Yes, newspapers, you need us!

The story so far:  New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece called “Professors, we need you!” in which he mourned the loss of the public intellectual of yonderyear:

SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

And so on from there.  You’ve heard this song — we speak in our own jargon, we’re obsessed with meaningless turf wars, there’s too much math, “academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose” (must we?)

Lots of pushback on this, as you can imagine.  But the predominant tone, from professor-defenders like Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo or  Joshua Rothman in the New Yorker and Ezra Klein in Bloomberg View, is that it’s not really academics’ fault our writing is so bad and unreadable and sealed off from the world.  It’s our bad incentives — the public intellectualizing we’d like to be doing isn’t rewarded by our tenure committees and our academic publishing system!

I’d put it a different way.  I think our incentives are fine, because our incentive is to be right about things, which is our job.  Newspapers have different incentives.  I’ve been writing for general-audience publications for years, and I can tell you what editors mean when they say a piece is “too academic.”  They don’t mean “there’s too much jargon” or “the subject isn’t of wide interest.”  They mean “you didn’t take a strong enough position.”  When I write about a matter of current controversy, I often get asked:  “What’s the takeaway?  Who’s right here and who’s wrong?”  In real life there are no takeaways.  In real life one person’s sort of right about one thing and the other person’s sort of right about another thing and understanding the nature of the controversy may require a somewhat technical unraveling of those two different things which are thoughtlessly being referred to as one thing.  Most editors hate this stuff.  That’s why they don’t print it.  But it’s the work you have to do if you want to say things that are true.

I’ve been lucky to have done a lot of my journalism for Slate.  A lot of other academics write for them, too, and you know why?  Because they might tell you “this is too complicated, can you say the same thing but clearer?” but they’ll never tell you “this is too complicated, can you say something simpler and more bullshitty instead?”

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2 thoughts on “Yes, newspapers, you need us!

  1. Richard Séguin says:

    “In real life there are no takeaways. In real life one person’s sort of right about one thing and the other person’s sort of right about another thing and understanding the nature of the controversy may require a somewhat technical unraveling of those two different things which are thoughtlessly being referred to as one thing. Most editors hate this stuff.”

    Having read a lot of Victor Hugo lately, I’ve wondered about issues like this myself. His writing was loaded with shades of grey, contrasting juxtapositions, multiple thematic threads that play with and against each other, omniscient narration that sometimes indicated his true opinion but that sometimes also slyly played devil’s advocate, etc. Any simple interpretation of his work is necessarily grossly naive, and it’s often significant intellectual and emotional work to comprehend the totality of his real/fictive universe. I think that modern editors would be horrified and that he could not be published in this world of tweets and instant easy gratification.

  2. D. Hilden says:

    I interpreted the Rothman article’s argument as, it’s not academics’ fault that their writing is boring–it’s boring because there’s a culture of producing boring writing. So Rothman missed the point completely–Kristof’s point was that the culture needs change. (Kristof normally rubs me the wrong way, but this time I agree with him.)

    Your response is interesting, but I’m not so sure I agree that academics’ sole role is to maximize the production of knowledge. Sure, on paper that’s what their role may be, but the “turf wars” you alluded to highlight that academics’ interests are not purely–or in some cases even mostly–academic.

    Kristof’s point is a good one. As long as professors’ attempt to maximize knowledge is kept safely within the confines of the university–where privilege keeps others out–the social role of professors is simply to reproduce the status quo.

    Schopenhauer noted that in the battle between the philosophers and the sophists, the sophists won definitively. Unfortunately, I fear the philosopher/sophist distinction does not just apply to philosophy.

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