A Response to Nicholas Kristof

February 17, 2014 § 7 Comments

I read with some bemusement Nicholas Kristof’s critique of academia in yesterday’s New York Times.  Kristof complains that professors have cloistered themselves up in some ivory tower and disdain the real world.  He says that the academy exists on a publish or perish mentality and that it encourages conformity. Perhaps due to limited space in a newspaper column, Kristof comes off sounding petulant and occasionally stuck on stereotypes of the academy that are at least twenty years out of date.

He also uses a broad-stroke brush to critique a very large, diverse institution.  But I did find his argument that academics are out of touch with reality interesting, in that it reflects an argument I saw on Facebook last week about the massive bloat on university campuses of non-academic staff, which has apparently reached a 2:1 ratio on public and 2.5:1 ratio on private campuses in the United States.  In this argument, which largely pitted professors against non-academic staff, the latter repeated this shibboleth that academics are unable to engage with the real world.

However, he does provide a jumping off point.

The academy does operate in a publish or perish paradigm, and academics who spend their time engaging with the public, rather than publishing in peer-reviewed journals, do get punished.  And it does encourage conformity, in terms of theory, models, and interpretation.  He is correct to note that “This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.”

Back in 1998, Canada’s crusty old historian, Jack Granatstein (in)famously published Who Killed Canadian History? wherein he lambasted the left for having created microstudies, feminism, and various other things that left us with histories of something Granatstein called “housekeeper’s knee”, which he dismissed pithily with a petulant “Who cares?” Granatstein, perhaps intentionally, engaged in rhetoric and anti-intellectualism in this little gem, essentially dismissing all who disagreed with him as irrelevant, as if he was the sole judge, jury, and executioner of what was a viable topic of study in Canadian history.

In the 1960s, “history from below” developed, primarily in England, around the work of brilliant minds such as Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, and the husband-and-wife team of E.P. and Dorothy Thompson.  They wanted to know how the common person dealt with history and change.  Taking their cue, historians in the US and Canada began to conduct similar studies of the working-classes and rural communities, but with far less interesting results than the English New Left, largely because the English historians wrote well, and did not get bogged down in statistics and turgid prose.  Nonetheless, these studies in Canada and the US were essential to the development of the field.

But the real problem is that the likes of Kristof and Granatstein hearken back to a glory day in the academy that never existed.  Kristof complains that academics write horribly, and seem to go out of their way to not engage.  Many do. Because, quite simply, the academy has always worked that way.  The great works of Canadian history that Granatstein refers to are horridly boring, I used to read them when I had insomnia to put myself to sleep.  Kritof cites stats that claim that academics in the social sciences were more engaged in public debate in the 1930s and 40s than today.  That may be true, but the readership of academic journals in the 1930s and 40s was just as limited as it is today.  Hundreds of academic monographs get published to almost complete indifference, that is true today and was just as true in this supposed heyday.  The academy has always been removed from the world, as it must indeed be to some degree to escape the noise of the world.

Nonetheless, there is some truth in Kristof’s complaint.  But, he also undoes his argument by noting that historians, public policy wonks, and economists, amongst others, are very much engaged in public discussions.   About economics, he says:

In contrast, economics is a rare academic field with a significant Republican presence, and that helps tether economic debates to real-world debates. That may be one reason, along with empiricism and rigor, why economists (including my colleague in columny, Paul Krugman) shape debates on issues from health care to education.

This comes after a critique of academia for having failed to predict the Arab Spring.  I found this juxtaposition curious.  The 2008 economic meltdown was missed by the massive majority of economists.  And the ones who were sounding the alarm were just as ignored as those academics who foresaw something like the Arab Spring.

And so this brings me to my greatest critique of Nichols Kristof’s argument.  Academics can yell and scream and tilt at windmills all we want.  But without help, we are largely left standing by ourselves.   The only way for our ideas to spread into the mainstream of society is with the help of the likes of Kristof: journalists.  When I still lived in Montréal, I found myself fielding calls from the media with some frequency on a variety of topics from Griffintown to Irish history to the Montréal Canadiens.  Journalists found me, at first, through Concordia University, where I did my PhD, and then because they had contacts and colleagues who knew me.  Never once was I found through this blog (readership tended to spike after I made an appearance in the media) or through my publications.  Kristof also takes academics to task for not using Twitter and other social media for communicating with the world. Guess how many times a journalist has asked me a question on Twitter?  And this is despite the fact that several journalists follow me.  In other words, without journalists seeking me out, I had no platform upon which to speak.

Kristof ends his column with what sounds like a desperate appeal:

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

But in so doing, he is being disingenuous and shifting the blame entirely to academics and removing the role of journalists in this discussion about the relative accessibility or non-accessibility of academics.  Kristof is right to call on the academy to make greater engagement with the mainstream, but he is incorrect in assuming that without the help of journalists it will just happen spontaneously.

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