Nicholas Kristof’s op-ed piece, “Professors, We Need You!,” struck a chord with me last week. I deeply respect Kristof’s work, and I’ve written here before (and again) about the book he and his wife Sheryl WuDunn wrote, Half the Sky: Turning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. I heard him speak to a packed ballroom here at Vanderbilt last spring and I was awed by his ability to inform, inspire, and motivate his audience. So his words last week, part lament and part critique of the way academic minds are operating outside the public sphere, have stayed with me.
Here are some excerpts that reflect the gist of his perspective:
“…it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.”
“A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. 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.”
“A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.”
“Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.”
“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!”
I’ve been in a PhD program for 18 months now, and I have to admit that Kristof’s observations seem spot-on. As I try to envision where this season of my life might lead me vocationally, I am consistently troubled by how much the academic pressures around me seem to be at odds with other commitments I hold. I certainly don’t want to paint all academics with one brush, and I have plenty of examples in my own family of professors who are passionate about teaching and engaging wider audiences. But from where I sit right now I witness all too many instances of what Kristof describes, and I worry about how I can resist the academic tides that aim to convince me to measure my worth by what is on my C.V.
Well, more about this in two weeks. If this wasn’t enough fodder for one day, might I suggest playing with the Academic Sentence Generator, whose random outputs I find to be quite indistinguishable from the kind of talk—excuse me, discourse, I hear and read daily.
In the meantime, what are your thoughts about Kristof’s opinion?