it was my political commitments that led me to choose political theory as an academic discipline. Theory is a very special field because it provides a license to do something that academics generally are not supposed to do: that is, defend a political position in the classroom and in the learned journals...Without that license to move back and forth, to write and talk inside and outside the academic world about the political questions that interested me, I don't think that I could have survived either as a student or as a professor.--Michael Walzer.
I don’t wholly agree...if it means that political theorists especially have such a permit. Indeed I think we need to be more careful than many other social scientists, because often the standards of evidence in our research are unclear. We only sometimes venture falsifiable empirical hypotheses, we only sometimes engage in philosophical syllogism-construction, we only sometimes engage in historical archival work of the sort that allows the documentary record to bear us out or not. That makes it too easy for us to slip back and forth between theory and mere editorializing in defense of our normative priors. I admire Walzer’s own ability to move back and forth while still making real theoretical advances, but I think there’s a lot that one needs to be careful about in general.--Jacob Levy.
Alerted by Jacob Levy, I read Walzer's auto-biographical essay from which I have quoted above. In his post, Levy offers many sensible criticisms of the piece when conceived as a survey, so I don't have to focus on that here. Levy is also critical of of Walzer's two-fold idea that doing political theory offers a "license to do something that academics generally are not supposed to do: that is, defend a political position in the classroom and in the learned journals." But Levy's criticism is rather narrow (it's focused primarily on the methodological weaknesses of political theory as a foundation for articulating normative commitments). I find both Walzer's and Levy's stance surprising from the vantage point of the history of political thought (both of them acknowledged masters of that genre). Let me explain why.
As Fred Beiser reminds us in his majestic book on the German Historicist Tradition, Max Weber famously argued that due to the advanced (intellectual) division of labor, we cannot expect value-consensus in advanced political economies. In the class-room, professors, therefore, cannot be expected to offer the kind of moral education that was taken for granted, say, in eighteenth century Scottish universities or the kind of Bildung familiar from Humboldtian German universities. If we value, say, our students' intellectual development and their capacity for individual judgment (that is, if we try to teach them as future citizens of a democratic polity), we ought to prepare them for the complexities of the modern world by offering them analytical tools, scientific skills, and a wide exposure to a variety of normative traditions and political-historical exemplars. One way we do so, is to introduce political/moral perspectives into the class-room which make some alternatives to the status quo subject for discussion (or entirely invisible, etc.). Yet, in my experience, many students resist more obvious political stances adopted by professors anyway, so attempts at political indoctrination tend to backfire.
Having said that, I don't see why professors couldn't teach political positions in the class-room: an ecology course on global warming, a social science or criminal justice course on gun control, a law course on sexual harassment in the work-place, a literature course on post-colonial literature, (etc.) might all involve non-trivial political issues and it's not obvious that professor has to self-censor. A course in a government program that taught activist techniques may well involve the encouragement of political activism in the same way that a business course might encourage business activity. As a teaching-device, I prefer to leave my students in the dark about my own views, but I recognize that other professors may well stimulate their students better by way of political disagreement or advocacy. (Note that my claim is not constitutional--my readers inhabit very diverse legal environments.)*
I was even more surprised, however, by Walzer's claim that academics generally are not allowed to defend political views outside the class-room. Hadn't Kant already argued that an academic, especially, should have "complete freedom, indeed even the calling, to impart to the public all of his carefully considered and well-intentioned thoughts” (What is Enlightenment?) Why restrict this calling to political theorists? (Isn't the whole point of academic freedom to secure this calling?) In fact, in practice, lots of disciplines allow their expert-practitioners to defend a "political position" in the "learned journals" and in policy-environments. Obviously, different academic disciplines (and political societies) have different norms and practices through which one can do so (leaving aside the fact that the technocratic, a-political stance one might encounter is itself sometimes a form of complicity in and embrace of the political status-quo). Economists, say, like Mankiw and Piketty (I have criticized both) enrich the economics profession and our polities by engaging the public with their specialized expertise--I just wish both would also get-up-to-speed on philosophy! This is not to deny that experts that engage the public have special responsibilities and duties, too, but Walzer's position entails that nearly all other academics should behave like civil servants, stick to the facts, and stay out of politics; the last thing the world needs is more servile, academic civil servants!
Soon I'll write a bit about Walzer's claims about the secular left.
*Obviously, there are a lot of contextual, local judgments about how one can teach political positions to one's students while still fitting the local curriculum and degree expectations.