Ideas and Idealogues

Peter Wood

Today is day four of the Aspen Institute’s “Aspen Ideas Festival.”  It’s nice that ideas get their own festival, a place where ideas can kick off their zorries and relax and enjoy the thin mountain air. 

Oops. I see on closer examination that the ideas don’t get a holiday at all. They are more like the delicacies at an ethnic food festival: there to be nibbled on by people who have no real roots in the traditions in which those delicacies are important but who are eager to demonstrate their cosmopolitan taste. 

The Aspen Ideas Festival is a joint production of the Aspen Institute and the venerable Atlantic magazine, which gathers up a collection of “provocative writers, public officials, artists, scientists, business executives, scholars, economists, foreign policy specialists, entrepreneurs, and leaders of all kinds — drawn from myriad fields, from across the country and from around the world—“ and lets them mix it up. 

Gazing on from afar, I imagine the event offers the participants the chance to make interesting connections with each other. Generally the conversations at meetings like this are more valuable than the official agenda, but the agenda matters too. This year, the Aspenites have four week-long themes:

  • World Affairs and the Global Economy
  • Arts and Culture
  • Life in America
  • Managing Planet Earth  

And two sets of four-day programs to choose from:  

June 29 – July 2


  • Media Crack-Up
  • Darwin’s Legacy
  • Justice and Society
  • Rebuilding the American Economy

July 2 – July 5


  • The Science of Being Human
  • Innovations in Education
  • Living Digitally
  • The Middle East


Some of the titles are provocative. The “Media Crack-Up” certainly seems timely. And it is a good moment to consider “Darwin’s Legacy” in his bicentennial year.    As an anthropologist, I am intrigued by “The Science of Being Human.”   Is this a serious attempt to discuss what we know scientifically about human nature? Or a bunch of moonshine? Does “Living Digitally” have front-line reports from the Sims and Second Life? Or is this an attempt to explain to a room full of people with Blackberries in their hands and bluetooths in their ears what it means to be connected? “Innovation in Education” sounds like it I worth our attention, but I don’t see much detail yet. 

 What has really snagged my attention in this conference is a list of participants called the “2009 Aspen Ideas Festival Scholars.” The Scholars are described as “a diverse group of action-oriented leaders from all over the United States and around the world, selected for their work and accomplishments - and for their ability to transform ideas into action.”  There are sixty Scholars and the first thing that strikes me is that I’ve never heard of any of them.  This is puzzling to the extent that the Festival, like most such affairs, is intensely interested in showcasing luminaries. Take a look at the list of Speakers and Moderators. These are name-brand opinion-making journalists, power-brokers, editors, producers, deans, diplomats, and celebrities from the cerebral side of the spectrum.   Madeleine Albright, James A. Baker III, Stephen Breyer, David Brooks, Margaret Carlson, Michael Chertoff, Howard Gardner, Thomas Friedman, and Austan Goolsbee—people like that. So what’s with the Scholars?  Is this an honorific title conferred on people who have not yet done anything notable but someday might?

I don’t think that’s quite it. A good many of them are people who have indeed accomplished something good and notable but are in no ordinary sense “scholars.” Valarian Abrams founded and directs two non-profits, “Kids Unique (an urban education enrichment organization) and Tyke (a rural education and homeless youth organization for America’s poorest children).”   Lana Abu-Hijleh “is a Palestinian development expert working for the past 23 years with international agencies in Palestine and the region.” Cathy Albia “is a constitutional and human rights lawyer with a background on the right to health.” Rafael Anchia was a Texas State Representative now working for a law firm. Deborah Archer is a law professor who founded New York Law School’s Racial Justice Project, a legal advocacy organization. Maria Alexandria Beech is a playwright. Stephanie Bell-Rose is a managing director of Goldman Sachs.  V. Bunty Bohra is also at Goldman Sachs in Fixed Income, Currency, and Commodities. Erin Carlson works for Yahoo! in the company’s Social Responsibility department.  C. Karim Chrobog is a filmmaker working on a movie about “Ibn Battutah, a colorful, but forgotten 14th century Moroccan adventurer.” Rares Ciovica is a marketing director for Unilever who also leads the Decency-Comes-Back Association, “which is promoting the civility in Romanian society.”

That’s the first eleven, alphabetically. With the possible exception of a law school professor, who is cited for her activism not her scholarship, none of them are scholars. One gets the impression that the “Scholars” at the Aspen Ideas Festival represent nearly everything but scholarship. The few who are scholars appear to be put forward for something other than scholarship. Greg Farrington is executive director of the California Academy of Sciences. Daniel Goroff is program director of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.  

Here’s an idea for the Ideas Festival: don’t confuse social and political activism with scholarship. 

Activism has its own place and Aspen’s collection of activists who includes quite a 

few I think worthy of admiration and support. But designating them as “scholars” is unhelpful.  That’s because it plays into the hands of the growing number of academics who would like to erase the distinction between advocacy and intellectual inquiry. A good example, which I wrote about recently, are the academics at work in the field of “critical global studies,” a field founded by academics bothered that plain old global studies sought objective knowledge of globalization, whereas they wanted “to develop a globalization studies centrally concerned with global justice.”

Whole domains of higher education are at risk of becoming little more than conduits of propaganda for one cause or another: sustainability, social justice, fair trade, Third World liberation movements, etc.   Generally the folks in these fields enjoy styling themselves as scholars, both for the prestige that confers and for the immunity from criticism they hope to get by declaring their advocacy protected by “academic freedom.” These are false fronts. A scholar earns the right to be called a scholar though rigorous commitment to standards of scholarship, including careful and fair-minded use of evidence, patient attention to discrepancies, objective weighing of alternative hypotheses and competing interpretations, and above all the pursuit of truth. 

We don’t hold activists to the same standards, and there is a case to be made that we shouldn’t. Rares Ciovica can get on with promoting civility in Romanian society without a scientific proof that incivility and corruption are widespread in those parts.   Valarian Abrams can help homeless kids without controlled studies of their suffering. 

Activism, however, often can benefit from scholarship—scholarship that aims to get at realities that are not obvious or not as obvious as they seem.  The task of getting at those elusive facts is properly that of the scholar. The task of acting on them for the betterment of humanity belongs to the activist. But when we cross the wires between the two, we get unreliable judgment.  Scholars and scientists, being human, are often tempted to shortcuts anyway. “Research misconduct” is lamentably frequent. But when scholarship fuses with activism, there is nothing left but shortcuts. 

The Aspen Ideas Festival, I fear, is helping to erase this vital distinction. The Aspen Institute is more than welcome to assemble “action-oriented leaders from all over the United States and around the world, selected for their work and accomplishments - and for their ability to transform ideas into action.” But these action-oriented transformers of ideas-into-action are plain and simple activists. Not scholars. 

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