Academics: Get Down From the Ivory Towers and Into This EU Debate

07/06/2016 12:07 | Updated 07 June 2016

The criticism of the academic in 'The Ivory Tower', stowed away with their books and cut off from the rest of society, is a cliché that's saving grace is that by in large it is true. Rarely do academics wade into public debate, especially political scientists and political philosophers. Less so with say psychology or especially economics - think Yanis Varoufakis or Thomas Pikkety. The vacuum is mainly filled by commentators, many intelligent professional journalists. But also by for instance 'celebrity columnists'. Measured Katie Hopkins being one. That intellectual fırebrand Piers Morgan being another. He regularly writes on politics and it might be sobering to academics who devote months at a time to a single barely read article to hear Morgan's claim that his columns are the highest-read in online journalism globally, some clocking up over 2 million views. Political academic journals I doubt come close attaining such readership figures over the course of a whole year.

The vacuum is filled by others too. Comedians such as Mark Steel and Frankie Boyle pen columns that portray their thinking as blindingly obvious and anyone to the right of the far left as comically wrong and immoral. Celebrities have their pet causes, such as Benedict Cumberbatch for refugees or Russell Brand for general revolution. Musicians such as Charlotte Church or sportsmen such as Jermain Jenas grace Question Time audiences with enlightening insights. Why have an academic expert on the EU on Question Time on the eve of the official start of the EU campaign, when you can have Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin? Martin is far better qualified to provide facts and clarity about the EU to a public that that struggles to understand it.

The referendum makes more urgent the issue of academics general removal. Both sides and none bemoan the scarcity of facts in the current debate. Credible experts who populate Politics departments throughout our universities and who devote their lives to studying political institutions such as the EU could shed some light, separate truth from falsehood. Have they come down from the Ivory Tower and waded into the grittiness of one of the most important national debates for a generation? Have they attempted to reach a wider audience through social media, newspapers, radio and television? By and large it seems not.

To me this seems baffling. How can you stay static and watch people pontificate often misleadingly on subjects they know far less than you about? How can you in good moral and intellectual conscience sit and see the factual falsehoods that are recycled by both campaigns? It's the equivalent of a host of Classical FM appearing as an anchor on the BBC's coverage of the World Cup Final and doing a terrible job. Instead, as the academic Christian F. Rostbøl has warned, political philosophy and science 'has become a practice whose object is itself...rather than politics itself.'

Even if it's conceded that academics have little ability to influence the public either way in the EU debate, there is surely a role in explaining and clarifying what is fact and what is fiction. The argument is not elitist. It wouldn't be deemed elitist to give a particular platform and certain levels of deference to gardeners on matters gardening, or builders on matters building. Nor is it elitist to think an academic knows more about the EU than Tim Martin. Of course, ideally every citizen should have an opinion on politics in a way they need not on specialist topics. But an expert can be a useful way to enhance the quality and basis of citizen's opinion.

Perhaps the situation is unsurprising. Consider the lack of input from academics on other major issues. Studying political philosophy at supposedly one of the best places in the world to do it - LSE - I was struck and disillusioned by the indifferent attitude the academics had towards topical issues. I was taught by supposed experts on freedom of speech, on refugees and migration. They could have provided a much needed insight in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo attacks into the ongoing challenge of reconciling freedom of speech with protection of vulnerable minorities in need of empowerment and inclusion. They could have cast light on complexities of migration and refugees and the obligations we hold to those beyond our borders. But the idea of taking part, the idea that they could be of broader societal use by offering solution to these complex issues did not seem either appealing or necessary.

It would be contrary to the professional norms of politics academics to partake in debates that might be deemed 'relevant'. Of far more pressing concern to political philosophers is 'ideal theory', where the priority is being theoretically right over doing what is best empirically. Many academic's biggest influence - the political philosopher John Rawls - never spoke about contemporary politics. Something that might be emotive, even of consequence would beyond the pale, for it might involve using a type of discourse that is quite alien to many academics (but which they are capable of), namely one that those without a PhD can comprehend.

Perhaps this is all unfair on political scientists and philosophers. British culture does not really provide refuge to political public intellectuals in a way that France might for instance, so the attempt would be futile. Intellectuals are regarded with suspicion. As W.H. Auden put it 'The word 'Intellectual' suggests right away/ A man who's untrue to his wife.' Attempting to influence might be damaging. Separate political and scholarly arenas allow for academics to explore concepts and data that are best considered in an environment of academia, which is less beset by hostility or short termism than the public sphere. Were academics to get too politicised it might harm their academic credibility.

Such a defence smacks of cowardice, an excuse to carry on the inertia. And inertia is what the main approach is that the moment. So little desire, so little sense of obligation to use all that time spent toiling in libraries and seminars - often at the expense of the public purse - to contribute to society beyond the campus. But being vigorous does not need to undermine academic credibility, so long as the argument demonstrates the hallmarks of what academia can achieve: compelling arguments, spurned on by reason, evidence and clarity.

Will the academics, most urgently the political theorists and scientists, climb down the tower to the mess and muck below of this EU debate? Will they raise the net benefit that academia contribute to society in this society defining moment? At least they could have the integrity and courage to give it a go.