February 20, 2014
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof lit up Twitter and prompted some thoughtful blog posts here when he wrote “Professors: We Need You!”, urging scholars to stop writing such obscure and tedious stuff for each other and become public intellectuals. I am partly sympathetic to his message. There are a lot of ways public policy could be better informed by the research conducted in our universities, and I’m rather boringly fixated on open access to knowledge as a way of sharing knowledge outside our gated communities.
But it seemed a little silly for a writer in his coveted position with “the newspaper of record” to scold academics for not forcing their way onto the same or a similar platform. He thinks the problem is that professors write badly, don’t ask meaningful questions, are too liberal, and haven't taken the time to do more TED talks. He seems unaware that many academics share their ideas with the public in a wide variety of venues, including mainstream publications like the Times.
He also doesn’t appear to know that punditry is not an option for the majority of faculty who are contingent, earning near-poverty wages. Nor does he give them credit for already being quite busy helping people who need them – students who are struggling to complete courses while supporting families, hoping to avoid taking on too much debt, knowing that jobs that pay more than their struggling professors’ will be hard to come by in this unequal economy, but who are trying anyway. Are those students part of the “we” Kristof refers to?
As a librarian who wants to help students understand themselves as part of the social fabric of knowledge through acquiring some basic inquiry skills, practicing curiosity, and gaining a sense of agency in both assessing information and creating it, I am both attracted to and troubled by Kristof’s idea of what a public intellectual is. Yes, it would be a good thing if scholarship were more respected as useful knowledge and if scholars were rewarded for making their work accessible (in every sense of the word) outside the academy. Yet it seems he wants professors to leave the ivory tower so that they can stand on a media pedestal to lecture the masses and influence power-brokers. The public intellectual he envisions is a celebrity, someone who can command respect while reducing complex ideas into attractive Gladwell-style sound bites. Someone who is listened to, who makes a difference to the huddled masses who rely on recognized experts.
Most of us meanwhile are doing what we can to help students be ready to take their place as public intellectuals - that is, as citizens who can use their voices and their brains to make the world a better place. Many of them will never have the chance to express themselves on the media channels that Kristof pays attention to, but that doesn't mean they are voiceless or that what they have to say won't make a difference.
If we do our job right, they will know how to find good information and will know what to do with it. They won't need to wait for public intellectuals to take to their pedestals to fix the world for them. They'll be working on it themselves.
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