It is a common refrain: academics need to get out of their ivory towers and start engaging with the general public. It can come from a place of sympathy, worrying that valuable ideas are not reaching the public, or it can come from a place of dismissiveness, implying that academic debates need to change radically to become relevant to the broader populace. But in either case, the hidden premise is that academics must propagate their work to the largest possible audience and that they are obviously failing to do so.
When I come across such sentiments, I have a variety of reactions. The first is irritation, because we live in an unprecedented golden age of public engagement by academics. Never before in human history have there been so many blogs, web repositories, periodicals and book series dedicated to bringing academic concepts and debates to a broad, educated audience. More than that, individual academics have never been so accessible for dialogue, thanks to social media. Anyone who thinks that academics are not engaging with the public is falling victim to a common pitfall of the internet age: the assumption that if something has not presented itself to you with no effort or research on your part, then it must not exist.
More than that, these claims ignore the fact that -- as Carrie Shanafelt, assistant professor of English at Fairleigh Dickinson University, has pointed out many times on Facebook -- academics are engaging with a diverse cross-section of the public every single day via teaching. College campuses may not be fully representative of America as a whole, but the population of the average public university is much more representative than, say, the audience for Fox News, CNN or The New Yorker. And, again, literally never before in human history have there been as many university students as there are today -- meaning that academics are reaching an unprecedentedly large swath of the general public, often at a particularly formative moment of their intellectual development.
Claiming that academics are failing to engage with the general public is intellectual laziness at best and anti-intellectual posturing at worst. And that brings me to my second reaction, which is to ask exactly which public we are supposed to engage with. Is it the public that is not willing to run a simple Google search before declaring that public-facing academic work does not exist? Is it the public that so devalues the work of teaching that it doesn’t even occur to them to think of it as a form of public engagement? Or do they have in mind the public that tolerates ever-shrinking public support for higher education and turns a blind eye to the destruction of the profession through adjunctification?
And what public sphere do they want us to appear in? Do they want us to appear on cable talk shows? There are television journalists, such MSNBC host Chris Hayes, who do good, intellectually rigorous work. But most of the time academic experts who appear on TV are constantly badgered and interrupted, when they aren’t being flatly contradicted by completely unqualified pundits who value their partisan agenda over the truth. Despite those obstacles, academics do continue to appear on such shows, and some academics have become minor media celebrities -- a fact that is completely ignored by those who mourn the lack of academic engagement with the public.
Would they like us to write for mainstream media? Here again, we already do, in huge numbers. Academics write regular columns for prestigious publications across the ideological spectrum, and many more write occasional op-ed and feature articles -- despite the dismissive, uncomprehending or hostile responses we often receive.
Or are they picturing an engagement with the right-wing media? There the situation is even worse, as they are continually on the lookout for superficially offensive sound bites. Without any concern for context or tone, right-wing publications direct their readers on campaigns of systematic harassment, ultimately aimed at getting the hapless victim fired -- often for remarks that are ironic or intentionally hyperbolic. They are happy to leap to the defense of free speech when progressive students protest against a conservative speaker, but they are even more eager to subject people to public humiliation and threaten their livelihood for saying the wrong thing.
A Genuine Exchange?
In short, why should academics engage the general public? I know that in asking this question, I am courting charges of academic blasphemy. Among the sacred cows of the contemporary university, public engagement is right up there with the holy trinity of excellence, leadership and diversity. One thing that makes such values unquestionable, of course, is that they are positive yet vague. No one would argue that leadership is unimportant, and that automatic consensus masks the fact that the most crucial questions -- about the meaning of leadership, the motivations behind it, the direction we need to be led and so on -- have been passed over in silence.
Similarly, in our rush to affirm the sacred value of public engagement, we seldom stop to reflect on what such a thing would actually mean. Above all, any public engagement worthy of the name would have to be a two-way street. If academics are to engage with the public, then the public must be willing to engage with academics. I am not asking that the public blindly accept our intellectual authority but that they should be open-minded and minimally receptive. That is the condition for any conversation worthy of the name, and it is a condition that is sorely lacking in our contemporary environment.
A genuine exchange between academics and the broader public would require people to let down their guard and be willing to do a little work. As it stands, academics, especially in the humanities, often face the demand to justify the value of their field of study -- and I always want to ask, “Really! You don’t understand why it’s valuable to study literature or history or ask big questions?” The very fact that the question is even being posed means that the exchange is doomed in advance. It would be much more productive if nonacademics recognized that academics are human beings and that if a fellow human being is willing to devote their life to studying a topic, there must be something interesting about it.
Similarly, academics are often castigated for using jargon or complex prose. And I will admit that not all academics are gifted prose stylists. Yet sometimes expressing a new idea requires us to find a new word, and expressing a complicated idea may require more nuance than the Associated Press style guide permits. Demanding absolute clarity and simplicity amounts to demanding never to encounter anything new or difficult. Why not give academic writing -- which is, again, produced by human beings -- at least some benefit of the doubt?
Sadly, these simple, humane recommendations for genuine dialogue seem impossibly utopian in contemporary America. But until academics can expect such a reception, they will not have a public to engage with. Thus, if politicians and journalists really want public engagement with academics, they need to stop parodying and persecuting academics and should instead cultivate the kind of respect and receptivity that would make it possible.