I am still trying to figure out what is behind Nicholas Kristoff’s Sunday Op-ed in the New York Times in which he castigated academics for not embracing their responsibilities as public intellectuals. Kristoff is disappointed that not more academics have embraced social media as a means to engage the general public about important issues that otherwise would only see the light of day in obscure academic journals. Others have already pointed out that even a quick glance at his own newspaper would dispell him of such an absurd claim. There is nothing more that I can add to the discussion.
That said, I do worry that the zeal with which the academic community has fired back [start here] at Kristoff falls into the trap of pushing us as a society further away from acknowledging the all-important role that professors across the country play in their own classrooms and lecture halls day in and day out. Earlier today, in a guest post at Claire Potter’s Tenured Radical blog, Carole Emberton reminded us of this:
But even those of us who don’t tweet or blog regularly are public intellectuals. Every time we walk into a classroom we engage a broader audience. Those of us who teach at public institutions are, in fact, public servants struggling to improve the minds and lives of those men and women who enroll in our classes. My colleagues at private universities are also working for, and contributing to, the public good. All of us struggle to make our “exquisite knowledge” intelligible and meaningful to non-specialists, and in the process, hopefully transform individual lives if not our collective existence. I say “if not” because social transformation is a terrible burden to bear on a daily basis, especially when you are perpetually under-funded and over-enrolled, or if you are teaching semester to semester without a permanent contract and fearing that the next class might be your last. In those cases, if you can help one student write a little better or think a little harder, then you’ve made a contribution to the public good. And you’ve held on to a little bit of professional dignity.
Kudos to those academics who have embraced social media and other digital tools or done any other number of things to extend their reach beyond their classrooms, but I do hope that it is not a reflection of any lingering doubt that what they do on campus itself, one-on-one with students and in larger groups, is of lesser value.
There is a reason why “Father of the University of Virginia” is on Thomas Jefferson’s tombstone.