Monday, January 28, 2008

John Seeley and the problem of the ethical professor

Sandra Martin's powerhouse obituary on sociologist John Seeley raised a troubling question rarely asked: can you be an ethical scholar and work in the modern university? Martin herself is married to a professor; interesting that she poses the question so sharply,

John Seeley did groundbreaking research and publishing in sociology, notably Crestwood Heights, a study of society, economy, and class in Toronto's Forest Hills. Interesting life: a name change, abuse, coming to Canada as a child immigrant and striving his way into scholarship. But what interests Martin most is how difficult his academic career was. No one questioned his scholarship, it seems, but he was not an organization man, at least not for the kind of organization the modern university has become.

He seems to have had olympian ideals for what a university should be. And as a result he was hounded out of one university after another, and increasingly denied opportunities for employment. He went to help found York University because they told him it aspired to be a small liberal arts school built around a cluster of colleges. When it turned out it was going to be, well, York University, he had the grace to be outraged. That was the end of his career there.

Academic freedom. It's like freedom of the press, they say: it mostly belongs to those who own one.
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