Nick Kristof's latest column for the New York Times takes on the role of academics in American society. His point is that they are nowadays largely irrelevant to the "great debates" in the U.S., as they hide in their Ivory Towers. Academics write in arcane language and largely write to each other. They've walled themselves off, so to speak, from the American public. As a result, there are, in his words, "fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago."
It's a provocative piece, to be sure. But is it on point? As a matter of fact, CWCP's Yohanes Sulaiman and Brad Nelson--two academics who also blog and pen op-eds for wide audiences--believe Kristof has missed a few things. Below are their brief responses to Kristof's take.
Kristof is right to some degree that there's a disconnection between political scientists and real world policy-making. True, part of it can be explained by the focus on quantitative studies and very arcane game theory, but at the same time, he is missing the larger picture.
Most important is tenure. If you want tenure, you need to be published in scholarly publications, period. No college or university gives someone tenure because she/he is on CNN or quoted in the New York Times. This gives academics perverse incentives for scholars to focus on academic research and debates, not policy-advocacy.
Plus, policy advocacy is a dangerous job. Professors can incur the wrath of politicians. And now throw in departmental politics, which can, at times, be unkind toward anyone who doesn't act and speak in line with the conventional role of the serious scholar. Furthermore, speaking one's mind could turn into be a career-ending mistake, which, once again, de-incentivizes scholars to take public positions on policy issues.
At the same time, at least in my field of IR, a growing number scholars are connected and, to some degree, involved policy debates. Think about Foreign Policy magazine, the Monkey Cage blog, and even this blog. Still, the number of scholars active in reaching out to mainstream audiences compared to the total number of academics is pretty low. In that respect, Kristof does make a good point.
Overall, I think Kristof's take is rather lazy. He leans on a longstanding tired mantra of academics--that they've insulated themselves from the wider society and could care less about important policy debates in America, that they're out of touch. Some professors, of course, do act this way. But in my view, many don't. I think he's off-base here. Scholars are better connected to the public than ever before via blogging, Twitter, and other social media. Scholars--especially the younger generation of scholars--are actively reaching out to lay audiences; a growing number don't only want to talk to each other. Many are genuinely eager to present and discuss their theories and findings with non-academics in ways that are easy to digest and interesting. A major issue is that in the Internet age, there are so many voices competing to get heard that academics--like most people--get lost in the noise.