I was quite stuck by Nicholas Kristof's Feb 15, 2014 article in the New York Times, "Professors, We Need You!" Then again, "struck" is not quite the right word. Perhaps "flabbergasted" or "stupefied" is better suited. Lest I be accused of writing "goggledygook" with "turgid prose" that would turn the Huffington Post into a "soporific" medium, let's just stick with "struck." I wouldn't want this to turn "academic." But alas, I am an academic. And we actually have a better view of this crisis than the Mr. Kristof's of the world, because -- not to be boring -- but, we have facts.
Much of what Mr. Kristof wrote is somewhat accurate. I don't take issue with his every criticism of the ivory tower. The politics of "publish or perish," the increasing specialization of disciplines, and the elite culture of exclusivity all are hallmarks of academe that are unfortunate to some and badges of honor to others. But such a view is not completely accurate in that these problems are not the consequence of the professoriate's supposed Monkish cloistering. As Corey Robin wrote:
"It's the very material pressures and constraints young academics face, long before tenure. It's the job market. It's the rise of adjuncts. It's neoliberalism."
That is, the issues of exclusivity and incessant publishing are consequences of economic, social and cultural shifts in education, not solely the choices of professors. But rather than debate over whether Kristof wants to engage in a finger-pointing, blame-game against professors or if he simply misses the material conditions of social change to which all of us -- professors included -- are subject, I'd like to take on some of his premises that did strike me as blatantly wrong-headed.
Before I begin in earnest, I would be remiss if I didn't acknowledge many of the other replies to Kristof's manifesto. For example, Erik Voeten at The Monkey Cage of the Washington Post, deconstructed his essay quite well. And so, I don't want to rehash what most other replies have done -- a kind of "Look at me!" cry that professors have been here all along (although I admit there is some of that here).
The path for professors' public intellectual engagement lies on the road beneath our own feet, but we don't all have walking shoes. Kristof wrote:
"Yet it's not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves."
Despite our PhDs, many professors just don't have that much access to a media perch. It's easy for Kristof to say we're not engaged in the media when Kristof himself is a good portion of New York Times discourse. Imagine the converse. Think of the accusations of elitism if professors berated journalists for not publishing enough academic, peer-reviewed, quality science. Even if they wanted to and had the acumen (which many do), they simply can't. They don't have the keys to the ivory tower. And we don't have our names on the title to the fourth estate.
Many of us struggle tooth and nail to inject our analysis into the public sphere. And in many cases, breaking into mainstream media is harder than publishing an academic, peer-reviewed, article. Take for example, the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal for Sociology. It received 764 unsolicited manuscripts in 2012 and published only five percent. The New York Times receives approximately 1,200 unsolicited Op-Ed submissions every week (that's 62,400 a year). If we assume the Times publishes -- let's be generous -- four a day (1,460 a year), then that's a 0.02 percent acceptance rate. Is Kristof's contention that academics are simply not trying hard enough to place their work in mainstream outlets like the Times? Perhaps there's a bit of structure mitigating our agency -- but that might be too "academic" a point. Maybe if Kristof is sincere in bemoaning the lack of "public intellectuals" then he could devote some time and space in his columns to academics who study the very subject matter he waxes on about so cavalierly?
Second, there has never been one moment where I have been explicitly told, or implicitly directed, to exclude my scholarly input from the public sphere. And I have never witnessed a colleague befall that fate either. Rather, I, and my colleagues in my university, receive regular messages from department chairs, deans, and an array of other administrators, who together admonish us to circulate and publicize our research findings. No penalties involved. Rather, kudos are often lumped on those academics that crack into mainstream media and hold the public's attention for their 15 minutes of academic fame.
And so we seem stuck between the snails' pace of knowledge production and the necessity for intellectually-informed public discourse. On the one hand are pleas for the professoriate to condense their fleeting conjecture and untested hypotheses into 140 character tweets so as to engage the public sphere. If they refuse to oblige, they are labeled "insular" and "elitist." On the other hand, some imagine a present-day dystopia -- as does Richard Posner in Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. He writes with disgust at:
"... a proliferation of modern academics commenting on topics outside their ken."
His solution? Abandon the professoriate and return to an earlier time when:
"... public intellectuals, largely nonacademics whose erudition and breadth of knowledge were well suited to public discourse."
Ah, the good old days when well-read white men without appropriate training told us how it is and how it should be!
The production of slow knowledge now clashes with both the mercurial pace of social media and philistine pleas for a romanticized return to simpler times. Yet, many navigate this Scylla and Charybdis with aplomb, from Larry Bobo's trenchant analyses of race at The Root to Yani Applebaum's historical investigations in The Atlantic to the cadre of talented professors that pixelate The Society Pages -- as well as thousands of other academics who, everyday, plug away with just a blog and a dream.
Mr. Kristof also suggested that academe neglects "political diversity." He cites my own field of Sociology as a discipline:
"... so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right."
Does he honestly believe that the solution is to interject conservative Sociologists into these departments? Will the presence of GOP Sociologists engender a trickle-down effect of relevant research into the public sphere or will they magically make Sociology somehow more attractive to their own political party that demonstrates an anti-intellectual hostility to social science, regardless of the political leanings of its producers. I doubt it (Sorry, David Brooks). In that vein, I'm far from sold that the:
"significant Republican presence [in Economics] ... helps tether economic debates to real-world debates..."
And I'm even less sold on the supposedly liberal tendencies of Sociology that Kristof assumed.
Take racial politics, for example. While liberal Sociologists are supposedly playing the "race card" at every turn and are purportedly the admission committee protectors of Affirmative Action, the pipeline to the Sociology professoriate quickly turns from Black to White. I don't want to be "soporific," but let's examine the data.
Ten years ago, the American Sociological Association released a report that showed that for every one African-American recipient of a Sociology bachelor's degree, there were four white recipients. That's a relatively high degree of Sociology bachelor's degrees won by African-Americans -- and it's higher than in the other behavioral and social science fields. But... by the time Sociology students obtain their doctorates, there is an 85 percent loss of African-American master's graduates compared to a 51 percent loss of white master's graduates. And African-American faculty members make up only 7 percent of the membership of the American Sociological Association. So while the discipline of Sociology is often framed as a bastion of antiracist, socialist and multicultural advocates, who don their Che Guevara T-shirts underneath tweed jackets while tearing down the traditions of the status quo between office hours, faculty meetings and ethnographic data gathering, I sure haven't witnessed this Marxist utopia.
But Mr. Kristof is not alone in writing in "sorrow." I once mistook his column for one that would not cherry-pick points in order to write reactionary manifestos about the sky falling in academe.; yet I find solace in the fact that it's not too late (After all, I don't think he's advocating Malcolm Gladwell-esque "science" just yet). Rather, he could enroll in a graduate program and embark on the academic career he supposedly admires. And once appropriately draped in the pomp and circumstance of academe, he might have the training and patience to accurately access the relationship between the professoriate and the public sphere -- it might be a bit more complex and difficult than he thinks. Or we could just debate this more while casting some "pearls" over Twitter or Facebook. That might be easier.
Follow Matthew W. Hughey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ProfHughey