Dear Mr. Kristof: A Letter from a Public Intellectual

February 18, 2014, 11:19 am


The word you were looking for was WTF

Over the weekend, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof got an earful when he bewailed the absence of academics writing for a broad audience (“Professors, We Need You!”, February 15, 2014.) Much gnashing of teeth ensued. I left an extended comment over at Corey Robin’s blog; Corey’s post is full of great links to other public intellectuals.  And can we give three cheers to our colleagues at UIC, intellectuals out in public who are walking the picket line today and tomorrow?

I was also lucky enough to receive a guest post over the transom from an old friend, Carol Emberton, a professor of American history at SUNY-Buffalo. Emberton is the author of Beyond Redemption: Race, Violence, and the American South after the Civil War (University of Chicago Press, 2013.) In an open letter, Emberton urges Nicholas Kristof to re-think how he defines the term “public intellectual.”

As you hoped, your column in yesterday’s NYT lamenting the perceived lack of public intellectuals on American college campuses got me thinking about my role as an academic in today’s society. And in the spirit of your call to action, I decided to respond publicly.

As you point out, anti-intellectualism in America has deep roots. The conservative right regularly bemoans the elitism and irrelevancy they identify with the academy, so much so that I doubt many of us take much notice anymore. But when someone like yourself, who professes an affinity for higher education and cultural literacy, strikes out with the same imaginary slings and arrows it’s jolting. And more than a little irritating.

How do you define “public intellectual?”

If you mean bloggers and folks out there in online media, then you might be surprised. Your claim that “academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook” makes me think that you don’t spend a lot of time on Twitter or Facebook, which may not be a bad thing (unless you are making claims about what is or is not “out there.”) Both forums are FULL of academics throwing out pearls and pebbles alike: #twitterstorians #publicintellec and #blacktwitter. This is just to name a few. Even your beloved political scientists are out there @ #PoliticsScience. There are also a slew of individual academics in every field hash tagging their way into the public consciousness. The same is true for the blogosphere. Tenured Radical, PopSouth, Civil War Memory, Professor B, History News Network, New Black Man, Junto Blog, Historiann, and Feminist Wire are few of my personal favorites. There are many, many more. The thinking and writing on these sites is always engaging and often provocative – hardly a “vast moat of dreadful prose.” I think both you and Jill Lepore would be proud.

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.

So, fear not, Nicholas Kristof! Professors are not cloistered like “medievel monks.” We know you need us. And we show up. Every. Day.


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