Balance imbalance

July 22, 2010

Kate Pickett is right to question the snobbish attitude that some academics seem to hold towards commitment, persuasive rhetoric and "ideology critique" as legitimate devices in the "battle of ideas" ("'Pure' may be too simple, warn social scientists", 15 July). There is a convention within the academy that scholars should never venture into the area of political critique, as (it is claimed) this would compromise their neutrality and "objectivity" - or worse, is a manifestation of a kind of immature psychodynamic "acting-out" of unresolved "rebel material".

Yet the position of the detached academic is epistemologically unsustainable, not least because any position adopted unavoidably is underpinned by metaphysical assumptions that are ultimately untestable in any transcendental sense. What is surely far more pernicious than the politically committed academic is an anodyne approach to research and policymaking that, in effect, amounts to little more than a hand-wringing apology for the status quo.

It is just as well that we have prominent role models such as Noam Chomsky, Terry Eagleton and Frank Furedi to give the lie to the myth of the objective value-free academic who is always "balanced", always sits on the fence and never takes a committed position on anything that matters - least of all, anything as "unscientific" as values.

Contrary to positivistic opinion, it is eminently possible to retain the best aspects of rationality, while at the same time taking up a committed, sometimes political position in relation to culture and policymaking.

Richard House, Research Centre for Therapeutic Education, Roehampton University.

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