Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Climbing Down from the Ivory Tower


Mark Oppenheimer, editor of the journal In Character has a greatly interesting piece in the latest issue of the Chronicle (subscribers only, I believe) about the tremendous differences between the degree of academics’ intellectual engagement with the world outside of their scholarly communities or fields. He writes on the great discrepancy between the profile of some professors, who write for popular publications and make comparable media appearances, and the majority of academics, who never climb down from the Ivory Tower. He writes:

Much has been written about the divide between academe and “the real world,” and about academic writing versus popular writing. But far less has been said about the split within the academy between those who care about the popularization of academic learning — either they want to be popularizers, or they enjoy reading popularizers, or they at least feel a professional obligation to know who the popularizers are — and those who do not. Residing in the same department can be a professor with influence far beyond the guild of scholars — often known as a public intellectual — and a student, or younger professor, with no idea how her colleague accrued the power and now wields it.

One important public intellectual in the field of American history, for example, is Gordon S. Wood, a history professor at Brown University. Only a couple of the American-history graduate students I knew were aware of the tremendous influence he has on how millions of Americans learn history. He is the primary reviewer of books about Revolutionary-era America for The New York Review, and so his opinions about new and important works of history are read by a couple of hundred thousand college professors, law-school professors, journalists, National Public Radio hosts and producers, and assorted other curious parties who, as a class, shape the narratives that get fed to the rest of us on talk shows and in textbooks and newspaper op-eds. Wood, who was even mentioned by Matt Damon’s character in the movie Good Will Hunting, also reviews books for The New Republic, which similarly gives a few other professors, like Sean Wilentz, frequent opportunities to pass judgment on new works in American history.

 Oppenheimer argues for greater academic engagement with the larger world, providing examples of the ignorance of respectable journals such as First Things and Dissent that he’s found in academic circles. He offers an admirable reproach to hermitic academic burrowing:
If students fail to understand the role of the public intellectual, they have not adequately learned the history of their profession, and thus they sorely underestimate the potential meaningfulness of their own academic work and the roles they might play in shaping public dialogue.
Oppenheimer’s advice to aspiring public intellectuals: just try.


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