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Kristof: Scholars missing from the public square

  • This artwork by Nancy Ohanian relates to the complexity of fixing American education.

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.

One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Barack Obama as "a snob" for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it's not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.

"All the disciplines have become more and more specialized and more and more quantitative, making them less and less accessible to the general public," notes Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former dean of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton and now the president of the New America Foundation.

There are plenty of exceptions, of course, including in economics, history and some sciences, in professional schools like law and business, and, above all, in schools of public policy; for that matter, we have a law professor in the White House. But, overall, there are, I think, fewer public intellectuals on U.S. university campuses today than a generation ago.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

"Many academics frown on public pontificating as a frivolous distraction from real research," said Will McCants, a Middle East specialist at the Brookings Institution. "This attitude affects tenure decisions. If the sine qua non for academic success is peer-reviewed publications, then academics who &‘waste their time' writing for the masses will be penalized."

The latest attempt by academia to wall itself off from the world came when the executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs. The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for the New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: "a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose."


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