The academic enterprise consists of the quest for truth, but as Wake Forest University professor Jim Otteson argues in this Martin Center essay, the emphasis should be more on “quest.” Today, many professors focus upon “truth” and, convinced that they have found it, begin acting in decided unprofessional ways.
Academics in fact have a dual professional responsibility. The first is to master our fields and to convey their achievements to each new generation of students. The second responsibility is to the tradition of inquiry itself, stewarding our noble profession.
That tradition of inquiry requires dispassionate teaching and research. Much too often, however, professors let their emotions take over. “We deal in thoughts and ideas, in hypotheses and conjectures, in proposals and arguments, in criticism and counter-argument. If a hypothesis or proposal seems false, our professional responsibility is to demonstrate that by the process of falsification that is the core characteristic of our profession,” Otteson writes.
Just let a student question, say, “intersectionality” in a course on women’s studies and see if he or she receives a scholarly demonstration or a burst of anger from the professor.
Otteson has himself suffered plenty at the hands of fellow faculty members who decided that they had to loathe him because his Eudaimonia Institute received some funding from the Koch Foundation.
Whenever a professor moves from dispassionate inquiry to partisan advocacy, that is a betrayal of higher education’s mission and a breach of academic professionalism. If higher education is to fulfill its proper mission and serve its proper purpose, all its members must dedicate themselves to embracing their responsibilities not as defenders of a faith, but as professional pursuers of knowledge.