Few things annoy academics more than being told that their work is irrelevant. So there’s nothing surprising about the backlash against Nicholas Kristof’s column in Sunday’s New York Times. Kristof contended that America’s professors, especially political scientists, have “marginalized themselves” by focusing on technical debates at the expense of real problems, relying too heavily on quantitative methods, and preferring theoretical jargon to clear prose. An outraged chorus of responses (round-up here) rejected Kristof’s generalization as a reflection of the very anti-intellectualism that he intended to criticize.
Some of the responses to Kristof reflect the expectation of public recognition for every contribution to the debate that makes so much academic writing a chore to read. Even so, Kristof ignores fairly successful efforts to make scholarship more accessible—even if you don’t count every blog by every holder of a Ph.D. The Tufts professor and Foreign Policy contributor Daniel Drezner has more than 25,000 Twitter followers—partly due to the success of a book the uses a zombie apocalypse scenario to compare theories of international relations. The Washington Post recently picked up The Monkey Cage (full disclosure: several of my colleagues at George Washington University are contributors) and The Volokh Conspiracy, which are populated by political scientists and legal academics, respectively. Not to mention Kristof’s own employer. Just the day before Kristof’s piece ran, the Times hired Lynn Vavreck to contribute to a new site concentrating of social science and public policy.
At least when it comes to political science, then, it’s just not plausible that “there are fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago.” On the contrary, there are probably more academics who try to communicate with non-specialist audiences than there were in 1994. One difference is that the public intellectuals of past decades were more likely to engage directly with normative and historical Big Questions. That change reflects the declining influence of political theory in comparison with causal analysis, as well as the weakening of the Cold War imperative of justifying liberal democracy.
Of course, writing for non-specialist readers isn’t encouraged in graduate programs, and doesn’t often align with the requirements for hiring and promotion. But there are anecdotal reasons to think that expectations are slowly changing, as departments struggle to prove their ‘relevance’ in a period of financial retrenchment. If Kristof’s piece promotes these changes, it will have served a valuable function whether or not its argument is compelling.
In fairness to Kristof, however, none of the observations refute his basic claim. That’s because he isn’t actually talking about “public intellectuals”. Rather, he means old-fashioned mandarins, who move easily between Harvard Yard and Washington, usually without encountering many members of the public along the way. In a followup on Facebook, Kristof observes that “Mac Bundy was appointed professor of government at Harvard and then dean of the faculty with only a B.A.—impossible to imagine now.” After nearly a decade as dean, Bundy joined the Kennedy administration as National Security advisor, where his vast intellectual firepower led him to promote and defend the Vietnam War.
What Kristof really offers, then, is less an argument for public engagement by scholars than a plea for another crop of Wise Men who lend conventional wisdom the authority of the academy. Not coincidentally, he presents as an exception to the trend toward academic self-marginalization the former Princeton professor and State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose resume is as perfect a reflection of the meritocratic elite that Bundy helped create as Bundy’s own pedigree was of the old Establishment. More professors should learn to participate in public debate—including political theorists frustrated by the increasingly technical orientation of political science. But if ‘relevance’ means becoming mouthpieces of our new ruling class, then Kristof can keep it.