Kristof Is Right About the Lack of Public Intellectuals. Thank Goodness!

Nicholas Kristof declared "Professors, We Need You!" in his Sunday New York Times op-ed. Scholars who make an impact on the public debate, he argues, are pretty much long gone. PhD programs focus on "arcane unintelligibility," professors "marginalize themselves" through "gobbledygook" writing in "obscure journals," and entire disciplines, such as sociology, are so "dominated by the left" that they are "instinctively dismissed by the right."

Things were different, he writes on his blog, when he was a kid and "the Kennedy administration had its 'brain trust' of Harvard faculty members and university professors were often vital public intellectuals who served off and on in government." Kristof says that he writes "this in sorrow" as he "deeply admire[s] the wisdom found on university campuses."

So I say back to Kristof: Thank goodness for arcane unintelligibility! Hurrah for gobbledygook! For without it, there could never be any public intellectuals. In fact, the lifeblood of scholars who are public intellectuals is exactly the kind of complex and often indecipherable academic work that Kristof bemoans. You cannot have one without the other.

This is because Kristof misses three key points:

First, being a public intellectual requires two very different skills -- depth of knowledge and breadth of perspective -- that almost never coexist together in the academy. The conundrum is that to go really in depth, to truly understand the complexities and nuances of an issue, requires technical language and complicated theories. Yet to have a broad perspective and a powerful voice requires clarity and conciseness. It's not very often that complexity easily lives side by side with clarity.

Second, to bring together such breadth and depth is a skill in and of itself, which, like anything else at world-class levels, only very few can do. Not anyone can win the gold medal in the Giant Slalom, write opinion pieces in the New York Times, or be a competent public intellectual. Take my own field of education. There are about 20,000 educational researchers in the U.S., but probably only 10 percent or so who are "highly productive" scholars who make a fundamental contribution to their respective areas of expertise, and only 10 percent or so of those top-notch scholars are themselves part of the public discourse on education. That's just one percent of all education faculty.

Third, and most importantly, those public intellectuals can only do what they do -- engage in thoughtful and powerful and provocative public discourse -- exactly because there are a whole bunch of other scholars doing lots of important work that folks like Kristof will never read or understand. Academics don't shoot from the hip. We rely on years and decades and sometimes centuries of research. We build upon, question, revise, rethink, expand upon and restart complex conversations in our respective areas. Much of this proceeds in starts and stops as we retry a different approach, discover new and competing data, rethink our assumptions and probe new models of how to think about a problem.

This is why we "marginalize" ourselves. Because it takes time to think through and figure out complex stuff. And, yes, sometimes we have to use complicated statistical methodologies and obscure conceptual frameworks to see if we can shed more light on a complex problem. And we present and publish our thoughts and findings in academic venues for our peers who are also grappling with the same complex issues and methodologies and theories. Because our individual scholarship certainly isn't the last word on the final truth. We're usually still working out key details about difficult research issues that, yes, mirror the complexities of the real-world phenomenon we are studying.

So if Kristof wants to call that kind of writing "gobbledygook" in "obscure journals," so be it. Such scholarship, I would argue, is critical to advance the scientific enterprise. It is what advances knowledge and gives folks like Kristof the grist they need to think about larger public policy issues.

Could we make our findings more public and better known? You bet. Could we be better at translating our research into practice? Of course. But all this is easier said than done. Academics speak of "translational research" that bridges theory and practice to put "scholarship in action." But as Kristof should know better than most, it is actually much easier to come up with a good idea than to make it happen. It is much easier to tweet into the blogosphere than to be heard.

So, yes, professors, we do need you. We need to probe and develop and examine and synthesize and critique and challenge and move your fields forward. We need to question simplistic solutions at the exact same time we develop simpler answers. We need to strive for nuanced understandings of complexity at the same time that we gain clarity. We need to do our job of probing in depth and hope that commentators like Kristof will keep writing about the issues that we first bring to light.