Recently, the value of academic research, especially in the humanities and social sciences, has been questioned. The current majority party in the House of Representatives has proposed cutting science funding for social science research and eliminating all funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof accused faculty of engaging in specialized research disconnected from the interests of the reading public and policymakers, resulting in a broad conversation about whether or not faculty engage in the public sphere.
There is no doubt that academics have a responsibility to engage public debates. In many ways, the university is the critical conscience of a democratic society. It houses experts in various spheres of life who must use their knowledge to enhance the public’s understanding of vital issues. Academic freedom ensures that scholars use their knowledge to inform questions of public importance.
Yet academic research’s value cannot and should not be measured, as some seem to suggest, simply by how many readers a journal article or academic monograph reaches. The purpose of academic scholarship is to engage in disciplinary inquiry — to further scholarly conversations. Such work will never be accessible to the general public since it, by definition, works at the boundaries of knowledge and takes a certain amount of prior knowledge and expertise for granted.
This is not something new. It was recognized by the ancient Roman statesman Cicero in his work The Ideal Orator. Cicero distinguished between oratory, in which one speaks to and with the public, and philosophical inquiry, in which one seeks truth.
Because orators wish to speak to the public, “the procedures of oratory lie within everyone’s reach, and are concerned with everyday experience and with human nature and speech.” That is simply not possible when engaged in scholarly inquiry, however, since scholarship “draws as a rule upon abstruse and hidden sources.” To Cicero, this meant that in inquiry, “the highest achievement is precisely that which is most remote from what the uninitiated can understand and perceive, whereas in oratory it is the worst possible fault to deviate from the ordinary mode of speaking and the generally accepted way of looking at things.”
Because academic research is specialized and takes place on the boundaries of what is known, it requires a community of experts. Disciplines form the communities of inquiry that enable academic research to take place. These communities require a critical mass of scholars to evaluate new work and to develop new knowledge.
As a result, even academics cannot read the work of all academics. As a historian, for example, I rarely read and cannot truly understand publications in academic medical journals, nor journals in chemistry or physics or other fields in which I lack the necessary specialized knowledge and engagement with the academic literature. I never doubt the value of these journals, however, for encouraging new ideas and practices in medicine, or chemistry, or physics. Whether in the natural and physical sciences or the humanities and social sciences, most academic work is by definition inaccessible to the uninitiated.
This is not a bad thing. In the discipline of history, for example, I would worry if the primary criterion for the importance of a piece of academic scholarship were the number of nonacademic readers. As Paula A. Michaels recently put it, if academic history relied primarily on popular readers, most history (and the history of most people) would never get written.
Again, this is true not just for the humanities or social sciences, as is often implied in public conversations about academic research. Public funding for basic research in the sciences is vital to promote the public good, but scientific research is increasingly being privatized, subject to commercial interests and philanthropists.
Basic research in all fields is vital for innovation. The value of a particular piece of scholarship — whether measured in the number of readers, the impact on knowledge, or new products — cannot be known a priori. Every academic researcher is an entrepreneur, every book or article a startup.
Most small businesses fail, but that does not lead Americans to question the value of entrepreneurship. They should have the same attitude for scholarship: most articles may not have a dramatic impact on the field or the public, but we cannot know which ones will. That’s why we need to encourage startups and encourage creativity throughout the academy, just as we do in the economy.
The measure of success also has to be related to the “markets” that academic research serves. In the case of medical research, it is fair to ask whether academic research produces new knowledge that improves medical outcomes.
In the case of such fields as history, then, we must ask whether academic research informs history’s practitioners. The primary places where history is practiced, of course, is in schools. We must ask whether the curriculum offered in history courses at all levels — from elementary school to graduate school — is shaped by scholarship. Similarly, we should ask whether museums and historical societies offer interpretations influenced by academic research? If so, the case is made: historical outcomes have been improved, just as good medical research improves medicine’s outcomes.
What is true for doctors and historians and other academics is also true for ministers. Few churchgoers read specialized theological journals, but the theological questions explored in these journals affect how ministers engage in their daily work and the ideas that they use to inform that work. No one would doubt that ministers, like doctors, need to have a sophisticated understanding of their theology, even if much of it may be inaccessible to the broader religious public.
None of this is to suggest that academics do not have a responsibility to reach out to the public. Fortunately, we have gifted writers within and beyond the academy to do this. First, as Ezra Klein pointed out, journalists mediate between the academic world and readers. Of equal importance, as Klein noted, over the past few decades, academic publishers have locked up research behind expensive paywalls that serve the interests of publishing companies rather than the public. Published research must and should be made available to all who seek it.
There are also academics who translate academic knowledge for the reading public. They do so through blogs, op-eds, magazine articles, and media appearances, but also through books. Almost every discipline can name many scholars whose books have reached a wide audience. These scholars represent what Cicero referred to as “the ideal orator,” capable of uniting, in Cicero’s words, “wisdom and eloquence.”
Moreover, as teachers, almost all faculty members must strive to be ideal orators, combining wisdom with effective teaching in order to reach out to students in ways that help students make the connection between academic inquiry and broader public and personal questions.
In sum, academic research’s value cannot be measured by simple metrics about the number of readers. We must accept that the very nature of scholarship, whether in the humanities or the sciences, whether in medicine or religion, requires an expert, and therefore a limited, community of inquiry. Most academic work will always remain inaccessible to outsiders.
All faculty members have the responsibility of being ideal orators in the classroom, but the very nature of scholarly inquiry means that most cannot and should not seek to do so in their published research. We must celebrate those scholars who can and wish to combine wisdom with eloquence, however, for they ensure that academic conversations will enter the public sphere. At the same time we must always remember that the only reason ideal orators — whether in the classroom or the public sphere — have something worth sharing beyond the academy is because of the specialized research taking place within the academy.
A more sophisticated understanding of the value of academic research, and especially basic research in all fields, would help us recognize not only the contribution scholarship makes to the public good but also how it does so.
Mary-Faith Cerasoli, a New-York area adjunct professor of Spanish and Italian, visited the hospital Wednesday after a five-day hunger strike outside of Nassau Community College. Cerasoli, who taught at Nassau this year, said she was protesting unfair working conditions for adjunct faculty there, including a recent proposal – never voted on – by the Board of Trustees to fire those adjuncts who went on strike in September over union contract negotiations. Cerasoli also says she wants New York Governor Andrew Cuomo to respond to her call to help improve working conditions for adjuncts. Declared healthy by a doctor, she is continuing her strike.
“Institutions of higher education provide working conditions that starve many contingent faculty of their livelihoods,” Cerasoli said in a statement, “so I felt a hunger strike was exactly the right way to highlight the problem, particularly at Nassau, a college that just recently retaliated against adjunct faculty who took a stand against exploitation by striking earlier this year.”
In March, Cerasoli gained national media attention when she protested outside New York State’s Department of Education wearing a vest saying “Homeless Prof.” Racked with student loan debt, she does not have a home and at times lives out of her car. Cerasoli said she has appealed to Cuomo to help adjuncts, but she has not heard back.
Cerasoli’s supporters have taken to Twitter under #hungryhomelessprof. The hashtag is similar to one that was created last year memorializing Margaret Mary Vojtko, an elderly adjunct professor of French who died alone and homeless after working for many years at Duquesne University. A Facebook page dedicated to the strike encourages adjunct supporters to show solidarity with Cerasoli by skipping a meal and by other means.
Cerasoli, who has a thyroid condition, is drinking only water and sleeping in her car during the strike.
Nassau Community College officials did not respond to a request for comment. Cuomo's press office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Charles Loiacono, president of the Nassau Community College’s Adjunct Faculty Association, an independent union, said Cerasoli’s “plight is a disgrace to academe. She is a victim of the shameful treatment adjuncts receive throughout the system.”
Adjunct professors at Mills College voted to form a union affiliated with the Service Employees International Union, they announced Wednesday. Adjuncts make up 64 percent of the faculty at Mills, the union says, and 78 percent of voters approved of the union bid. "Forming a union will give adjuncts at Mills the ability to advocate for students, education and ourselves," David Buuck, adjunct professor of English, said in a statement. "We will all benefit from a supported and empowered faculty at all levels, and Mills will be able to maintain its standards of academic excellence as well as live up to its social justice mission."
Mills adjuncts are the first in the San Francisco region to vote to affiliate with SEIU, but the union is organizing on other campuses in that city, and in metro areas across the country, as part of its Adjunct Action campaign. A vote count for adjuncts at San Francisco Art Institute is planned for later in the month.
A spokeswoman for Mills did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
In 1869, Charles W. Eliot, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “The New Education.” He began with a question on the mind of many American parents: “What can I do with my boy?” Parents who were able to afford the best available training and did not think their sons suited for the ministry of a learned profession, Eliot indicated, sought a practical education, suitable for business “or any other active calling”; they did not believe that the traditional course of study adopted by colleges and universities 50 years earlier was now relevant. Less than a year later, Eliot became president of Harvard. Among the reforms he initiated were an expansion of the undergraduate curriculum and substantial improvement in the quality and methods of instruction in the law school and the medical school.
The debate between advocates of traditional liberal learning and partisans of a more “useful” education, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, reminds us, has deep roots in American soil. In Beyond the University, (Yale University Press) he provides an elegant and informative survey of the work of important thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B DuBois, Jane Addams, William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, who, despite significant differences, embraced liberal education because it “fit so well with the pragmatic ethos that linked inquiry, innovation, and self-discovery.” At a time in which liberal learning is under assault, Roth draws on the authority of these heavyweights to argue that “it is more crucial than ever that we not abandon the humanistic frameworks of education in favor of narrow, technical forms of teaching intended to give quick, utilitarian results."
Most of Beyond the University is devoted to claims by iconic intellectuals about the practical virtues of liberal learning, which Roth endorses (with occasional qualifications). Exhibiting a “capacious and open-ended” understanding of educational “usefulness,” Roth indicates, Thomas Jefferson opted for free inquiry at his university in Charlottesville, Va., to equip citizens in the new republic to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions. Ralph Waldo Emerson resisted education as mere job training; but, he indicated, it should impart knowledge to develop individuals willing and able to use what we now call “critical thinking” to challenge the status quo.
Acknowledging that different people need different kinds of educational opportunities, W.E.B. DuBois nonetheless insisted that the final product of training “must be neither a psychologist nor a brick mason, but a man.” Liberal learning, Jane Addams emphasized, inculcates “affectionate interpretation,” which prepares individuals not only to defend themselves against those with different points of view, but to empathize with others and act in concert with them. And John Dewey, the most influential philosopher of education in the 20 century, looked to a liberal education, according to Roth, to help students learn the lessons of experiment and experience, by trying things out and assessing the results, by themselves and with others, and, then, if appropriate, revising their behavior.
Roth’s approach – a reliance on the authority of seminal thinkers – is not without problems. As he knows, the nature of higher education – and its perceived roles and responsibilities – has changed dramatically since colleges focused on liberal learning. In 1910, only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; few of them went on to college. These days, about 40 percent of young men and women get a postsecondary degree. Undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees, moreover, are now required, far more than were in the days of Emerson and Eliot, for entry into the most prestigious, and high-paying, professions. Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, is surely right when he asserts that “to deny that job skills development is one of the key purposes of higher education is increasingly untenable” – and that integration of specific skills into the curriculum can help graduates get work and perform their assigned tasks well.
Roth does not specify how liberal learning might “pull different skills together in project-oriented classes.” Nor does he adequately address “the new sort of criticism” directed at liberal learning. A liberal arts education, many critics now claim, does not really prepare students to love virtue, be good citizens, or recognize competence in any field. As Roth acknowledges, general education, distribution requirements, and free electives are not effective antidotes to specialization; they have failed to help establish common academic goals for students. And, perhaps most disturbingly, doubt has now been cast on the proposition that the liberal arts are the best, and perhaps the only, pathway to “critical thinking” (the disciplined practice of analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and evaluating information).
President Roth may well be right that liberal learning “will continue to be a fundamental part of higher education” if (and, he implies, only if) it rebalances critical thinking and practical exploration. The key question, it seems to me, is how to rebalance, while preserving the essence of liberal learning, at a time in which higher education in general and, most especially, the humanities are under a sustained attack by cost-conscious advocates of an increasingly narrow vocationalism, who are certain to be unpersuaded by the testimony of long-dead intellectuals. The task, moreover, is all the more daunting, moreover, because it will have to be carried out by proponents and practitioners of the liberal arts, many of whom, unlike Michael Roth, are now in despair, in denial, or have lost faith.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
The South Carolina Senate, after lengthy debate, has voted to punish two public colleges that taught gay-themed books last year, but not to cut their budgets by sums equal to spending on the programs that taught the books, as the House of Representatives has proposed. The Post and Courier reported that the Senate bill would instead require that the two colleges -- the College of Charleston and the University of South Carolina Upstate -- take funds equal to those spent on the books with gay themes and use that money to teach the U.S. Constitution and various works that relate to the founding of the United States. The House and Senate measures are both parts of budget bills on which differences will now need to be resolved.
Democrats have criticized both the House and Senate approaches as inappropriate political meddling into what colleges teach. Republicans have blasted the books as "pornography."
The University of South Carolina Upstate in April called off a scheduled comic performance about lesbian life -- amid intense legislative criticism of a public university holding such an event (which was part of a larger program on gay and lesbian studies). Now comes word, first reported in Charleston City Paper, that the Center for Women's and Gender Studies, which organized the program, is going to be eliminated. Many supporters of the center see this as punishment for having organized gay and lesbian studies programming, or an attempt to win back legislative support. Gender studies scholars are organizing a petition drive to reverse the decision. The university says that the cuts are part of an ongoing effort to save money, and have no relationship to the recent controversy. Chancellor Tom Moore, in a statement, did acknowledge that the closure was "particularly hard given the importance of their programming and the unfortunate timing of this announcement."
Last fall, the author of The Exorcist contacted the Vatican, alleging that Georgetown University – his alma mater and the backdrop for his book and subsequent film of the same name – wasn’t Roman Catholic enough. And it appears his prayers have been answered, the National Catholic Register and Washington Post reported. Archbishop Angelo Zani, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic education, reportedly wrote to William Peter Blatty that his canonical petition against the university constituted “a well-founded complaint.” Zani also reportedly wrote that “Our Congregation is taking the issue seriously, and is cooperating with the Society of Jesus in this regard.”
Blatty collected 2,000 names on his petition, which asked the Vatican to “require that Georgetown implement Ex corde Ecclesiae, a papal constitution governing Catholic colleges.” If that failed, the petition said, the Vatican should strip Georgetown of its right to call itself Catholic or Jesuit. Blatty criticized the university for once inviting Kathleen Sebelius, former Health and Human Services Secretary and a supporter of abortion rights, to speak on campus, and said neither Georgetown’s faculty nor its students were exemplary of the faith.
Via email, Rachel Pugh, Georgetown spokeswoman, said that the university has received no formal correspondence from the Vatican regarding the petition, and that Georgetown's Catholic identity "has never been stronger."
Syracuse University is planning to fire a tenured professor over an affair with a student whom he taught. A memo to faculty members from Chancellor Kent Syverud did not name the faculty member, but described the situation this way: "When completed, the process, as stipulated by the university’s faculty manual, could result in the faculty member’s termination and revocation of tenure. If this were to occur, I believe it would be the first time in decades a tenured professor here has been terminated through this process. Last year, the university brought forth charges based on this faculty member’s alleged violation of the consensual relationships provision of the Policy on Inappropriate Conduct by Faculty Members and the University Code of Ethical Conduct. Specifically, this faculty member allegedly engaged in a consensual romantic relationship with an undergraduate student whom the faculty member taught during the relationship. I just want you to know we are following the established procedure to address this matter. The final step in the process is currently underway and I will update you upon its conclusion."