THE BLOG
05/31/2016 05:40 pm ET Updated May 30, 2017

In Defense of Angelina Jolie and Public Intellectuals

When it was recently announced that Angelina Jolie is slated to each a Masters course at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the fall of 2016, the response from academics was fast and furious. If you spent any time on social media as the story "trended" as one of top 10 stories worldwide on Facebook, you know the tenor of the scores of comments left by academics. Professors were quick to condemn the LSE for allowing Jolie Pitt to act as a Visiting Professor, many mocking the actress, calling her unqualified and questioning the quality of education at the prestigious LSE.

On the surface, I found the comments decidedly sexist. Jolie Pitt is hardly the first person without a Ph.D. to teach in the academy. Where was the outrage when author Neil Gaiman was appointed as Professor of The Arts at Bard College? Was professional experience not the reason Gaiman was hired?

While most articles and commentary by academics focused on Jolie Pitt's status as a "Hollywood Actress" in fact, she is also the Special Envoy for the UN Refugee Agency and has worked with numerous governments, and refugees on the ground, throughout the world. Further, she co-founded the Centre for Women, Peace and Security at LSE, which is running the very course she will be teaching. Jolie Pitt also co-founded a global initiative to tackle sexual violence in conflict zones in 2012. Given the vast experiential knowledge that she will bring to the classroom, arguably experience that is unmatched by the vast majority of professors, I was left wondering: why such a rush to admonish her?

The overwhelmingly negative response by academics to Jolie Pitt's status as "Visiting Professor" illustrates a larger problem in academia: fear of public intellectuals. We may talk a good game about the importance of serving the communities in which we are enmeshed, making research accessible beyond the academy, and refuting common perceptions that academics are in ivory towers out of touch with the people. But the reality is very different. The fact that most academics spend their considerable time and resources working on peer-reviewed journal articles that typically have an audience of 3-8 readers, speaks volumes.

While the academy occasionally makes exceptions for a few rare academics that make their way into the public domain, such as bell hooks and Cornel West, these are anomalies. Many academics that try to make their work more accessible by writing in popular forms are subject to critique, scepticism and even personal attacks. They are often accused of dumbing down their work. They are accused of lacking rigor. While the few that become "famous" escape some measure of critique, most do not. What is particularly rigorous about using language and writing formats that only a handful of people understand escapes me.

Furthermore, while some academics become public intellectuals and remain welcome in the academy, this is a one way street. The academy is quick to build a wall when someone attempts the reverse: someone known by the public for their professional experience tries to enter the closed ranks of the academy. Herein lies the response to the announcement Jolie Pitt will teach a class in a program she helped develop, on a subject she has more personal experience with than most "experts" can imagine. It seems territorial and fear-based. Are we really so insecure to think our "expertise" as academics will be challenged, or even exposed for its limitations, if we acknowledge that expertise can also be garnered in other ways?

I'm in no way suggesting formal education doesn't carry value. I didn't pursue a Ph.D. for the fun of it. However, experiential knowledge also adds value and those in the academy shouldn't be so quick to dismiss its importance. Consider how many disciplines, including my home discipline of sociology, often require internships of their undergraduate students. Why do we do that if we don't think experiential knowledge matters?

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