Academic character judgments matter (opinion)
Earlier this spring, Antigone, an online classics journal aimed at the general public, has drawn the ire of many classics by publishing an article by a prominent scholar. There was nothing wrong with the essay, which followed all professional standards and was quite thoughtful. But the scholar who wrote it has made a lot of headlines over the past two years over allegations of student sexual harassment. Those who are aware have wondered if it was appropriate to give him a platform just because he also happens to be an outstanding scholar? In other words, should our awareness of the character of the person saying the things impact how we perceive the things the person actually said?
The researcher in question, Joshua Katz, has since been fired from Princeton University for, among other charges, allegedly misrepresenting the facts during a 2018 misconduct investigation regarding a sexual relationship with an undergraduate student. cycle under his academic supervision – a controversial dismissal that some media outlets (and Katz himself) have attempted to portray as a violation of his right to free speech, in retaliation for comments he made about what he called “the waking madness” on another occasion. The argument goes: it’s canceled due to unpopular comments on race issues. But there is more to this story than meets the eye. The question is one that ultimately transcends this small corner of academia, and Katz is only a tiny part of that larger story.
Also this spring, David Swartz, a historian of American religion, wrote an article on the 50th anniversary of the publication of The Politics of Jesus reflecting on how a lifelong legacy of abuse has completely dismantled the tremendous intellectual work of the author of the text, the eminent theologian John Howard Yoder. As Swartz poignantly notes, “It is a terrible irony that the author of a book that proposes peace could be so violent.” Additionally, in light of the recent release of the report on sexual abuse in the Southern Baptist Convention, historian Beth Allison Barr asked why anyone should trust the scholarship of the leaders involvedsome of whom were previously considered leading intellectual voices.
Our outrage at these dismal events is right, but it also reveals a startling divide in our society. Just as modern American society does not appear to operate according to virtue ethics outwardly, the unease some have expressed over these abuses of power and gross violations of human dignity shows that some of us are still judgmental character based. And it’s these character-based judgments that ultimately condemn individuals like Joshua Katz, or John Howard Yoder, or former SBC president Paige Patterson, one of the archivlains of the SBC report.
For those who make these character judgments, they extend beyond the person to the scholarship of the person and raise a question: can we trust the brainchild of someone so morally defective? But what is surprising here is that it is not the conservatives who make character judgments in these situations. Rather, it is the liberals.
Conservative media and academic institutions wholeheartedly embraced Katz’s cause. The startling and heartbreaking reality that is emerging is that many social conservatives – people who claim to care deeply about virtue ethics in society – simply don’t care about the character of individuals.
The unfortunate result of this lack of interest in character is that unethical behavior remains remarkably common (and remarkably often overlooked) in a variety of settings, including secular academia. The Society for Classical Studies’ 2019 report on sexual harassment in the field showed how common such misconduct is in organizations and academia. Alarmingly, only 3% of transgressors suffered any consequences. Despite all of its recent revelations of wrongdoing, it turns out that the Southern Baptist Convention does not hold a monopoly on covering up outrageous abuses of power.
So why are conservatives who claim to take virtue and character seriously always ready to platform known abusers or harassers and advance their college careers? And why, on the contrary, are social liberals the ones who are willing to have these difficult conversations about character and its impact on the scholarship of individuals, a topic Sarah Scullin touched on a few years ago in an essay on a child pornography trafficker who was once a leading scholar in the realm of the classics?
It is time for us to unite in a democratic reflection on character and recognize that such abuses of power affect more than the immediate victims. A parallel case that comes to mind is that of arguably the most famous thinker of classical Athenian democracy: Socrates. Socrates’ flawed character, despite his superb teaching and scholarship, was ultimately his downfall in the Athenian context. How?
For decades, Socrates served as Athens’ foremost public intellectual, preparing students to become thoughtful and engaged citizens. In the process, he also prepared them in other ways, sleeping with at least one of them – Alcibiades. In the end, the results of Socrates’ teaching were decidedly problematic. His students went on to overthrow Athenian democracy twice during the last decade of the Peloponnesian War.
So when the Athenians tried Socrates in 399 BCE for impiety and corruption of youth, it seems they were judging, more than anything, his character. Specifically, seeing the fruits of his teaching in his students, the Athenians saw his character as dangerous to democracy. Socrates’ defense in the process, about the high quality of his scholarship as a ‘gadfly’ prompting Athenians to think deeper, sounded deaf to Athenians who voted to condemn him as Katz’s own words ring out now for some. Cancellations by public intellectuals are never random. They represent a character judgment that should unite left and right, so-called liberals and conservatives, those who espouse one faith and those who live by a secular compass.
In the case of Katz, the impact of her character on the lives and educational paths of many students is undeniable. Moreover, some of the comments he has made even in the past few weeks show his inability to understand and repent of those character issues that so many now find objectionable. In particular, in a recent article he wrote for first things, Katz remarked how much he enjoyed the “night talks” with the students. Intended as a point of boasting about his own Socrates-like nature, the remark has an ominous undertone.
Katz’s remark reminded me of a conversation with one of my undergraduate professors over 20 years ago when I was applying for a PhD. programs in the classics. My professor looked at the list of programs I planned to apply to and crossed out those that had “someone who likes to read Ovid late at night” in their faculty with female students. At the time, Princeton had an excellent reputation and I received a truly wonderful education there as a graduate student. All of the professors I studied with were incredible (and highly ethical!) scholars and mentors. And yet, open secrets about the existence of abusers on the ground have been bubbling beneath the surface for years. Is a settling of scores coming now?
In the Athenian democracy, Socrates was able to get away with unethical behavior for decades, until the Athenians could take no more. Some leading thinkers in many fields today, whether in the SBC or in American academia, have also allowed themselves too long to abuse – of students, colleagues, members of family, members of their community. But their story is not the only one, fortunately. These same organizations also include, though sometimes less comfortably and certainly more quietly, thinkers and professors who care deeply about their students and their communities and who produce scholarships that reflect their virtue. As calls to quash known abusers and stalkers grow, it’s time to openly pass character judgments and celebrate character decency.