Anti-intellectualism vs. the potential roles of “public intellectuals”

Nicholas Kristof’s NYT column Professors, We Need You! begins:

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.

Part of the reason for this, as Kristof notes, is “the long history of anti-intellectualism in American life.” Way back in the 80s, while writing for a student publication at Washington University, I wrote a lengthy essay — and maybe one lost to time — that touched upon the ways in which anti-intellectualism was impacting a particular campus debate about tenure, promotions, and spending.

Of course, professors and others could counter some of the negative trends if they showed any interest in fighting them — and some do. Armstrong’s ongoing lecture series A Moveable Feast is an excellent example of the attempt to engage academic experts with the community.

Still, to a significant degree, my decision 20+ years ago not to pursue a Ph.D. was due to what I had seen of professors’ lives — so many seemed to retreat further and further into obscure study, into the relative comforts of tenure, and away from public life.

I’m painting with a broad brush here, obviously.

While Kristof notes the power of anti-intellectualism in American life, today’s column really focuses on other areas.


A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.


A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.


Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity.

Kristof also notes a stunning bit of news that I had not seen. The International Studies Association has proposed the following:

No editor of any ISA journal or member of any editorial team of an ISA journal can create or actively manage a blog unless it is an official blog of the editor’s journal or the editorial team’s journal.

What? What an embarrassing proposal — and one that seems on its face to violate the basic tenets of free speech and public engagement that should be at the heart of academia.

I could go on and on, but I’ll leave it at that. Kristof’s column is well worth reading.