivity is impossible. The hostility probably comes from the belief that popular books are inherently less rigorous than scholarly ones. Ideally, however, scholarship should be both rigorous and accessible.

4 06 2013
Chris Dummitt

Hey Andrew – I found Martin’s column pretty interesting too – definitely designed to coincide with the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences. A good old poke in the nose to the academics.

My sense is too that there are some younger scholars making an effort. It is, though, hard to be heard. Just the other week, I was talking to a CBC producer about a show on the history wars. They ended up running the show but used two much older scholars and, surprise, surprise, one of them was Jack Granatstein. If it works, don’t fix it.

5 06 2013
andrewdsmith

That’s unfortunate that you didn’t appear on that show. There is a need for middle-of-the-road historians to make their voices heard in the history wars debate. I’m afraid that the debate so far has been polarized between hardcore social historians who are hostile to military/political history and methodologically conservative historians who don’t have any time for social history. The reality is that most working historians are somewhere in between these two extremes of the spectrum and who try to synthesize traditional and social history in their research and teaching.

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