What Nicholas Kristof gets wrong about public intellectuals

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Image via For Harriet

In the not so distant past, Politico reporter Dylan Byers engaged into a rather public spat with The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’ contention that Melissa Harris-Perry is “America’s most foremost public intellectual.” Byers offered a list of intellectuals to counter Coates’ claim made up entirely of white men and a singular (deceased) white woman, provoking yet another proper sonning from the Twitterverse. It was telling that Byers couldn’t imagine or embrace the idea that an African-American woman could be a public intellectual. His default model returned to white and male.

A similar myopia resurfaced this past Sunday in a NYT column penned by Nicholas Kristof bemoaning the “absence” of academics in the public square. 

“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.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

One reason is the anti-intellectualism in American life, the kind that led Rick Santorum to scold President Obama as “a snob” for wanting more kids to go to college, or that led congressional Republicans to denounce spending on social science research. Yet it’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds. They have also marginalized themselves.”

They have marginalized themselves? I’m not sure we’re living in the same New York, America, my dude. Rightfully, a few choice pieces fired back.

On one hand, I’d submit that Kristof is just looking in the wrong place. The places that are most convenient for Kristof are probably long-standing, recognizable “thought leader” brands like The New York Times and The New Yorker–publications we know have an iffy track record of presenting a healthy diversity of voices–whether they are academic or not.

Moreover, it often seems Kristof can only see women and people of color through the lens of victimization and struggle. Kristof has certainly been a voice that has helped bring attention to oppression and sexual violence against women globally, yet his well-intentioned reporting often positions him as a savior figure, oblivious to his privilege as a cis white male, and whitewashes the complex histories of these communities. The worst is the ally that renders your experiences invisible. The worst is the ally that looks right past you and says, “If only there were someone more qualified.” The worst is the ally that talks about you to you in the same room with you, while still looking for someone else that conforms to the image in his imagination.

Above all, his column and subsequent blog post just seem so out-of-touch with the machine of the academy. There are real-life economic interests that drive our intelligentsia towards publishing “gobbledygook…hidden in obscure journals,” which are inextricably linked to a very powerful interest by said academics in securing full-time employment. People need jobs, my dude! And publication is a critical motivator and performance metric for the academic seeking tenure at any private or public institution. Compounded by the rising cost of tuition and the painful underfunding of scholarly research (the social sciences in particular), these spots for long-term employment are coveted; in March, a vote led by Senator Coburn barred funding for scholarly research in political science that doesn’t promote national security or economic interests. Colleges cut tenure lines for departments with a frequency that I’m not able to quantify. Add as a multiplier the growing adjunct specialized labor underclass, highly competitive and woefully underpaid posts for emerging academics seeking entry into the academy, who also have to write and publish to gain visibility and survive. (President Obama was an adjunct professor, by the way, so he knows what we speak of.) Women make up a disproportionate proportion of adjuncts, reportedly as much as 51 to 61%, many of whom work non-academic gigs to make ends meet. Another reciprocal factor? The drop in enrollment and majors in social sciences like economics and political science because the graduates can’t get jobs when the marketplace appears to demand specialization that further promotes the very anti-intellectualization Kristof criticizes.

This is a circular reference on an excel spreadsheet.

Maybe Kristof is sort of trolling us? By forcing us to point out how powerfully reductive his observations are about the “absence” of public intellectual professors, he’s made us connect a series of issues (as if we aren’t already aware) that we face in terms of our relationship with the academy–and that we’ll have to address to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Yet, I also think he just needs to break out of his bubble. Publications like The New Inquiry, In These Times, and Jacobin offer views from academics who have been marginalized by big media, “thought leader” publications. Others have carved out an audience on Slate, Ebony.com, Salon, and The American Prospect. This space has devoted a regular column to profiling the works of academics engaged in teaching, writing, and research on feminism, gender, class, race, and politics. There are certainly academics who are out-of-touch with the public sphere, but I think our job out as thoughtful media citizens is to facilitate getting those voices out of their ivory towered, fluorescent-lit corridors by providing a platform for them to exchange ideas and research. Part of the reason we created space here for the Academic Feminist series was that we recognized that there are great scholars doing work that needed wider visibility.

Public intellectuals are all around us. Perhaps a better framing of Kristof’s question would be: Which academics do you recommend I read that have compelling research and information for causes I care about? The same old publications aren’t covering them in a way that’s meaningful for me.

Let’s make a list for ourselves. Maybe we’ll share it with him.

sm-bio Syreeta McFadden is an adjunct professor of English and Humanities. She loves and misses sleep.

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One Comment

  1. Posted February 19, 2014 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    A small clarification about Professor Obama’s role: In law schools, the predominantly female underclass of instructors who lack job security and the higher pay of tenure-track faculty are usually the clinical and legal writing instructors. An “adjunct” is usually a prominent local lawyer or judge teaching a class on the side. While some of them might like to be hired full-time by the law school, they aren’t really comparable to the Arts & Sciences “adjuncts” who have followed academic career paths and are being exploited as full-time instructors.

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