Originally published at Talking Points Memo on February 17, 2014. Selection below.
Nicholas Kristof wrote in his Sunday New York Times column that to the detriment of the American people, professors are missing from the great debates of our time. He blames this on scholars themselves and the larger academic culture that “glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” As long-time scholars in political science and sociology, we agree. Yet we are glad to report to Mr. Kristof that the tide is rapidly changing and scholars are much more publicly engaged than he realizes. And yes, we are happy to take some credit for that too.
More of our colleagues are increasing interactions with the public. Some blog, others provide commentary, while others advise decision-makers. Although some of these efforts are widely recognized, many are not.
A breakthrough occurred in 2009, when recognizing the gap between those researching possible solutions to pressing policy issues and those in power searching for such answers, Theda Skocpol, a world-renowned professor of government and sociology of Harvard University, led the charge with other top scholars like Jacob S. Hacker of Yale University, Lawrence R. Jacobs of the University of Minnesota, and Suzanne Mettler of Cornell University, to start the Scholars Strategy Network. The organization is a national association of professors and graduate students devoted to sharing their expertise with policymakers and the public to improve public policy and enhance democracy.
The founders knew that too often years of scholars’ blood sweat and tears put into valuable research, analysis and data just sat in tossed aside academic journals read only by their peers. But in those disregarded academic publications stood a vault of valuable research that could better inform the politics and rhetoric that often prevailed in Washington, D.C. and state capitols across the country. . .
So while we agree with Nicholas Kristof’s plea for greater public engagement by academics, we think he has missed realignments within the Ivory Tower. While a good deal of academic knowledge remains (perhaps unavoidably) written by scholars for scholars, the age of public intellectuals is not over. Indeed, its resurgence may be just beginning.
Amy Fried, University of Maine and Luisa Deprez, University of Southern Maine