The following was originally posted to the UCEA web-site on August 28, 2011.
Your silence will not protect you. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider.
An important role for professors is to “speak the truth as we know it.” Regardless of our academic home, as scholars, we work in the area of “mind expansion.” Consequently, we need to model the scholarly norms of rigorous, independent and disciplined inquiry, as well as to engage in informed dissent and commentary. These are activities that we encourage our very own educational leadership students to pursue. Ideally, scholars are called to be what Michael Eric Dyson has labeled “paid pests.” Unlike think tankers and foundation- and corporate-sponsored scribblers (both on the political left and right) who are paid to craft tightly ideological policy prognostications,1 scholars must pose uncomfortable questions and inconvenient facts. We must do more than engage in mere “problem solving” which is the labor of non-scholars.2 We might occasionally annoy elected officials and their handlers; but more often, university administrators and some of our own colleagues are likely to be displeased with our public utterances.
Like any other organization, higher education has its own set of norms and values. While academic freedom is one long-standing value, collegiality is another. These are not necessarily mutually exclusive ideals, but they do co-exist with a certain degree of tension. Thanks to fears surrounding the politics of tenure, we are socialized to err on the side of caution, defaulting to collegiality when in doubt, even long after we have earned tenure. We remain silent in the name of collegiality. Yet these strategic silences mean we are complicit with policies, programs, and actions that are not only professionally problematic, but on occasion, morally reprehensible. These pressures can further intensify if they also involve issues of race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, religion, and other markers of identity. The ethical quandaries raised by our silences can become most acute, for our consciences might scream out that our silences are deceitful. And living with a liar, particularly when it is yourself, is not an easy thing to do.3
The quote by Audre Lorde at the beginning of this post underscores this basic truth: Silence, even professional silence, will not keep us safe.4 Furthermore, “playing it safe” has not been a hallmark of virtue, much less of scholarly independence, which is a critical criterion for promotion with tenure. If we are unwilling to “speak the truth as we know it” to our own colleagues, it is improbable that we’ll be able to do so when the stakes involved are considerably higher–when there are issues of liberty and justice involved. To a large extent, we must learn not to be silent. We must learn to speak up with our colleagues and speak out to our elected leaders. All of this takes careful practice. Like other scholarly activities, speaking up and speaking out demand a high degree of judiciousness and forethought. Speaking, as a form of intellectual and political discourse, is more than mere spouting off, particularly when we can easily anticipate the unhappy responses that our speaking is likely to engender.
Nevertheless, as scholars, I would argue that we are paid and pampered pests. We are called to profess the truth as we understand it. Unlike most Americans, we are unlikely to suffer job loss as a result of speaking up and speaking out, although more petty forms of retribution may very well occur. Yet, these are more inconveniences than career-ending occurrences. Furthermore, if we are truly concerned with issues of social justice, which are fundamental issues of truth and liberty, we daren’t remain silent. To grossly condense Arendt, we must think, we must judge, and then we must act. To remain silent, or even worse, to withhold judgment, is to give implicit consent to what others will easily judge as stupid at best and evil at worst.5
As we move into a new academic year and the fall electoral session, education, public schooling and educational leadership are bound to be in the news and subjected to extensive political posturing and debate. As scholars, “we need to speak the truth as we know it,” both to our colleagues and the larger public.
1 While think tanks have more explicit political agendas which limit the intellectual directions in which resident scholars are allowed to go, private foundations and corporations also place “golden handcuffs” on their paid researchers. See Ellen Schrecker, The lost soul of higher education. Corporatization, the assault on academic freedom, and the end of the American university. New York: The New Press, 2010.
2 Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic: Lying in Politics; Civil Disobedience; On Violence; Thoughts on Politics and Revolution. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition, 1972, p. 37. “[P]roblem-solvers did not judge; they calculated. Their self-confidence did not even need self-deception to be sustained in the midst of so many misjudgments, for it relied on the evidence of mathematical, purely rational truth. Except, of course, that this “truth” was entirely irrelevant to the “problem” at hand.” While Arendt is taking the highly-educated architects of the Vietnam War to task, you can see similar situations play out in various contemporary policy making arenas.
3 Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and judgment. New York: Schocken Books, Kindle Edition, 2009.
4 While Lorde was addressing closeted queers who refused to come out, silence is a poor strategy for professors who remain “closeted” on vital issues confronting education including higher education. See Schrecker, 2010.
5 See Arendt, 2009.