Schoenbachler: "Bone-deep within the academic culture are imperatives that conspire against engagement with the public."

Matt Schoenbachler

On Sunday, in my weekly “Sunday Night Odds and Ends” post, I linked to Professor Patricia Limerick’s response to Nicholas Kristof’s February 2015 New York Times column, “Professors, We Need You!”  If you read this blog, you know that I have done several posts on the topic.  (You can read them here and here and here ).  In the end I argued, contra to most of my colleagues in academia, that when Kristof’s chides academics for staying in their ivory towers, writing jargon-filled prose, and not engaging more fully with public audiences, he is basically correct.


Limerick, the incoming president of the Organization of American Historians, used her inaugural column to rally American historians to show Kristof just how much he is wrong about academics on this front.  Here is a taste of her column:
Kristof…labors—and writes—in darkness when it comes to a grounded knowledge of the everyday lives of hundreds of historians working in multiple institutions, locales, and enterprises.
I need to hear from historians employed at universities and colleges who travel back and forth across the borders of the academic world…
If you are a historian based in academia and also engaged in the world beyond the borders of your campus, please write me. Tell me who you are, what your field is, what you teach, what you write about, and what sort of activity—working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.—you engage in outside your university or college. If you involve your students in these enterprises, all the better—please let me know about how you may have, for instance, hitched up the writing and research assignments in your class to the public benefit…
“I write this in sorrow,” Kristof ended his column, “for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses.”
We now have the opportunity to relieve his “sorrow” and to deepen his admiration for “the wisdom found on”—and actually transported and distributed far from—”university campuses.”
Matthew G. Schoenbachler, a Professor of History at the University of North Alabama and a reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, saw the link to Limerick’s column and asked me if he could respond.  Rather than include his remarks in the comments section below, I thought his message deserved a post of its own because I think he is on the mark here:

I appreciate what Professor Limerick is trying to do in her call for American historians to send her examples of historians engaging people outside the classroom. In responding to critics such as Nicholas Kristof who contend that that most academic work is irrelevant, she rightly asserts that historians engage the public far more than most people know, “working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.”

Doubtlessly, thousands of professional historians could give abundant examples of all or most of the above. But when and if Limerick tabulates their responses, her project will signify little or nothing. For the problem is not that historians don’t reach out to the public—the problem is that such effort is essentially pro bono—the entire academic system of incentives and rewards militates against such activities. The fact that such endeavors go on at all warms my one-point Calvinist heart (total depravity in case you’re wondering).  

Ask yourself: How many historians are awarded tenure, promoted, or find employment at a more prestigious university by “working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.”?

Exactly none.

In a sense, Limerick’s project resembles the conservative contention that massive inequities in wealth distribution can be alleviated through charity rather than the imposition of progressive taxation (yes, I realize I just made a completely implausible analogy between historians and the wealthy, but bear with me). At issue is not the individuals in the system or their character; it is the system itself. And bone-deep within the academic culture are imperatives that conspire against engagement with public and ten thousand testimonials to the essential decency of most professional historians will change nothing. 

We should be far less concerned with giving “aid, comfort, and affirmation to our critics” and far more concerned with advocating the creation of institutional means that will encourage and reward professional historians’ engagement with the public.
Thanks, Mark.  It may be time for some serious reform.  

Feel free to fire-away in the comment section below.

5 thoughts on “Schoenbachler: "Bone-deep within the academic culture are imperatives that conspire against engagement with the public."

  1. I'm writing a Chronicle piece on this topic so will mostly hold off, but the “exactly none” bit is wrong. Juan Cole basically was hired at U-Mich for his blog. He's also a distinguished scholar, of course.

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  2. Absolutely — not either-or at all. We need good public-facing scholars in all fields, like Neil deGrasse Tyson (or better, Carl Sagan) for astronomy, or your Christian America book, which I think is a model of bringing real, hard-won expertise to a matter of public importance. But again, we don't complain about those elitist astronomers who don't do TV shows — we admire their specialized abilities — while for whatever reason people like Kristoff are happy to complain about humanistic scholarship that's beyond his reach, as if he's entitled to it without having to work for it.

    What I wish Kristoff had written would be something like, “Gee, look at all these super smart humanists doing amazing work. I deeply admire people who read ancient manuscripts in 7 languages, who parse Heidegger, who spend thousands of hours in archives to write a single book. We are all indebted to their tremendous skill, dedication, and accomplishments — even if we can't begin to understand half of it. As a high-profile journalist, I pledge to do what I can to bring more of this great work to public light.”

    A great model of this is Ta-Nehisi Coates's recent, amazing article on reparations for The Atlantic, in which he thanked the decades of scholarship his work drew on.

    But I also want to stand up for irrelevance, or at least speak against “relevance” too narrowly conceived as the final measure of value. We are happy about pure science — simply understanding better how the world works. Someday some of it may become a cure for cancer or a better iPhone– it may become relevant as technology, in other words. But we don't ask that astronomy be “relevant” — we are simply happy to understand more about the world, or even happy to know that some smart people somewhere know what gravitational waves are, even if we don't.

    Personally I am deeply comforted by the idea that somewhere, in the basement of some research library, some graduate student is researching 13th century Tibetan or Franciscan texts, or some other matter that 99.9% of humanity will never know about, but that expands the collective understanding of humanity. I wish Kristoff would speak up for that in addition to praising the popularizers and pundits. Otherwise I fear the academy becoming the domain of the metric-wielding bean-counters with their yardsticks of return-on-investment.

    Anyway, great stuff — thanks for posting this. And yes, to be continued at Valpo. Looks like a great conference.

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  3. I don't think it is an “either-or” issue. Of course we need technical studies. But we also need people like your colleagues at UVA. On the one hand, your colleagues may be engaging in brand development–fair enough. I am doing the same, on a smaller scale, at Messiah. But could you look at this more positively in the sense that your colleagues are also trying to reach larger audiences with their work?

    Perhaps Kristof is too unfair to those of us who have been doing this kind of public work all along, but when scholarship becomes irrelevant, or irrelevancy and inaccessibility becomes the mainstream (as I think it now is), then this, at least for me, is a problem.

    Thanks for the comment. Will I see you in Valpo this weekend?

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  4. Isn't teaching a form of engaging with the public?

    Beyond that basic oversight, I notice another oddity in Kristoff's piece, and have been pondering it since the article appeared: we lament technical expertise in humanists, but laud it in scientists. We'd never say: why do these lousy, privileged geneticists/astrophysicists insist on publishing articles that I can't understand? Rather, we say: gee, aren't they so smart! I'm so glad someone that smart is studying such important things and pushing the frontiers of knowledge.

    There's never any excuse for bad writing — bad writing is bad thinking, plain and simple. I agree there. But there is a place for technical expertise in the humanities, for engaging with fellow specialists in a way that lay folk can't understand; we don't need to attack that, as Kristoff does.

    At UVA I see faculty rewarded based on their appearances on CNN or NPR, because they, like the football team, are helping with brand development. I find this more disturbing than well done technical scholarship.

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