Should the academia stay in its ivory tower?

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.

  1. HK said:

    First off, your writing is terrific! I read this post last night but was too occupied with my Poli Sci paper to leave a comment.

    You ask whether the academia should be separated from the public and began by establishing the idea of ‘embedded autonomy’ which suggests that American scholars should move beyond their opinionated ideologies of the Middle East and be willing engage in it in a critically different way. However, the somewhat paradoxical/oxymoronic definition of ‘embedded autonomy’ left me a bit confused. When you wrote that it is ‘philosophically possible’, did you mean that theoretically it can work? But how so? What do you suggest scholars do to be separated from the nonsensical everyday life consciously while it is what they often do so unconsciously? While I agree that one should not let his biased assumption affect his judgment on other subjects, I think it is almost an inevitable thing to be biased. Of course, something is inevitable does not necessarily mean that it is right, but isn’t it part of being human and what motivates the academia in the first place—to examine the everyday life, then theorize and philosophize about it? The academia and the public ought to be complementary to each other (I still think they are), so I don’t quite understand how the academia can live alone in its so-called ivory tower?

    • anhqle said:

      the chac’ la` cai’ suddenly increased blog traffic la` do ban. ah? Minh` ngoi` xem blog stats ma ko hieu? entry ve` academia voi ivory tower thi` lam` sao ma` co’ the? raise traffic duoc co chu’ =)

      Uh cai’ philosophically possible minh` chung’ minh o trong than bai`. May’ cai’ day’ kha’ la specific va draw heavily on the authors that we study in the class. One of them is Said, actually a Columbia professor. He plays piano as well, just decided not to pursue a professional path and devoted himself to an academic career, mostly focusing on the Palestinian cause. A prominent argument of Said, certainly one that makes him remembered, is how objectivity is a myth, and everything is within an environment saturated with values. Some examples are Zionism, Orientalism which bear eerie resemblance to a colonialist method and system of thought. (hoi` truoc’ minh` co’ noi’ chuyen ve` how the West adopts a particular understanding of society to justify themselves cung~ chinh’ la cai’ Said interested in the most day’.)

      Noi chung specific the’ nen minh` chi post intro voi conclusion thoi. Voi ca minh cung tu. thay’ gioi’ han. cai’ scope cua philosophical arguments mot. chu’t thi` no’ cung exhaustive hon. Chu’ bay h ma` bao argue ve separation of academia voi’ public, ma` draw on philosophical works of all times thi ko biet’ no’ messy the nao 🙂

  2. anhqle said:

    ah ma` ban. co’ hoi? cai nay ma minh chua adequately respond: “What do you suggest scholars do to be separated from the nonsensical everyday life consciously while it is what they often do so unconsciously?”

    Well, hỏi khó. Như mình đã nói ở kết bài, cái sự vất vả trong việc locate the equilibrium of “embedded autonomy” mới chính là cái làm cho scholars bị nản chí. Chứ còn nếu ai cũng có thể đạt được cái “seemingly oxymoronic” wonderful ideal nói trên thì đã chẳng phải bận lòng về việc này nữa.

    Paper này mình chỉ tập trung chứng minh philosophical viability và practical usefulness thôi. Thứ nhất vì giới hạn của độ dài bài viết (cả của sự lười nữa :D) Nhưng thứ hai, và quan trọng hơn, là vì hai yếu tố trên là prerequisite to “remind the disheartened scholars” about the prospect of “embedded autonomy”. Nếu không có hai điều đó, thì học giả sẽ chẳng còn muốn dấn thân vào công cuộc locate “embedded autonomy” ý chứ.

    Tuy nhiên mình cũng có nghĩ tới vài điều để respond cho câu hỏi của bạn ở trên (mặc dù chưa phát triển được đầy đủ.)
    1, là peer review: sự quan trọng của nó trong academia thì quá rõ rồi. Nhưng nó tồn tại được là dựa trên cái chuẩn mực rằng các academic work phải được trình bày từng bước tuần tự, đúng logic, và ủng hộ bằng bằng chứng. Tất nhiên, người ta vẫn có thể make fallacious jump, hoặc use evidences out of context, nhưng cái chuẩn mực nói trên đem lại một sự minh bạch và một khái niệm đúng/sai (on method, at least) mà cho phép peer review rà soát lẫn nhau. Nói cách khác, nonsense lúc nào và ở đâu cũng có, nhưng trong academic world, cậu có better channel and method to debunk it.

    2, là mình không nghĩ chuyện bị ảnh hưởng bởi value và ideologies thuộc về một binary mode: hoặc là cậu bị ảnh hưởng, hoặc là không. Nói như vậy sẽ dẫn đến lí luận rằng, đằng nào cũng không objective được, thế thì cố làm gì? Self-fulfilling pessimism.
    Ngược lại, mình cho rằng nó giống spectrum hơn: nếu mình hiểu hơn về tầm ảnh hưởng của values, thì cũng sẽ có nhiều khả năng đưa ra những mô tả và nhìn nhận khách quan hơn về xã hội. Cũng vì thế mà education mới quan trọng, dạy người ta phân tích chứ không quỳ gối trước values (mặc dù edu cũng saturated with values, haiz.)

    Nói chung nó là một cái ongoing battle. Mệt thì mệt thật, nhưng nếu ngại mệt thì đã ko thành scholar 😀

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