Mary S
Politics vs. Academics: Case Study, Greece

By Mary Shiraef

Don’t worry, I do more than go to islands here in Greece. I promise I actually learn stuff, for those of you who wonder. (I know who you are.) I am consistently presented with a variety of phenomena that simply must be analyzed. I get to practice my critical thinking skills all the time. Unfortunately, there is much more to think about than there is time to put into words. Every once in a while, especially when I have a paper due the next day, I find the time. See below.


I attended a lecture in Athens late last year on the present economic crisis in Greece, at which I asked the speaker a question about corruption and its relation to the present crisis. He was a Greek politician, who happened to have been a minister of economics during the onset of the crisis. I asked what his response is to those who say Greece should not be bailed out because of the corruption of finances that arguably contributed greatly to the present crisis. How can we be assured that the same scenario won’t happen twice? It was a legitimate question considering the topic of discussion, but was not met with an adequate answer. Essentially, he provided a defensive response by saying there is less corruption among his colleagues than there is incompetence. He said they are mostly “family men” whose purpose is not to exploit the system and make money. They are simply not well-educated. I felt that he avoided my question. Whether its corruption or incompetence, and he certainly did not make a good case against corruption, the important thing is what will be different this time around?

I asked the same question at a talk I attended last night, this time a lecture from a Greek academic. Dr. Thanos Skauros is an Emeritus Professor of Economics and Business at the University of Athens. After he argued for a stronger central bank in Europe and increased lending opportunities from central banks in to nations in need, like Greece or Italy, I asked my cynical question, respectfully of course. How will pursuing increased venues for Greece to borrow money, when they so mismanaged prior credit opportunities (corruption, overconfidence, etc.) not lead to a repeat scenario? What will be different this time?

First, Dr. Skauros gave a short economics lesson explaining how development cannot happen with borrowing costs as high as they are right now. When there are limited credit opportunities, the price of borrowing is high, and consequently, the amount of business ventures capable of taking place are slim. So, there must be funds in place for a country with any hope of moving forward to borrow and invest in business endeavors.

Secondly, Dr. Skauros was firm in his response that increased funds to Greece will have to be accompanied by increased oversight and regulations of Greece’s finances by EU policies and institutions. (Yes, but doesn’t this infringe on Greece’s national sovereignty!?) The infrastructure of the EU is in need of expanding and deepening to avoid catastrophes such as this. And, further cohesion of the EU (Skauros used the phrase “moving toward a federal Europe”) necessitates lessening of individual state power in some respects in order to strengthen the greater whole of the EU.

I was surprisingly satisfied with his answer.

The point is not whether his perspective is the right one or even if it is better than the politician’s ideas. What was notable about his response is that he provided a thoughtful, substantial, and sufficient/plausible answer, while the politician provided a wholly inadequate response to the same question.

Overly Simplistic Recap:

Question: What can be done regarding corruption in Greece?

Politician’s Reply: They aren’t corrupt; they are ill-educated. We just need smarter politicians.

Professor’s Reply: This is admittedly a problem, and here are the steps to combat it.

It seems as though the politician’s insufficient answer further confirmed his point that politicians in Greece and perhaps in general seem to be lacking in the cognitive department.

Why is it that the thinkers in this world go to academia or business or medicine and very rarely to politics?
Although my comparison between a Greek politician and a Greek academic is admittedly a small and insufficient case study, it is representative of an unfortunate truth. Those who are inclined toward intellectual pursuits and the development of the mind are less inclined to politics. I can see this by a general comparison of the interactions I had with politicians in DC and the experiences I have had in my academics. Politicians are quick to speak, and slow to listen; while the academics I have interacted with have provided me with some of the most enriching, well thought-out, and meaningful conversations I have ever experienced in my life. It just seems as though those who learn to reason well enough, will not be so dumb as to give their life over to the hellish, ambitious, money-oriented world politics. I am not the only one who has observed this; it has been noted since times of antiquity.

“And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of the true philosopher. Do you know of any other?
Indeed, I do not, he said.”

-Dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon in Plato’s Republic, Book VII

Plato says that those who seek and find truth (aka philosophers) “are not obliged to share in the toils of politics.” His reasoning is that those who find truth do so outside of the context of the state and its idea of education; therefore, these philosophers (or developed thinkers for our discussion) have little concern with the affairs of “a culture which they have never received.” Rather, critical thinkers naturally question and critique the state and system of government. Why would those who have found “virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life” have any sort of disposition to the political world, “in which men fight one another about shadows only and are distracted in the struggle for power, which in their eyes is a great good”? Why would anyone want to return to the cave? Plato provides his fantastical solution to this, in which his state will be ruled by his famous “philosopher kings” who will somehow be compelled by their goodness to take a turn at ruling and sharing their enlightenment with the state.

This is hardly a practicable solution to the politician/intellectual dichotomy that survives in the modern world, but not less so than the non-response I attained from the above-mentioned politician in a follow up interview. Since at the time, I was writing a paper on education in Greece, I interviewed him on how he thinks the education system could improve and how the political system in Greece could attract and elect those who are better-educated. I will not bore you with his, again, wholly inadequate responses.

I have rambled for long enough, so I will leave you with a reiteration of my point and a simple word of encouragement. The people inclined to be good thinkers are not those who are inclined to concern themselves with politics. Since the world revolves around politics, this leaves us with a less than optimistic outlook for the future. Those of us who wish to be good thinkers and are willing to actively pursue this wish should keep in mind the importance of politics and perhaps take Plato’s advice. We should exit our blissful states of removal from society from time to time for the good of humanity. How? Vote, write your congressmen, volunteer, keep your integrity and most of all, never stop thinking. 

College Year in Athens student, Mary Shiraef, is a Political Science major at Emory University.  
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