Writing “Professors – we need you!” New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed academics were not doing enough to engage and shape the public sphere. His piece piqued Origins’ interest, inspiring our most recent History Talk podcast, “Visiting the Ivory Tower: Conversations on Public Intellectuals.”
Here at Ohio State, graduate students first brought attention to the piece, as Facebook threads and Twitter feeds blew up with activity and opinions. While we interviewed public intellectuals themselves for our podcast, we wanted to be sure and take a moment to recognize the students who are engaged in this debate as well. We asked a few of them for their opinions on what it means to be a public intellectual and how to engage the broader public.
In today’s recession-weary world, Nicolas Kristof puts his finger squarely on a major problem facing academics: anti-intellectualism and the attendant problem of perception in a climate rife with anti-snobbish inclinations. While Kristof admirably calls for a resurgence of public intellectuals to challenge the notion of the ineffectual academic, I remain unconvinced that his paradigm provides a road-map for success.
Kristof’s exemplar? Jill Lepore, noted Harvard historian, a modern-day public intellectual who might bridge the gulf between scholars and the larger world. I admit, I am a fan both of Lepore’s monographs and her equally thoughtful pieces in the New Yorker. Wait . . . the New Yorker? Perhaps writing for what is arguably the most erudite journalistic endeavor in the country is not moving far enough beyond the academy. Indeed, Kristof's whole conceptualization feels a bit like “preaching to the choir,” or “lecturing to the already advanced-degree holding population” as the case might be.
If we really want to engage the community with historical thinking, a better model might be found in PBS’s Finding Your Roots, a genealogical romp through the murky ancestry of American celebrities hosted by eminent historian Louis Henry Gates. Here is a paradigm for a historical facilitator who makes the past relatable to a broad audience. While most academics may not have access to a nationally syndicated television program with an audience of millions, the basic principles apply. Talks at local libraries, historical societies, and genealogical centers could benefit a diverse audience and go a long way to dismantling the perception that snooty scholars live a useless life in the ivory tower.
Gore Vidal, in response to the complaint, “Where are our great writers?” replied, “Where are the readers?” The dearth of public intellectuals is in part because of academics’ failure to address the public directly, but it is also due to a lack of demand and opportunities.
This is partially a consequence of the changed media landscape of the last few decades. The fractioning of American media from three television channels to hundreds, as well as thousands of websites and blogs, means that it may be a mistake to refer to a general American public, rather than a series of “publics,” plural. Thus one may be a public intellectual in one community, but unheard of in others.
The niche of the public intellectual is instead filled by what I would call the “public pseudo-intellectual”—comedians, talk show hosts, and other entertainers—in a few cases, even cartoonists and magicians. This label is not intended to insult their intelligence, as some are quite smart, but a reflection of their lack of expertise and the depth with which they are allowed to engage with issues.
I immodestly aspire to being a public intellectual, as do many of my colleagues. The greatest obstacles to that goal that I foresee are not an inability to write for the public, but the lack of an outlet and an audience.
I completely understand where Kristof is coming from, but I don’t think he fairly portrays the way PhDs interact with the rest of the world. Not all PhDs are academics. There are recent PhDs from our very own history department at Ohio State that work for the government or museums, and others currently in the program who are fostering relations with foreign countries through the Fulbright program.
More importantly, Kristof overlooks a huge swathe of public intellectuals—the bloggers, vloggers, podcasters and editorialists—who bring their educations to the public in order to entertain and inform. They may not be PhDs, but their interests often stem from a professor who inspired them through the public act of lecturing. After all, “teacher” is what the “doctor” bit of “doctor of philosophy” means. The difference between Kristof’s academics and public intellectuals is that academics teach in the classroom, while public intellectuals teach through mass media. The bloggers and journalists who write because of passions formed by their college instructors are where these two ends meet. Isn’t the creation of the public intellectual the goal of a university education? Isn’t that what “disciplina in civitatem” means?
What I found most interesting about the debate over Kristoff’s editorial and follow-up blog entry on public intellectuals were the many online replies from college professors. These came in at least three categories: those who found it hilarious that they might have time left over from other responsibilities of teaching, research, and service to write for a general audience; those who listed off the many successful forms of public engagement undertaken by their own discipline (or themselves); and finally, my favorite, those with tales of publicly engaged academics, such as climate scientists and middle-east scholars, systematically harassed into silence. It’s clear that college professors can write quickly and clearly and that they understand the language of policy.
Another vein of argument sounded familiar to me. Many professors pointed out the misrepresentation of their ideas by professional journalists or complained that journalists and their audiences have no taste for nuance or analysis. Even at the height of their public influence in the 1950s, scientists complained of the communication chasm between themselves and the journalists (and audiences) who sought scientific knowledge. If little has improved, it might be because we haven’t yet been able to sort out the nagging professional conflicts between journalists and academics. Not to worry, there is a corner of academia—mass communication—engaging with this problem.
In the meantime, perhaps we historians could practice writing on shorter deadlines.
For more on the buzz surrounding this topic, we’d also like to provide you with the following links:
· Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Smartest Nerd in the Room” in The Atlantic
· Dylan Byers’s “What it means to be a public intellectual” published in Politico
· Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “What it Means to Be a Public Intellectual” in The Atlantic
· Nicholas Kristof’s “Professors – We Need You!” in The New York Times
· Responses to Kristof’s piece on “The Decline of the Intellectual” in The New York Times