Let’s be fair: despite my great affection for the academia, I have never fooled myself in believing that it’s infallible. However, recently I have been much troubled by the realization that within the academia itself, it is not at all uncommon to see the misleading, opinionated and hypocritical arguments, things that are symptomatic of the nonsensical “everyday discussion,” and things that should have stopped at the doorstep of the ivory tower. Then, what makes the academics a superior way to construct an understanding of human society? What gives it the elevated status of trust and respect? What gives it the authority to influence decisions that cost real lives?
I am probably not the only one sensing this conundrum. Within the Middle East study, as within many others that have received unsolicited attention due to their increasing significance and relevance to the decision-making process, there is a reactionary movement of detachment: frustrated by the saturation of ideologies, many earnestly yearn for a secluded ivory tower as the last haven for the academia.
Should the academia be separated from the public? This is what I address in my final paper for my Middle East class. I include here only my introduction and conclusion. Despite the specificity and topicality of most examples used, I believe the arguments hold a much more universal implication for the discouraged scholars everywhere.
This paper is directed to scholars as much as to myself. I have invested much hope and passion into the academia – if betrayed, where would I go. Business? Wall Street? Cubicle? Allah (nail it!), please no.
As the Middle East becomes increasingly crucial to American interests and security, its regional study finds itself standing at the center of a mounting, usually unsolicited, attention. The relationship between the academics and the government now faces a dormant dilemma that resurfaces in times of quantitatively and consequentially greater interaction. “To engage and compete with other voices, or to disengage and minimize the infiltration of values?” – the debate within and without the academics has been distilled into this question.
Yet, this question is phrased as if mere distance from the empire is comprehensively indicative of the quality of the interaction. Another overlooked dimension is how the academics conduct itself within the relationship, how it remains relevant, how it preserves its critical capability. Looking through this two-dimension framework, I argue that American scholars of the Middle East need a sort of ‘embedded autonomy’, a conscious distancing from the opinionated empire without attempting to self-exclude, a willing involvement with the specific and contemporary conduct of the system without being incognizant of its omnipresent authoritative influence. Such seemingly oxymoronic approach is philosophically possible and practically useful, to both academic study and public enlightenment. This viability and usefulness serve as a quasi-moral imperative that compel scholars to engage critically: if your contribution is valuable to humanity, contributory to your work, and is also well within your ability, should you not feel obliged to give?
This sort of “embedded autonomy”, albeit being absolutely possible, is admittedly a fine line to walk. Like most other concepts in social science, it does not have a concrete defining boundary; not only is its periphery blurry, but its nucleus is ever-shifting as well, since it is best described as an equilibrium, of “embeddedness” and “autonomy”, of trying to be engaged but not captured, to be free but not irrelevant. I recognize that I am describing “embedded autonomy” with very porous terms, and that to locate the equilibrium is of much greater difficulty. In fact, it is precisely the frustration of this quest that makes an isolated, contrived, artificial ivory tower ever seem appealing to scholars, whose true passion lies in understanding the real, vibrant, animated human society. I would not irresponsibly dismiss the difficulty of nor presumptuously prescribe a methodology for accomplishing “embedded autonomy”; my aim is rather to remind, and motivate if you will, the disheartened scholars that “embedded autonomy” is elusive but real, and that its contribution to their academic quality and the public enlightenment is substantial. Whether that contribution is a moral imperative I would not delve into, for I have always found morality the most sketchy subject and floundering basis of all. However, from a materialistic standpoint (whose practical relevance I always cherish), the viability and usefulness of “embedded autonomy” should be an motivation great enough to border on quasi-moral incentive, if not obligation, for scholars to accept the challenge with the courage and the thirst for knowledge that bring them to the academics in the first place.
(Mar. 7, 2010)
I decide to upload the full, final version (with proper format and bibliography) of my paper here. I initially thought that the topicality of the essay would render most of the paper, except the intro and the conclusion, rather unpalatable for a general audience. Well, I still do. However, just in case anyone would like to further examine, and of course, critique my thoughts, this full version will lay a substantial ground for him to do so. Furthermore, I have developed an abhorrence for the irresponsibility of didactically imposing claims without evidences, which obliges me to go beyond posing normative claims in the intro and the conclusion. Again, I understand that the general public would not strain itself in demanding that academic rigor; that’s precisely why I reservedly include here only a link for those interested.
P/S: The final version is substantially shorter than the one posted here. For the sake of page limit, I had to curtail my flowery rhetoric a bit. It was a good exercise though, for me to self-reflect and winnow the essence of my arguments, and to self-prove that I am not enslaved to my own style.