Alfred Kahn, tenure, Socrates, and telling the truth as you see it

The Economist has a very good obituary for economist Alfred Kahn, who (for better and worse) revolutionized passenger and freight transport in the United States. Reading through it reminded me of why tenure matters and why the academy matters, despite all the criticisms and self-lampooning from a lot of academics who, as often as not, want to be cool kids with the nonacademics while, of course, partaking in all the benefits of academic life.

An excerpt from the obit:

Breezily, too, he winged his way in government. He was an academic, after all; he had nothing to lose, so he would speak his mind. Asked once by a reporter if he could defend the defence budget, he said “No”. Told off for using the word “depression” in public, he replaced it with “banana”, and announced that the country was heading for its worst banana in 45 years. Told off by the head of United Fruit for using “banana”, he made it “kumquat”. As the oil price continued to soar he called the Arab producers “schnooks”, earning yet another rebuke; but he didn’t care. He could always go back to being dean of Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences, as he did in 1980, even though “dean is to faculty as a hydrant is to a dog.”

No, the academy is far from perfect. There are plenty of frauds here, too, like that guy who faked his findings connecting autism to inoculations. Eyugh. The pain he’s caused.

But there is something really important about having people around who aren’t afraid to lose their jobs if they tell the truth as they see it, and who have the time to consider issues. Certainly experts aren’t the only source of interesting or important ideas, but there are an awful lot of people around me on a daily basis who do, in fact, have incredible ideas. I’m proud of my colleagues and wonder just about every day what I did to deserve to be employed where I am.

Yes, it takes years to earn the privilege of not losing your job when you tell the truth (i.e., “we are in a recession, or a banana, or a kumquat: call it what you want, but people are suffering.”). Yes, there are those who overstate their findings, or the importance of what they think. There are those who try to make you conform, even in the academy–but don’t try to tell me that people are powerless to resist that. They can. And do.

There are even those protected by tenure who have very little of value to say. It happens.

But for every one of those types, I swear there is another person, like Alfred Kahn, and like many of my wonderful colleagues, who have interesting and meaningful things to say that would be nearly impossible for them to say if they had to worry about losing their jobs.

For example, I recently got into an argument with our Op-Ed gatekeeper at USC because I wrote something that remarks about how Jerry Brown is being gutless about taxes–and gas taxes in particular. Our Op-Ed guy (who is wonderful–well-read, reflective) said that such a proposal is “politically dead on arrival” so it’s irrelevant. I pushed back: it’s not my job to take good ideas off the table just because powerful and entrenched interests don’t like those ideas. My job is the opposite of worrying about what people like. I’m not selling soda.

Socrates told the Athenians not to kill off their good generals. He told them not to make unnecessary trouble with the Spartans. They killed him for saying so, and for failing to pretend afterwards that he wasn’t 100 percent right. But he did his job, and his decision left us with one of the most beautiful passages of literature I have ever read, from Plato’s Phaedo:

I would not have him sorrow at my hard lot, or say at the burial, Thus we lay out Socrates, or Thus we follow him to the grave or bury him; for false words are not only evil in themselves, but they infect the soul with evil.

Thinking about this stuff has become all the more poignant as I have been thinking about Glenn Beck and his characterization of Francis Fox Piven as an “enemy of the Constitution.”

I’m wondering whether any these Constitution thumpers can actually describe what’s in it, let alone what the ekklesia were, what a republic is, who John Witherspoon was–or Polybius, Plutarch, Tacitus or Cicero. Can they describe the considerable differences of opinion expressed by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton (another intellectual hero of mine) and James Madison? Or is the Constitution just something about the right to have guns and not pay taxes because you don’t want to and spout whatever prejudiced garbage you believe—and being able to whine like crybaby about your precious “values” or “identity” or “rights” being threatened when somebody calls you on your ignorance—undoubtedly one of Palin’s least attractive behaviors.

Certainly, they can’t have much faith in the Constitution if they believe that educated people, by discussing ideas, threaten it. I believe strongly in ideas, don’t get me wrong, but I have faith that the Constitution will survive the spiritual and intellectual squalor the American people have constructed around it and themselves—a far bigger threat, if history is to believed, than any scholar–even a great one like Fox Piven.