Three Cheers for the Ivory Tower

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.

20 responses... add one

I can think of many fine academics in my own community who are fully engaged in the role of public intellectual on the local level. For example, Greg Maney, the head of the Irish Studies Program at Hofstra University has applied what he learned studying sectarian violence in Northern Ireland to the problem of anti-Latino hate crimes on Long Island.

However, before academics pat themselves on the back for the public engagement of their colleagues, they all need to ask whether the research and thought they have put into a journal article has also been put at the service of the community at large.

The work that goes into a journal article ought to be understood as “service to the community at large”.

“The work that goes into a journal article ought to be understood as ‘service to the community at large’.”

Except that community at large is generally ignorant of what is in that journal article since they don’t have access to it unless they travel to their closest university library or find something that might be open source. It is the ultimate in stupidity that academic journals, many of which are funded by public tax money, are closed off to that public because they don’t have easy access to it. Also, the articles in most journals are usually written in such a way that closes off any interest someone in the general public might have.

It also seems some on the academic side are stretching the definition of “public intellectual” to the breaking point. Teaching a classroom of students (a limited audience if ever there was one) somehow doesn’t quite measure up to what Richard Hofstadter or Henry Steele Commager or Allan Nevins or Arthur Schlesinger (both junior and senior) accomplished. Many of them (and there are others) not only taught classes but they engaged a non-academic public in a language that neither dumbed things down nor sounded as obtuse as most academic writing. To be sure, they had a somewhat deeper and broader platform, but it’s a two-way street, meaning that while outlets are shrinking, only those academics who have already achieved tenure and aren’t worried about their careers seem care about speaking to a general audience. I remember seeing on YouTube a video of Commager performing what I consider the true role of a public intellectual.

While I can’t imagine any network doing that today, I also can’t imagine too many academics other than Jill Lepore and a few conspicuous others who could do it in such a way that would truly reach a wide audience and keep them interested.


I am not in any way trying to minimize issues surrounding access to journals. There should indeed be more openness when it comes to such matters. Whether the idea of the public intellectual is being stretched is not so important to me as opposed to keeping in focus the value of what happens in the classroom itself.

What exactly is Jill Lepore’s reach? I keep hearing about it and I am certainly a fan, but what exactly are we talking about?

From her page at Harvard:

“Lepore has been a contributor to The New Yorker since 2005 and a staff writer since 2008. Her essays and reviews have also appeared in the New York Times, the Times Literary Supplement, American Scholar, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, The Daily Beast, Smithsonian Magazine, the Journal of American History, American Quarterly. and Common-place, a magazine she co-founded.Her work has been widely reprinted, including in anthologies of the best technology writing and the best legal writing, and has been translated into Spanish, Italian, Japanese, Chinese, and Latvian.”


“Among her other scholarly and public lectures, Lepore has delivered the Lewis Walpole Library Lecture at Yale (2013), the Harry F. Camp Memorial Lecture at Stanford (2013), the University of Kansas Humanities Lecture (2013), the Joanna Jackson Goldman Memorial Lectures at the New York Public Library (2012), the Kephardt Lecture at Villanova (2011), the Stafford-Little Lecture at Princeton (2010), and the Walker Horizon Lecture at DePauw (2009).”


Not only does Lepore speak before academic crowds, she also speaks at places like the Boston Public Library or the Kansas City Public Library. To be sure she is trying to sell books, but her books are actually bought by non-academics whether they are avocational historians or lay readers. Also, can you imagine an associate professor of history trying to get tenure writing a popular article on 50 years of Doctor Who (not that I’m a fan of that series, but there are a number of people who are).


I am aware of the scope of her writings and presentations. She is an impressive scholar, but history and other disciplines are filled with people who are writing in these publications and engaging the general public in various ways.

I don’t know. Maybe she has a better PR machine, but I would be hard pressed to even point to an article I’ve read that made an impression on me from those that Corey Robin mentioned in his blog post. To be honest, I have no idea who Corey Robin is. Maybe the fault in that lies with me, but I read Harpers, the New York Times, The New Yorker, Atlantic the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement along with several other “high brow” magazines and Lepore is the only name I recognize. It seems to me part of that stems from the fact that she makes the effort to reach out to the broadest possible audience. Again, I’m sure much of that comes from wanting to sell books but there are worse ways to make a living. :)


“…and Lepore is the only name I recognize.”

Not sure I understand where this is going.

You said “She is an impressive scholar, but history and other disciplines are filled with people who are writing in these publications and engaging the general public in various ways.”

That may be true, but without name recognition, which equates (at least in my mind) to being read on a consistent basis (hence editors seeking out their work) do their articles serve any real purpose? Writing and engaging as a public intellectual is meaningless without a public who knows who you are and actively seeks out your insight. In other words, is someone who doesn’t have a public really a public intellectual?


I have no evidence regarding Corey Robin’s reach, but I don’t think it helps to measure the relative success of an entire community by what you perceive to be the influence of one.

Hi Rob. I’m Corey; I’m a political scientist at CUNY. I’ve written for Harper’s, The New York Times, the London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post, the Boston Review, The Nation, and Dissent. I’ve been on C-SPAN, MSNBC, NPR, the BBC, and a whole bunch of other places. No reason you should know who I am. I don’t know lots of other people in other fields who are writing in public venues. That’s the point: the measure of whether someone is writing for a public audience is not name recognition. And if you think the reason that I haven’t written for The New Yorker or the New York Review of Books is that I’m not interested or that I don’t write in a “public enough” way, I can assure you that the first is not true and there are a bunch of editors at Harper’s, the London Review, the Times, and elsewhere who can assure you that the second is not true.

You seem to be under the illusion that academics don’t want to or can’t do this kind of work. Based on my experience, and the experience of many people I know who are just like me, that’s simply not the case.

Thanks for taking the time to comment, Corey, and thanks for the thorough response to Kristoff.

We’ve had severe storms move through our region this evening, so I haven’t been at my computer. I would like to respond to your post but before doing so I feel I owe you the favor of reading your work. I will return in a day or so.



It’s a pleasure to virtually meet you. I am not a public, or even a private, intellectual nor am I a political scientist. I am an independent historian with a journalism background. My main research interest right now is the public perception of Abraham Lincoln as it was delivered from the pens of Ida M. Tarbell and Carl Sandburg. I can’t speak to what is coming out of the academy in the field of political science, but Kristof’s point as it relates to the historical field is, in many cases, decidedly correct, and not even new. In 1943, James G. Randall wrote to Sandburg about Randall’s attempts to get a paper he wrote called “The Unpopular Mr. Lincoln” published in a popular venue. It was consistently rejected. Randall wrote “I seem unable to overcome the stigma of being a professor. Walter Kiernan said the other day in his pint-sized column: ‘What this country needs is a good five-cent history book.’ The public needs our products, yet we don’t seem quite adequate in putting it across to the millions.” Most of your academic compatriots would likely judge Randall’s work more important and far superior to Sandburg’s, but the population at large didn’t. In the end, those multitudes are who matters.

You wrote “the measure of whether someone is writing for a public audience is not name recognition.” Maybe not in the writing, given that if one person reads what you’ve written, you have a public audience, but the measure of whether one actually has a substantial public audience, and is able to lead the discussion and not merely reflect it, has a great deal to do with name recognition. It seems to me a public intellectual is someone who could write on a topic that the educated lay reader is unfamiliar with, and explain it in such a way that not only would said reader understand it completely, but they could then explain it to someone else. Those writers who have the name recognition have shown time after time their ability to do just that.

I’ve spent much of the day today reading the blogs of those who are blasting Kristof’s column; there are two things I’ve taken from what I’ve read. First, most of the vitriol unsurprisingly comes from political scientists, given that Kristof seemed to point to them more than others, and second, many of those who were complaining come across as “I am a relevant public intellectual. Just ask me.”

I wouldn’t begin to question your contention that you are more than capable of writing for either the New Yorker or whatever publication you would choose. Your writing is very impressive and contains both depth and breadth. I notice that most of your speaking engagements center around conferences and academic settings. Obviously there is nothing wrong with that, but do you speak before local historical societies or other non-academic venues? I don’t ask that in an accusatory way. I’m simply interested in knowing.

You also wrote “You seem to be under the illusion that academics don’t want to or can’t do this kind of work.” That isn’t completely true. In addition to Jill Lepore, Bernard Bailyn, David Brion Davis, Gordon Wood, the late Pauline Maier, James MacGregor Burns, Simon Schama, Sean Wilentz, and the late Tony Judt, among others, all were willing to engage a public audience without giving up their academic reputation. However, all of those are (or were) senior scholars with no worries about tenure or rising in the academic maelstrom. There is far too much anecdotal evidence from academics themselves that younger scholars would be signing their career’s death warrant if they focused on engaging with the general public at the expense of producing monographs and journal articles. As one other poster mentioned, James McPherson wrote in great detail what happened to him after “Battle Cry of Freedom” was written. He was castigated by a number of colleagues. Brooks Simpson, who operates the Crossroads blog, said much the same thing in his thoughtful and well-reasoned response to Kristof’s column.

For academics to remain relevant in what is undoubtedly an anti-intellectual country, they will need to do two things. First, they will have to produce Randall’s good five-cent history book and second, they will have to remember exactly who they are writing it for.


I’ve got two degrees in English literature and I spent quite a bit of time and money learning how to read articles from obscure academic journals. Earning my Master of Arts degree didn’t result in affiliation with any academic institution, even the one that granted my degrees. All it did is end my eligibility for financial aid as a student and because I’m not affiliated as a student or an instructor with any academic institution I can’t access articles through JSTOR. If institutions of higher learning can’t keep track of those to whom they have issued credentials, how can they expect those to whom they have issued credentials to remain abreast of developments in their field?

When a golfer turns ‘professional’ he/she gets a card which allows him/her to play golf without paying greens fees as a professional courtesy to allow him/her to maintain his/her game at a competitive level of play. He/she doesn’t have to obtain employment as an assistant pro at a club in order to maintain his/her professional standing.

People who have earned professional degrees should be able to remain affiliated with the institution that affirmed their ‘professional’ status whether or not they ever succeed in deriving income or employment from that status.


Check with JSTOR: your university may allow alums to access JSTOR. I know Ohio State does.

Well said, Craig. In fact, the institution where I got my MA does let me use the library whenever I visit. Perhaps the drive towards open access publishing will help solve this problem.

As a general comment, James MacPherson seems to me to do an admirable job as a public intellectual, although his first collection of essays recorded some criticism from his colleagues that “Battle cry of freedom” was too accessible to be good scholarship. I’d also say that Bruce Levine contributes a lot through his books and talks.

“…too accessible to be good scholarship…” This reminds me of one of my college professors who downgraded a paper that I wrote as “unprofessionally worded” because I tried to use some catchy rhythms & wording to make a book’s outline easier to remember.

I agree with the general tenor of the post. Teachers have a lasting and broad impact. I think that the writer’s perception of the teacher’s burden is too much, though. It is not a teacher’s job to bring about social transformation. That smacks of brainwashing. Keeping it simple, the teacher’s job is to convey generational knowledge along with the skills to assimilate and wisely apply that knowledge along with any new knowledge the student learns moving forward.

I entirely agree with Mr. Bossard. Indoctrination falls nowhere within the confines of teaching and I can state with force from first hand experience that bias is exceedingly prevalent in the classrooms of higher learning, at least at the college that I attended, frequently at the expense of good scholarship.
Nathan Towne

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