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The Scholar's Obligations

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When the fallout from Nicholas Kristof's recent New York Times column "Professors, We Need You" hit the proverbial fan, I told myself to steer clear of rapid reaction. To paraphrase the great French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss at the beginning of his most widely read book, Tristes Tropiques, I hate shallow journalism and thoughtless bloggers. Yet, here I am writing a blog about journalistic expedience and superficial writing in our nation's finest newspaper.

I will not recap Mr. Kristof's poorly researched column, nor will I repeat the justly deserved and highly critical comments that his detractors have published in newspapers and blogs. The Kristof brouhaha, however, has compelled me to think about broader issues that have an impact on higher education and on the vitality of intellectual life in contemporary America.

In the aforementioned column, Mr. Kristof mistakenly decries the absence of public intellectuals in America, suggesting that most of us are locked up in Ivory Towers, the isolation of which makes us more concerned about our esoteric disciplines than about important public discourse.

What's a scholar supposed to do these days?

Our institutions require that we teach, conduct research, and serve the university as well as the community. Every week, we stand before our students and attempt, usually with no small degree of success, to impart our knowledge to the next generation. Even so, the public perceives us as lazy, ineffective, and irrelevant. If that weren't enough, there is an ongoing myth in America that most scholars are a eggheads and geeks who, much like the characters in the television hit Big Bang Theory, are socially inept -- people who can't cope in "the real world." From this mythical public vantage the public usually believes that we produce arcane work that has little, if any, public merit.

Mr. Kristof's recent column is yet another example of how this sad stereotype gets reinforced in the public domain. If Mr. Kristof had found the time to talk with some working professors, he would have discovered that most of us are too "busy" to have time for the public intellectualizing he advocates. At most colleges and universities teaching loads are heavy. At my institution most professors teach four courses per semester, which means that each faculty member instructs around 150 students per term. When you add in student advisement, course preparation, research obligations, university and departmental committee work, community service and an unending set of overly assessed assessment exercises, moments for serious reflection are few and far between. Given these institutional obligations, there's little if any time to write research proposals, journal essays, books, let alone the newspaper columns or blogs that constitute the "stuff" of the public intellectual.

Despite these institutional constraints, most of which are brought on through ever-expanding university corporatization, scholars still manage to write books, essays and blogs, an increasing number of which reach audiences far beyond the boundaries of the academy. In a climate of increasing contempt for the intellectual, why bother?

We bother because it is one of our most important obligations. Beyond the constrictions of institutional responsibility there is the central obligation of the scholar's life: to produce knowledge. Once knowledge is laboriously constructed, it must be transmitted, a process that takes on many forms -- mathematical formulae, philosophical treatises, academic monographs and in my discipline, anthropology, the ethnography, the written and/or filmed description of social life. In one way or another this knowledge reaches multiple audiences -- students in the classroom, colleagues at conferences as well as the broader public by way of trade publications, journalistic outlets or social media.

In the end the classic goal of scholarship is less about our institutional obligations or our public profiles and more about the production of scholarly works that bring into relief a measure of wisdom -- knowledge that makes the world a better place, knowledge that, to borrow from West African idiom, makes life sweeter.