Sunday, February 16, 2014
The New Public Intellectuals
Nick Kristof, at the New York Times, set off an explosion on Twitter with his piece Sunday about the seeming disappearance of college faculty from larger political discussions. Quoting famous people from Harvard, Princeton, and Harvard again, Kristof concluded that the marginalization of academic voices is a result of hyper-specialization and rampant liberalism.
Russell Jacoby made a much more compelling version of the same argument in the 1980’s, in The Last Intellectuals. For that matter, Christopher Lasch made a more compelling, if somewhat twistier, version of it in the 1960’s with The New Radicalism in America. And of course, I’d be committing malpractice not to mention Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Narratives of decline have a long history in themselves.
That said, it would be a mistake simply to write off Kristof’s critique as merely symptomatic of tunnel vision, whether sociological or historiographical.
It’s true, for example, that in the publish-or-perish world of R1 universities, “peer-reviewed” publications count for more than popular ones do. That’s not a failure of individual nerve, though; it’s a structural constraint. The idea behind the constraint, I think, is that popularization is about settled questions, where peer-reviewed research is about new discovery. Judging one by the standards of the other wouldn’t make sense. The distinction is oversimplified and often murky, but the idea behind it isn’t crazy. In theory, peer review functions as a sort of quality control. Only after something new has passed muster should it be shared with the masses.
But higher education in America goes well beyond research universities. It incorporates liberal arts colleges, master’s level universities, religious colleges, for-profits, HBCU’s, and, of course, community colleges, among others. Engagement with the public looks different at each.
For example, in the community college world, engagement often takes the form of public performance or teaching. Service learning and the scholarship of teaching and learning are at home here. This is where science professors routinely go into public schools to help the next generation of students discover science and its appeal. We’ve had learning communities in which faculty from different disciplines have looked at the literature of homelessness with students who lived in a shelter, and nursing clinicals in which students attended to a patient through her hospice to her death. That’s may not look like the engagement Kristof has in mind, but it’s real, and it matters.
Social media have also enabled the creation of a sort of parallel academic discussion. It’s limited in the way that social media discussions tend to be, but it also brings together people whose institutional orbits otherwise wouldn’t intersect. That’s where the most productive discussions often start, since the blind spots within one community are different from those of another. This is where those of us who work outside the Ivies and flagships get to comment on Nick Kristof, for example.
That proliferation of platforms makes it harder for any single platform to convey prominence. Before the web, the major issue facing prospective writers was scarcity of platforms, and the major challenge was getting past the gatekeepers for those platforms. Now, platforms are everywhere; the major challenge is getting, and keeping, a readership. If you aren’t already famous in some other way, that generally involves staking out a distinctive niche. By definition, a distinctive niche will not reach non-specialists very easily. To a non-specialist, all those niches may look impenetrable or self-absorbed. They may be those things, but mostly, they’re defined by who already cares. Breaking through to general awareness is difficult when the idea of the “general reader” has gone the way of the variety show.
To be fair to Kristof, his use of “engagement” was pretty specific. He wanted to know about scholarship that could inform public policy. And I’m a bit perplexed by that, because potentially useful scholarship is everywhere. The real issue with public policy isn’t a lack of interested players; it’s the increasingly narrow range of acceptable answers. Kristof singles out my former discipline, political science, for critique, noting that it’s much less useful for policymakers than it once tried to be. He’s right, to some degree, and I won’t argue with anyone who suggests that most of the APSR is unreadable. But it’s disingenuous at best to attack a field for being simultaneously “removed” and “left-leaning.” It can be one or the other, but not both. If you rule out any scholarship that doesn’t conform to what’s politically acceptable among existing elites, I’m not sure why you need scholarship at all.
The great value of the alternative public sphere that the web has opened, I think, is in bringing deep, detailed discussion of specifics to audiences that normally would have missed them. The kind of broad, sweeping pronouncements that Public Intellectuals offer tend to do violence to facts on the ground, even if unintentionally. When no alternative voices could be heard, that damage was hard to stop. Now, anyone who makes grand sweeping pronouncements on the internet learns abruptly what got left out, assumed, or glossed over. Commenters make it known, often quickly. The best online communities offer that kind of feedback in the spirit of moving to a more inclusive vision.
On my better days, I like to believe that a new model of the engaged academic is emerging. It’s less about proclaiming from on high, and more about gathering facts on the ground to move forward inclusively. Those folks have always existed, but now they can connect with each other, and with non-specialists, too. It’s a humbler mission than the one whose passing Kristof laments, but that’s probably healthy. It comes closer to the idea of bearing witness, but with a goal of bringing a better vision into reality. This could be the community college professor who discovers new ways to help high-risk students succeed at algebra, or the academic blogger who nudges the discourse towards more sustainable institutional models. It’s probably not so much the ivy league professor who declares The End Of this or that.
In that spirit, then, my advice to Kristof is to think again about what academia is, and what the goal of public thought is. Academia is more than research universities. And public thought can be far more inclusive, tentative, and humanistic than our current politics will allow. If you want details, pick up the phone. The Ivy League has no monopoly on phones.