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Editorial: Behind the walls of academia

This week, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof penned a column that has already created a great deal of controversy. Kristof called out modern academics for being too insular, incomprehensible and inaccessible to the general public, contending that the culture of academia has evolved to become exclusive and self-perpetuating. Kristof’s ideal voice is that of the public intellectual, the professor who can reach out to a mainstream audience and communicate often dense and abstract ideas in an understandable way. While he does correctly note an alarming trend in academia and makes several valid points in his argument, Kristof ultimately errs in pointing the finger at professors, rather than at American culture at large.

First, it must be noted that Kristof has pinpointed a real problem for academia. Professors are pushed to write as many academic articles as possible, filled with discipline-specific jargon, and encouraged to stay away from more mainstream avenues such as blogs and magazine articles that might reach a wider audience. In addition, the tenure system is fraught with complications; the halls of academia often do seem removed from the “real” world, opting for theories and ideas that might never hold water in an actual situation. These are real problems that need to be addressed.

But Kristof also ignores the positive qualities of academia’s current situation. Greater isolation for professors allows them to be more daring and experimental in their research. We should desire for professors to push the boundaries and to explore options that might not necessarily appeal to a wider public. It is the realm of more public figures — politicians, business leaders and advocates — to take the ideas developed by professors and present them in a more palatable way. Otherwise, we would have the philosopher king-dominated society advocated by Plato, a society that, fittingly, works well only in theory.

Kristof also disregards general trends in journalism and education when he complains of professors not being more actively engaged with the public. He cites the increase in social media tools, asking why more professors aren’t taking advantage of Twitter accounts to relay their ideas more broadly — though Brown professors may be an exception, with many professors adapting rather well. To some extent, he’s right; the world would benefit from more professors seeking to relate with a mainstream audience. But to blame them for academia’s marginalization, as he does, is simply naive. Those same social media tools he refers to have changed journalism into an activity that is more immediate and responsive, adjectives that directly conflict with the deliberative and empirical nature of academia. And when he complains of unintelligible jargon in academic journals, that has to fall on our education system to some extent for not ensuring our familiarity with the language that professors use.

All these criticisms are not to deny the merit of Kristof’s argument. Academia has become less directly responsive and engaged with the public. But it’s wrong to force professors to shoulder all the blame without noting other general trends that have led to this increased insularity of professors.


Editorials are written by The Herald’s editorial page board: its editors, Matt Brundage ’15 and Rachel Occhiogrosso ’14, and its members, Hannah Loewentheil ’14 and Thomas Nath ’16. Send comments to



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