Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Kristof is Right About Professors

Kristof is on the mark
In case you missed it, Nicholas Kristof's February 15, 2014 op-ed in The New York Times has a lot of academics angry.  In a piece entitled "Professors, We Need You,"  Kristof chided college and university professors for failing to speak to a wider public.  Here is a small taste:

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.

Kristof's article recently came up during a talk I was giving at Columbia University in New York. Someone in the audience thought that I should be angry too.  After all, I have been trying to do this public work for several years now.  (I wanted to thank him for mentioning this!). Why didn't Kristof acknowledge those scholars who are attempting to reach public audiences?

But I was not angered by Kristof's piece.  I read his article as an affirmation of some of the stuff I have been doing here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, through speaking engagements, and through books like Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? and Why Study History?  I don't know what other public scholars thought about the piece, but I think it is still fair to say that those of us who are doing this kind of public work are in the minority in the historical profession.  Yes, things are changing. The American Historical Association has been encouraging scholars to write for public audiences and a growing number of historians are using social media effectively (although many of them are still just writing to other scholars). Yet in the end bloggers, Facebook users, Twitterstorians, and those of us who try to write in accessible prose for non-specialists still fall under Kristof's phrase, "There are plenty of exceptions, of course...."

A few years ago I was chatting with a prominent historian who holds an endowed chair in an Ivy League history department.  This scholar had been doing a lot speaking and lecturing to public audiences, so I asked him what his department thought about all of this work.  He said that his department chair was not happy about it and wished he would get back in the archive and start producing more original research.  Academic scholarship, after all, was what he was paid to do.

I commend all of the blog posts written to call Kristof's attention to the work that so many scholars are doing to reach the public.  But we are just not there yet.  Kristof's piece stings because it is on the mark.

OK, I need to stop writing.  I am speaking in Messiah College chapel in an hour.