Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates. The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.
These are the opening lines of a New York Times op-ed column titled “Professors, We Need You!” by Nicholas Kristof that the academy has given a Winter Olympics worthy icy reception. Kristof goes on to say that the cause of this seeming irrelevancy is the excessive and ever-increasing specialization in many disciplines–with a concomitant overly arcane and therefore unintelligible style on the part of many academics, which either seems or actually is—disdainful of the ordinary reading public.
Anna Schnitzer, Disability Issues and Outreach Librarian at the Taubman Health Sciences Library shares her reflections on the piece:
When I sat down to read The New York Times as I usually do on a Sunday–leaving the “Week in Review” to read last, as kind of a delayed gratification because it is my favorite section of that newspaper–naturally, I included that particular Nicholas Kristof’s column entitled “Professors, We Need You.” His editorial struck me as quite interesting yet not terribly controversial, because I myself have always observed something of a schism between the university community and the general public—whether because of divergence of interests or vastly different communication styles. For instance, I had noted in his book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, published in 1987, that Russell Jacoby defined public intellectuals as “writers and thinkers who address a general and educated audience.” …”The greatest minds from Galileo to Freud have not been content with private discoveries; they sought, and found, a public.” However, he commented humorously that, even in his day, because of the rise of the research institution after World War II: “Intellectuals who write with vigor and clarity may be as scarce as low rents in New York.” Jacoby wrote an immediate response to Kristof’s piece which can be read here.
The following day, while glancing through several Internet blogs, I noticed that this Kristof editorial had attracted some fairly vehement and oppositional responses. For example, Lee Skallerup Bessette in a blog called College Ready Writing writes in “Public Engagement”:
Nothing like a New York Times Op-Ed piece on a Saturday to get all of Academic Twitter all worked up. This time, Nicholas Kristof accuses academics of being “engaged” enough beyond the Ivory Tower and demands that we “engage” more, for the good of the country and the world.
Another spirited response arrived from Corey Robin in her blog “Look Who Nick Kristof’s Saving Now.” She also includes a dig at those who use Jacoby as a source for attacking academicians:
Jacoby’s aim was to analyze how real changes in the economy and polity were driving intellectuals from the public square—has become little more than a rotten old chestnut that lazy journalists, pundits, and reviewers keep in their back pocket for whenever they’re short of copy. Got nothing to say? Nothing on your mind? Not to worry: here’s a beating-a-dead-horse-piece-that-writes-itself about the jargony academic who writes only for her peers in specialized journals that only a handful of people read.
Robin goes on to refute Kristof’s analysis of our current cultural environment by listing examples of publications in which academics write for the public, including the fact that the mainstream media often pick up and disseminate ideas from academe. She notes that journalists pride themselves on writing very transparently for the general public, since that is precisely their calling. In addition, one can discover through the comments to articles in public outlets that there is a large and devoted audience of non-academics who read the literary products of our current crop of sociologists, philosophers, historians, literary critics, political scientists, and other so-called academic specialists.
I am sure that there will be further debate about this topic, especially since other bloggers will undoubtedly pick up this theme, whether or not they consider it a continuation of “beating a dead horse.”