Academics urged to rediscover role in ‘moulding’ society

Excessive focus on teaching and research is undermining a key function of academia, inquiry to hear

February 10, 2020
Source: Getty
Building society: ‘the spirit with which academics approach problems over the long-term percolates through to the rest of society’

Academics have outsourced their society-building responsibilities and need to reacknowledge their role in moulding society, a public inquiry was due to hear.

According to University of Sydney sociologist Salvatore Babones, community engagement should be a crucial part of academic life. “A hundred years ago, academics – or academic leadership, at least − very much thought that their teaching was part of a society-building effort,” he said.

“I think we’ve lost that. Today, academics view their responsibility as being primarily to themselves, or to the discipline, or to their own idiosyncratic notions of the truth. Very few academics view their job as society-building.”

Dr Babones was one of about two dozen experts due to participate in public hearings being staged on 7 and 14 February in Canberra as part of a Senate inquiry into nationhood, national identity and democracy.

Established last July by left-wing Labor Party senator Kim Carr and his conservative counterpart Amanda Stoker, the inquiry was convened to investigate “a growing sense that democracy is under threat”.

Asked what could be done to encourage dedication to liberal democratic norms, Dr Babones said education was the key − “as always” − but he doubted that would be a majority faculty view.

“I suspect most of my colleagues would be emphatically opposed to any suggestion that they should be involved in society-building. Yet they are, whether they like it or not. By being professional sceptics about society, I’m sure to some extent they inculcate that in their students,” Dr Babones told Times Higher Education.

“Tertiary education sets the tone for how education broadly is conducted, and how the media conducts its debates. People who want to become reporters go to journalism classes. People who want to become teachers go to teacher ed classes. The spirit with which academics approach these problems over the long-term percolates through to the rest of society.”

Fellow inquiry participant Jonathan Cole said the society-building “ethos” remained very much alive at regionally based Charles Sturt University, where he is a political theologist.

He cited CSU’s recently adopted motto, based on an Aboriginal expression meaning “the wisdom of respectfully knowing how to live well in a world worth living in”.

Dr Cole said community-building was “a natural and logical thing to do” in a university embedded in regional towns. “Community engagement is possibly more challenging if your campus is near the Sydney or Melbourne [central business district].”

But Dr Babones said that while outreach was lauded as a key university mission, “universities treat service to society as largely pro forma, since it’s impossible to measure”.

“The public outreach work I do is not even included in my annual performance review. I’ve written more than 400 op-eds and short articles for the public, and there’s not even a spot for them. They are not countable because they are not peer-reviewed research outputs.”

Universities tended to “hive off” community outreach into “special purpose vehicles”, he added. “Our professor of practice is presumably evaluated based on his engagement with society. But since I am not a professor of practice, it’s not part of my job description.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

The educational theory of John Anderson of Sydney would be relevant to this.

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