Do we need politicians with a serious academic background to increase the general quality of the public debates? Or, is academia (only) a source of symbolic power and influence for politicians and, in general, public figures, and a step in their career to top positions in the establishment?
The general debate regarding the opportunity of an increased presence of “philosophers” and qualified thinkers in governments crosses the ages, from Plato’s dialogues to the optimism of the Enlightenment that reaches the present time. The manifestations of intellectuals in the public space, sometimes with a publicly assumed political option, is criticized as a possible attempt to upgrade economic status and/or celebrity by some while others consider it as a wise step forward to introducing more noblesse and intellectual accountability into politics. Most probably, neither of those two extremes is right and the situations are as diverse as human nature: some will integrate without any attempt of change, fitting perfectly into the usual ambiance; some will give up; and at best, some will use their knowledge to introduce substantial changes.
My question is coming from another direction: what do you do when the academic qualifications of a public figure turn out to be a matter of public controversy? What is the responsibility of the academic establishment in conferring the titles?
The inspiration for this article was generated by the latest discussions from the German media regarding the availability of the PhD title of the Defense minister, Karl Theodor zu Guttenberg . However, he is only one of the world public figures and power-brokers facing accusations of plagiarism. The public perception might differ as well; in Germany, academic qualifications represent a matter of high social status. But the debate in itself, whatever the final decision, is a matter of credibility of the universities through the professors, who bear the sole accountability in promoting and endorsing the intellectual elites. Such an issue is more important than the one concerning the problem of state funding or other possible political support for various academic projects.
A possible answer to the opening question of this article would be: yes, we do need qualified and very qualified politicians, with a solid general culture and academic qualification. But, at the same time, we need to measure their intellectual competence and educational qualities under the same strict criteria. At the end of the day, the academic choice is more than a hobby, but a life-long commitment requiring a significant amount of time for research, lectures, writing – including learning how to avoid plagiarism - and confrontation of sources.
I hope that the discussion, in Germany and elsewhere, is just at the beginning, and the echoes and the articulate answers of the academics will follow intensively in the next months. Because, otherwise, we risk entering a discussion exclusively focused on people instead of looking into standards or the lack thereof.
Note: Germany's defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned March 1st, following the accusations of plagiarism.
Berlin, GermanyAna Dinescu is a regular contributor to University of Venus and a PhD candidate in history at the Faculty of History, University of Bucharest, with a background in Political Science. She has been a journalist for ten years for Romanian daily newspapers and is currently a communications consultant, living in Berlin.