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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Academics Cannot Evade Their Public Responsibilities

Part of a scholar’s duty is to spread their knowledge and engage in the public discourse…

We know that in academia, you have to “publish or perish,” meaning that—before you get tenure—if you’re not consistently cranking out writing, your career will stall. But in an illuminating advice article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Manya Whitaker reminds us that it’s worse even than that. It’s not just a matter of publishing, but publishing in the correct places: 

I have been stunned — given the hypercompetitive, tenure-track market — at how many young scholars have less-than-impressive publication histories. The problem is not quantity but quality. Too many early career scholars seem to be investing their time and energy writing a lot for the wrong kinds of publications. By “wrong,” I mean venues that won’t lead to tenure… I see more and more academics listing blog posts, op-eds, or other opinion-oriented writings on their CV. All of those things show you to be a well-rounded person but — outside of certain fields like journalism or creative writing — such nonscholarly publications contribute little value to your record of scholarly productivity…

Whitaker says that it’s only “after 25 years on the job” that academics reach the stage where they may “finally indulge in a nonscholarly writing project they always wanted to do but put off because it didn’t align with their research agenda, it required too much time, or it didn’t count as scholarship.” 

I think academics might read this and find it pretty standard. I certainly heard this in graduate school: Blog posts and op-eds aren’t scholarship, you need to be publishing regularly in peer-reviewed journals—save the “nonscholarly” stuff for later in your career. But I think it’s worth noting the implications of this: Academics are actively discouraged from being part of the popular discourse. They are supposed to be focusing on writing material that is interesting only to other academics. The “wrong” kinds of publications are the ones with the potential to reach large audiences, such as newspapers and magazines. The “right” kinds of publications are the ones consumed by peers in your field and only peers in your field. 

My friend Ben Burgis, author of the useful book Give Them An Argument: Logic For The Left, points out that there are very harmful social consequences to this mindset. Ben is a philosopher, and so when he sees people like Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro mangling basic philosophy and presenting fallacious reasoning as incontrovertible fact, he bristles. But, Burgis says, one reason that people like Harris and Shapiro are able to get away with this sort of thing is that professional philosophers think engaging with such people is beneath them. It might even damage their careers. Say a smart young philosophy grad student was to spend their time preparing for a public debate with Sam Harris. Their academic advisors would not only see it as unrelated to the work of philosophy, but might actually hold it against the student: It would be a sign that they were getting “distracted” from their research, and perhaps were not serious about it.

This is a shame, Ben says, because the 400 people who get philosophy PhDs every year have “a ridiculous amount of training and practice in taking apart abstract ideas and arguments and putting them back together again.” Little of that training is being used, however, to actually improve the state of public discourse. People like Jordan Peterson are able to “build mass audiences by exploring ethical and otherwise philosophical topics in a conceptually sloppy way without engaging with any of the relevant academic literature,” and they get away with it in part because academics don’t think such figures are worth paying attention to.

I have never accepted the view that bad books are beneath engagement. In fact, they need to be engaged precisely because they’re bad. The question is not: “how silly is this idea?” but “how popular is this idea?” If large numbers of people are being taken in by something, then anyone who sees why it’s false needs to step up and expose the work for what it is. This is why Current Affairs reviews books by Tucker Carlson, Heather Mac Donald, and Dinesh D’Souza. It is not that I respect these people intellectually. It is that their books sell large numbers of copies, and if psychology professors aren’t going to explain why Peterson isn’t worth listening to then somebody has to. Now, I don’t necessarily expect that many buyers of these books will check out Current Affairs for a counterargument. But I do think that readers of Current Affairs may encounter readers of Carlson and D’Souza in their day-to-day lives, and that our work can help people respond to the arguments.

This may sound strongly critical, but I think academics’ evasion of their public responsibilities partly explains why we have such shallow media conversations. It is true, for instance, that considerable money has been spent sowing doubt about climate change. But it’s also true that because many scientists fear becoming “political,” and improving public understanding is not one of the responsibilities of an academic, the scientific community has been less visible than it should have been. It’s left to a small handful of scientists (e.g., Michael Mann, Ayana Johnson, Katharine Hayhoe, Jacquelyn Gill, Marshall Shepherd) to put in the heroic work needed to educate the public. 

There is something very seriously wrong with the academy when scholars are punished for maximizing the number of people they inform. Books with the so-called “popular presses” are frowned upon and might even count against your tenure bid. You need to publish with an “academic press,” where the books cost $85.00 and won’t show up in stores or get reviewed in the newspaper. Think about that: “popular” as a pejorative rather than a mark of success as an educator! 

Now, you might say: Well, but scholarship must be rigorous. It is fair that tenure committees do not want things written at such a level that anyone with a high school education can understand them. Op-eds are simplistic, they do not advance human knowledge. Blog posts are not the kind of sophisticated thought that earns one a prestigious academic position.

Here, I think we have to examine the entire idea of what a “scholar” is supposed to be. Personally, I don’t believe it’s self-evident that more sophisticated thoughts necessarily advance human knowledge the most. I think a scholar might be performing a greater duty to the advancement of human understanding by teaching as many people as possible a few basic things as by making some small technical advance that requires an extraordinary level of sophistication but is of very little consequence. There is a privileging of “research” over “teaching” in academia that I do not think is justified. (In fact, I was explicitly told in graduate school that we should not focus on our teaching, because all time spent working on our teaching is time not doing research, and research is what counts.) Too great an emphasis on research means that a body of knowledge will be amassed that is never disseminated widely. Most people will remain ignorant of it.

It’s funny, I actually have quite a lot of respect for academics. I was amazed at what my sociologist colleagues could do with statistics, and I am dazzled by the amount of effort that historians put in to preserve truths that would otherwise be lost. I turn to academic works whenever I want a truly deep understanding of a topic. But the academy also has a social responsibility, and the fact that Donald Trump is president shows that it has been failing. 

I do also think we should be careful about assuming that the existing publication hierarchy is correct, even from the perspective of “shallow versus deep knowledge.” In Whitaker’s article, what you notice is that blog posts are discounted because they are blog posts. The assumption is that anything appearing in a peer reviewed journal is better than anything appearing on a blog or in a magazine. But this is not necessarily true. For example, in 2017 Third World Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal, published an article called “The Case for Colonialism.” It was terrible, and I wrote a response here at Current Affairs. My response pointed out the various ways in which the original article was intellectually defective. And yet: My article would not be counted as scholarship, even though it was more correct. I could not put it on an academic CV. It is precisely the sort of thing that Whitaker scoffed at. (After there was a public outcry, Third World Quarterly retracted “The Case for Colonialism.” The public were able to catch what the peer reviewers did not.) 

Likewise, Ben’s book, Give Them An Argument, is published by Zero Books, a small leftist press. Whitaker would probably question whether Ben should even put it on his CV, even though it’s an incredibly useful book that applies the insights of philosophy to leftist politics. Likewise, my friend Rob Larson has published a thorough debunking of right-wing economic dogmas called Capitalism vs. Freedom. It, too, is published by Zero Books, and therefore doesn’t count as “scholarship.” But John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness, which repeats the silly libertarian arguments that Rob dismantles, is published by Princeton University Press. It is therefore scholarship. Jason Brennan’s Against Democracy, also on Princeton University Press, is scholarship. My response, “Democracy: Probably a Good Thing,” is not. There is an assumption in Whitaker’s article (which, to be fair, accurately reflects the assumptions of the academy generally) that status is an accurate signifier of merit. 

What’s strange is that this actually gets academics away from exactly the thing they say they value, which is caring about “knowledge for the sake of knowledge.” We don’t read either the blog posts or the peer-reviewed articles; nobody does or will. We just look at the CV, see that you published in Fancy Journal X, and conclude that you are a good scholar. Graduate students, too, thereby end up thinking less about the substantive quality of their work and more about whether it will or won’t look good on the CV. I noticed this a lot in graduate school: People would talk about who a person had studied under and what they had published much more than they’d talk about the underlying ideas. But the ideas are what it’s all supposed to be about! The quality of the ideas is the entire proffered justification for not engaging with the public.

Whitaker says that academics should wait 25 years before engaging in “nonscholarly” projects. Good lord. What will the world be like by then, if all the “educated” people completely decline to engage in public debate? We will have a mountain of completely unread journals, and 12 Rules for Life will still be a bestseller. This cannot go on: Academics have a responsibility not just to make new knowledge, but to spread that knowledge as far and wide as possible. We need to build a democratic intellectual culture where all people get the benefits of philosophy and history and science, rather than just a cloistered few. I want the “popular” magazines to review academic books, and the academic journals to review “popular” books. (I was aided in writing about Sam Harris by the fact that one professional philosopher, Whitley Kaufman, had reviewed Harris’ The Moral Landscape in a philosophy journal. This kind of engagement is notable because it’s the exception to the usual rule.)

It’s no secret that my model of the engaged intellectual is Noam Chomsky, whose works on politics are thorough, scholarly, and dense but easily understood by the general reader. Naturally, even though they’re packed with more insight than many academic texts on political science, few political scientists pay any attention to them. Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell applied their considerable intellects to social and political questions, because they recognized that it was their obligation not to sit on the sidelines. It was not acceptable, at a time of immense human suffering, for people who could help to withdraw into their studies. (I once wrote a provocative abstract for a nonexistent paper entitled “Can Philosophy Be Justified In A Time Of Crisis?” arguing that until basic social problems were solved, it was actually immoral to spend one’s time pursuing abstract philosophical questions. I think that overstates things, but still find “knowledge for its own sake” to be a circular and unsatisfying concept.)

Now, I understand that not all academics have the luxury of engaging with the outside world. I think the headline of this article might be controversial, because it will rightly be pointed out that for an adjunct, it can be career suicide to defy Whitaker’s advice and publish things you think are thoughtful and useful rather than things that have status within the profession. The situation is especially harsh for women and people of color—anecdotally, I have been told that women who prioritize teaching are seen as less intellectually serious than men who do it, which I bet is probably true. 

I understand that people need jobs, and that in the Age of the Adjunct, it’s hard to choose “perish” over publish. It is not easy to defy a system you depend on for your living. My problem with articles like Whitaker’s, however, is that they describe the current situation as if it’s unavoidable and unproblematic, and we need to reconcile ourselves to it. In fact, we must defy it as much as we can. Personally I defied it by founding a magazine rather than trying to become a university professor. Rob and Ben have defied it by publishing clear and accessible books that will not help their academic careers but will certainly help people. You can defy it by at the very least not internalizing the academy’s values, not accepting the idea that a scholar should refrain from blogging, or that to spread knowledge widely isn’t real intellectual work, or that prestige is identical to quality. We need to rethink our entire conception of what it should mean to be a scholar, and ask hard questions about what kinds of knowledge are useful and why. It is no longer possible to maintain the rigid division between the academy and the rest of society. Interpreting the world is one part of the job. The other part is changing it. 

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