[Viewpoint] The professor versus politics

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[Viewpoint] The professor versus politics

Who is better: Leonardo da Vinci or Michelangelo? That’s the question the so-called Ahn Cheol-soo syndrome has cast upon the role of intellectuals in politics.

The political bombshell that exploded when the doctor-turned-entrepreneur-turned-professor leapt onto our political stage has raised a debate on the role of elite intellectuals in the realm of politics.

Leonardo is the archetype of the Renaissance man. Da Vinci falls in the lineage of Socrates, who was executed for his uncompromising pursuit of wisdom. Leonardo remained aloof from the secular delights of wealth and prestige to instead devote himself entirely to aesthetic and creative innovations. The result was an unmatchably prodigious output of masterpieces. But he was attacked by a younger contemporary artist, rival Michelangelo, for his nonchalance over state affairs in Florence. Leonardo perfected his art and creativity by keeping a distance from such mundane affairs, and thus failed to contribute to the political community any of his revolutionary vision - or that is how proponents of Michelangelo see it.

The society of intellectuals may never find a correct answer to the choices made by Leonardo and Michelangelo. But the fetish over Ahn, even after his decision not to run in the Seoul mayoral by-election in spite of seemingly terrific public support, underscores the fact that there are many in our society who long for a Michelangelo-type participatory role.

Professors joining politics have always been controversial in our society because, ideally, an intellectual should remain purely in the realm of knowledge. We have witnessed countless disgraceful political experiments by formerly respected university deans and professors. Our society expects professors to keep their eyes on the books and their students. Professors rarely enter politics with the wholehearted blessings of the public.

Considering that, Ahn’s case has been extraordinary. Ahn, a software pioneer and mentor to youth, left his teaching job at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology to become dean of the Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology three months ago. Prior to recently, he kept his distance from politics. He earned a reputation for open-mindedness, commitment and credibility. The youth dotes on him as a role model. He is still new to the job at Seoul National University, and from the standpoint of the university and his colleagues, the frenzy over his interest in running in the upcoming Seoul mayoral race was incomprehensible.

The phenomenon Ahn has become over the last several days has been even more upsetting to the academic community than to politicians. Many intellectuals may envy Ahn’s stardom. In today’s Internet-connected information world, the walls between academia and politics may be meaningless. Academic celebrities are often cast on TV shows, helping to combine wisdom with entertainment.

Ahn, despite polls showing approval ratings of 50 percent, bowed out of the race and gave his support to the relatively less popular civic activist Park Won-soon to return to his work at the university. Whether he means well or not, he has people worried. His future path will be incessantly questioned. A professor in a science and technology department worried that the Ahn’s political conversion could accelerate the exodus of engineering and science students in pursuit of more lucrative areas like business management, law and medicine. That concern maybe premature, of course.

Greek mythology compares life to a festival. Guests to the festival widely vary. Some come with motives, while some have a simple wish to enjoy the event. It’s entirely up to the professor how he intends to enjoy our political festival. But whatever choice he makes could shape the lives and sensibilities of many young people. Intellectuals cannot defend their integrity without keeping a distance from real politics.

One can influence policy direction with insight and knowledge even as a mere onlooker and outsider. Political interest and criticism by the intelligentsia should not go beyond the intellectual curiosity of Leonardo da Vinci. If Ahn harbors bigger ambitions, as many in the media speculate, it would be best for him to leave campus right now.

*Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.
The writer is a professor of political science at Seoul National University.

By Chang Dal-joong
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