Now He’s a Philosophizer, or the Autobiography of the Human Soul

Nicholas Kristoff used his Feb. 15 Sunday Review op-ed piece to offer a clarion call to college professors to stop cloistering themselves like medieval monks, because we need you! Kristoff’s argument, simply put, is that too many academics have abandoned the public arena in favor of specialized fields and “arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” 

Kristoff admits that American anti-intellectualism plays a role in marginalizing some of our sharpest minds. Everyone from Rick Santorum to White Goodman willingly, and at times aggressively, looks down on those who go around “philosophizing.” Heck, drive down almost any highway in the state of Texas and you will see at least one bumper sticker telling you “My son beat up your honor student.” One of my own blog posts about writing was once dismissed as “academic,” and, presumably, a waste of that reader’s precious time. I’m guessing he didn’t become a faithful follower. 

But, Kristoff tells us, the real problem is within the academy itself. Sociology is “dominated by the left” and “dismissed by the right.” Too many fields, he tells us, have abandoned “area studies” in favor of specialists “who know little that is practical about the world.” For example, he lets us know, scholars were the most oblivious to the rising waters of the Arab Spring. Presumably, Kristoff is claiming they are a bunch of eggheads who spent all their time relying on quantitative numbers and theoretical constructs and forgot the Arab world is full of actual human beings. Of course, their research was probably funded by grants from organizations or politicians looking for data and best practices.

I’ll willingly admit that I have some sympathy for Kristoff’s argument. Too many college professors, the best minds of many generations, do lock themselves in the ivory tower and avoid the public spotlight. Many of them, dare I say most of them, restrict their intellectual conversations to the classroom while studiously avoiding “casting pearls through Facebook and Twitter.”

Even though we all know Facebook is the ideal place to engage in philosophical discussions: just ask my friend who went crazy bonkers protecting the Duck Commanders’ right to hate on the gays and blacks. Twitter provides an even better venue for complex conversations about power structures and human behavior. If we focus on the political disc (oops. That’s 140 characters. Did I shape any behavior?)

In what might be considered irony by some of those cloistered monks, the Sunday Editorial article, “The New College Campus,” points out that administrative employees on American college campuses are growing at the same rate as adjunct professors.

Essentially, according to the Sunday New York Times, the only things not growing on college campuses are full-time professors and the public influence of the few who are left.

What Kristoff also fails to mention, of course, is that our last bastion of publicly funded intellectuals is dying a slow, painful death.

Or, at least, being attacked on a daily basis.

Education and teaching has increasingly become about efficiency, learning outcomes, assessment, and other quantifiable numbers and theoretical constructs. Even our egghead in chief, President Obama (a law professor, no less as Kristoff notes) is seeking an educational accountability funding bill that will do everything it can to reduce colleges to factories that output products. For schools that can’t produce them fast enough, whether the consumer wants to graduate or not, we’ll cut them from the small public teat still exists.

In the meantime, Governors across America are creating $10,000 degrees, moving classes into the online environment, and pushing programs to measure competence (because, really, we should all be striving for competence as our highest level of achievement, right?). Kristoff himself points to the avenues open to us to spread our message more efficiently.

All the while, we cut full-time faculty and hire administrators to count and measure the beans, build climbing walls, and increase class sizes. Boards of Regents (or Boards of Governors depending on where you live) are made of business people with no higher ed experience and Chancellors are increasingly ex-politicians who are as qualified to run a university as Max Baucus is to be ambassador to China.

Too many of these people, not surprisingly, miss the point of educational and intellectual discourse completely.

Last year, retiring Texas Tech University System Chancellor Kent Hance told the Texas Tribune that he thinks “all kinds of research is good. But if you’re doing research on Shakespeare’s 13th play, and there’s been 140 research papers written on it, I don’t know if that’s a priority with taxpayers’ taxes.”

We research Shakespeare’s 13th play, Dr. Hance, because we are seeking to understand the autobiography of the human soul. 

Richard D. Altick writes in The Art of Literary Research that “Literature, then, is an eloquent artistic document . . . whatever the practical uses of history may be, one of the marks of civilized man is his absorbed interest in the emotional and intellectual adventures of earlier generations.” We can’t mark that absorbed interest with quantifiable data, pie charts, and practical assessments.

We publish in our own journals because even Dr. Hance, a man tasked with running one of the most underrated college systems in America, doesn’t value that research. Many of us avoid public discourse because our voices are obscured and lost in the cacophony of voices within the maelstrom of ideology dominating social media. It is, quite frankly, hard to get a word in edgewise and not get a sore throat trying.

More important, though, Mr. Kristoff, is that ideas take time, develop slowly, and with a complexity that can’t really exist in a MOOC, a 15 minute video, or a format that encourages clicking on the “Like” button.

They also can’t be pushed out like an advertisement for Lands End or a Nigerian scam artist selling shares of his dead uncle’s estate. 

Ideas and intellectual discourse require give and take, conversation, reflection, and revision. Our philosophizers, those folks purveying the wisdom Mr. Kristoff says he values, are hard at work on college campuses already. Instead of asking them to speak louder, maybe his next call should be for people to start listening more closely.


About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Now He’s a Philosophizer, or the Autobiography of the Human Soul

  1. John Wegner says:

    Thanks for the great comment! As someone who reads his own fair share of jargon filled journal articles, I would agree that there is some truth there. I think your comment about the way news writers report on medical studies is spot on and really perceptive. In some ways, we need to train our researchers to paraphrase and summarize better and, as you note, Kristoff does have a valid criticism in that regard.

  2. If research papers were written in as concise a style as your article, John, they would reach a wider audience and have more effect. I’m a medical imaging tech. I must read peer-reviewed journals and research studies regularly as part of my licensing requirements. They are needlessly dull and often pointlessly long.

    I’ve given up expecting news writers to understand and interpret these articles correctly. Because academics write in “medicalese” or “legalese” and aren’t rewarded for clarity or brevity, the news writers read, misunderstand, and disseminate an inaccurate rewrite (with improved style) to print and broadcast media. It’s all wrong, but with better flow. Telling a story with concrete data is hard, but possible. It’s a worthwhile goal. The ones most qualified to tell that story are those gathering the data.

    I don’t know how to bridge that gap in knowledge, except by encouraging the original authors to write more clearly. That was a point in Krystof’s article I agreed with.

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