Skip navigation
Margin Notes

Congress ’09 – educational leaders as activists

Educational leaders, acting as public intellectuals, need the courage to raise awareness of social issues and to address controversial topics.


Do educators take their role as public intellectuals seriously? At a session this morning of Congress (the Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Carleton University in Ottawa), the question wasn’t answered directly but the clear implication was no, particularly when it comes to educators using their positions to push for social change, to raise awareness of social inequities and to shape the public discourse.

Carolyn Shields, formerly a professor of educational administration at the University of British Columbia and now a professor of educational leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said there are many within the field who are critical of educational leaders and administrators for their timidity in speaking out on controversial public issues.

However, such public activism is obviously not without risk and requires courage, she noted. One need look no further than the examples of academics Henry Giroux, Ward Churchill and others who have been sanctioned for their activism and critical views, or the public criticism heaped on those academics who spoke out in support of William Ayers during last fall’s U.S. election campaign.

The session, “A Call for Engagement: Educational Leaders as Activists and Public Intellectuals,” was co-sponsored by the Canadian Society for the Study of Education and the Canadian Association for the Study of Educational Administration.

Quoting Edward Said, Dr. Shields said the role of public intellectual “has an edge to it and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma … whose raison d’être is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”

Academics are commonly held up as the epitome of the public intellectual, yet some believe academics should not range too far from their narrow disciplinary expertise. Stanley Fish, for example, commented earlier this year in the New York Times that academics should “aim low and stick to [their] academic knitting.”

This was not a view held by Dr. Shields and the other panelists. Erica Mohan, a doctoral candidate at UBC and fellow speaker, affirmed that educators and school leaders are public intellectuals and need to raise awareness of social issues and address controversial topics.

But how does one go about acting in the role of public intellectual, particularly when political discourse seems so polarized? “We need to facilitate the debate, encounter people, engage in dialogue and discussion,” said Dr. Shields. “I don’t know any other way to do it.”

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
Post a comment
University Affairs moderates all comments according to the following guidelines. If approved, comments generally appear within one business day. We may republish particularly insightful remarks in our print edition or elsewhere.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Click to fill out a quick survey