Opinion
Law & Courts Opinion

The Problem With Calling Scholars ‘Too Political’

By Diana Hess — January 16, 2018 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Education scholars should vigorously participate in public debate about the important issues on which they have expertise as one way to give back to the networks that support them. At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I teach, the federal government and numerous private foundations and individual donors invest in the development of graduate students and faculty by funding teaching, research, and scholarships. This support is critical to creating a society in which true expertise—the kind that develops over many years from concentrated study in a particular area—can inform the decisions that we make as a community.

Among education scholars’ responsibilities, contributing to the public good comes first. Scholars who opt out of public-policy debates for which they have a deep well of knowledge violate public trust and compromise the university’s mission to reach beyond the classroom. After all, the knowledge of scholars belongs not to them alone but to all of us. Consider the scholar who has spent years—often decades—rigorously investigating what can be done to narrow the opportunity gaps in schooling that harm too many young people and their families: When she weighs in on debates around this issue, she should not be merely tolerated, but should be recognized and applauded for doing her job.

Commentary Collection

BRIC ARCHIVE

In this special collection of Commentary essays, Frederick M. Hess and four education scholars discuss the pros and cons for academics who want to wade into public debate.

Read more from the collection.

Yet it’s understandable why some scholars might be hesitant to voice their opinions. Scholars are sometimes castigated for being “political,” as if there were something unseemly at best, and manipulative at worst, in connecting expertise with the creation of public policy. Politics have become so highly polarized in recent years—and because, in this day and age, everyone can share their thoughts with the click of a mouse—scholars may not be regarded as highly skilled experts whose opinions we should seek out.

Of course, specialized experts are not the only voices that should be taken seriously in public discourse. But to eschew expertise is to rob the public of what we know it takes to develop high-quality answers to nuanced and important problems. This does not mean, however, that scholars should express every opinion they have on every issue for public consideration.

Consider my own case. For almost two decades, I have been honing my expertise on what schools should or should not do to teach young people thoughtful engagement in discussions of controversial political issues. Reporters frequently contact me for my opinion, and I have a duty to weigh in on these debates. The university supports me even if political leaders criticize me for doing so.

But I lack expertise on a whole host of other issues—even though I do have opinions as a citizen. When reporters ask me to weigh in on issues for which I do not have true expertise, I demur because I must not confuse my opinions as a citizen with my opinions as a scholar—which are well-warranted conclusions based on years of rigorous study.

By exercising intellectual humility, scholars can maintain the line between providing much-needed contributions to policy issues and becoming simply another partisan voice.

Related Tags:

.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as Scholars, Don’t Overstep Your Expertise

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Privacy & Security Webinar
K-12 Cybersecurity in the Real World: Lessons Learned & How to Protect Your School
Gain an expert understanding of how school districts can improve their cyber resilience and get ahead of cybersecurity challenges and threats.
Content provided by Microsoft
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Trauma-Informed Schools 101: Best Practices & Key Benefits
Learn how to develop a coordinated plan of action for addressing student trauma and
fostering supportive, healthy environments.
Content provided by Crisis Prevention Institute
Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Law & Courts A Native Student Barred From Graduation Over a Sacred Feather: Why Her Lawsuit Was Revived
A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said a district may have selectively enforced its policy on graduation decorations.
2 min read
Image of a gavel.
Marilyn Nieves/E+
Law & Courts Supreme Court Won't Take Up Cases Seen as Expanding Schools' Liability for Sexual Harassment
The court rejected appeals from a school district and university about when educational institutions may be sued for sexual harassment.
4 min read
Thunder storm sky over the United States Supreme Court building in Washington DC.
iStock/Getty Images Plus
Law & Courts Georgia Educators Plan to Sue Over the State's 'Divisive Concepts' Law
Georgia's could be the sixth lawsuit to challenge state laws limiting classroom discussion of race and racism.
3 min read
Image of a pending lawsuit.
gesrey/iStock/Getty
Law & Courts As a Skeptical Supreme Court Weighs Race in College Admissions, 'Brown' Looms Large
The cases heard Monday involve Harvard and the University of North Carolina, but a decision could be felt in K-12 education.
8 min read
Members of the NAACP Youth and College division rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices heard oral arguments on two cases on whether colleges and universities can continue to consider race as a factor in admissions decisions Oct. 31, 2022.
Members of the NAACP Youth and College division rally outside the U.S. Supreme Court as justices hear oral arguments on whether colleges and universities can continue to consider race as a factor in admissions.
Francis Chung/E&E News/POLITICO via AP Images