Professors as Public Intellectuals: A Reader

With Professors, We Need You!, Nicholas Kristof makes a case for professors as public intellectuals:

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. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

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!

While Kristof’s plea stumbles in many places (for example, left-leaning academics appear to be discounted out of hand, suggesting that society can somehow be changed only by academics who hold ideologies similar to that public), Daniel Willingham’s follow up presents a strong case as well, notably targeting the role of professors as public intellectuals in the education debate:

Kristof did not distinguish between faculty in Arts & Sciences and those in professional schools such as law, medicine, education, and engineering. These latter have practical application embedded in their mission and I think are therefore more vulnerable to his charges….

But again, I think Kristof’s blade is much sharper when applied to university schools that claim a mission which includes practical application. Schools of Ed., I’m looking at you.

Also important is a comment from Stwriley at Willingham’s The Answer Sheet post, which reads in part:

The reason is that there are far fewer professors who don’t have to worry that what they say in public will cost them their jobs and that have the time to spend on non-teaching and non-research duties. At this time, 3 out of 4 university faculty are adjuncts or other contingent faculty. It is only those in tenured or tenure-track positions, with the far better pay, guarantees of due process and academic freedom, and personal time for outside activity who can take up the role of public intellectual….

This is the real reason for the decline in professors as public intellectuals: the destruction of their profession for the bottom line of others.

The closing point in this comment must not be ignored: The dismantling of academic tenure at university and K-12 levels includes a silencing of academics—something Kristof and Willingham appear to be lamenting.

Neither Kristof nor Willingham acknowledge that high-profile cases have shown that even tenured professors risk everything by being public voices. And when professors shift into the world of blogging, the stakes often are high.

If professors as public intellectuals are needed, then, some time must be spent addressing the many ways in which institutional and public policies are working against that possibility.

Ultimately, calls for professors as public intellectuals confront a number of problems, including:

  • Traditional university mechanisms for promotion and tenure either disregard or marginalize public work.
  • A social norm of professors and teachers as “not political” remains powerful.
  • In the U.S., political leaders and the public are committed to beliefs over evidence, expertise, or experience.
  • Academics are often not well equipped to interact with a lay public, including being unfamiliar with the value and dynamics in the New Media as well as social media (Twitter, blogging platforms, Facebook).

Since I have made a conscious shift in how much energy I commit to traditional scholarly work versus public work, I have addressed these issues in a number of ways. Here, then, is a reader on the issues above as they relate to professors as public intellectuals:



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