Jackson Doughart
articles   |   poetry   |   music   |   officiating   |   c.v.
Are professors less smart than they used to be?

Prince Arthur Herald, 10 March 2014

In a recent article entitled “Professors We Need You”, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pondered the refusal of today’s class of academics to take up the role of public intellectual. Professors, Kristof writes, no longer take a prominent part in the great debates about public issues, choosing instead to cocoon themselves in the ivory tower, staying far away from the thrust and parry of relevant social arguments.

Kristof’s point is a cogent and important one, for he focusses on the culture of the academy, which has grown disdainful of the hoi polloi to such an extent that scholars are discouraged from participating in public debate.

For example: “The executive council of the prestigious International Studies Association proposed that its publication editors be barred from having personal blogs,” he writes. “The association might as well scream: We want our scholars to be less influential!”

As he also mentions, the distinction between academic and popular writing has grown in importance to scholars, so much that writing for the public is considered inferior or even a waste of time, a factor which discourages young academics from investing their time in public writing. Instead, professors want their colleagues to focus solely on scholarly writing, i.e. in journals that no one will read, and which can only be understood by a small cadre of people within their own field of expertise.

All of this contributes to a growing irrelevancy of academics, a point which Kristof is not the first to make. A couple of years ago I attended a lecture by Brian Lee Crowley of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute. Himself a former economics professor, Crowley argued that in the industry of big ideas and public policy, universities have taken themselves out of the game. When television and radio programs, magazines, and newspapers need expert commentary, they now turn to think tanks and public-policy institutes instead of university professors. All of this redoubts upon not only the existing academic class that we support, but also the system of scholarly and educational training which they influence.

In my experience, there are some professors—including ones who have taught me a great deal—who have no interest in being public intellectuals, and who wouldn’t write a magazine article or go on the radio if you paid them. Some of them share in the snobbery to which Kristof alludes, while others simply work in fields that would be of little interest to the public. But it remains that they do good work within their own domains and dedicate themselves to teaching, meaning that they are far from without value to society. As Leon Wieseltier wrote, in addressing the issue of public intellectuals, “Perhaps we have been asking the wrong question. Where are the private intellectuals? Philosophers have for too long tried to change the world. The time has come to think about it.”

With this caveat in mind, it seems to me that the problem is not with professors who are too dedicated to scholarship, and thereby too dismissive of the role of the public intellectual; the problem, rather, is with those who are not advanced contributors to their field, yet may have otherwise filled the role of public intellectual were it not for a change in circumstances. Those circumstances are varied, of course, but it is clear that we are not simply dealing with a decline in the upper echelons of academia; instead, there is a decline in academics as a class of people, including a proportion that may, in previous generations, have provided the kind of dedication to public argument of which Kristof would approve.

What has changed? Primarily the educational standards of the Baby Boomer generation, who ambiguated as no group did before the realms of scholarship and activism. It was during the cultural revolution of the 1960s that the idea of scholars abandoning their studies to serve the project of changing the world came to be realized. The consequence relates not merely to the quality of professors we have, but also to the quality of university and, ultimately, society that we have as well. The legacy of the Marcusian Campus Left was, above all, a new category of utopia; while previous iterations of radicalism had romanticized the working class and the Enlightenment citizen, the New Left held up, and continues to hold up, the circumstances of the college student, with his complete social independence and complete financial dependence, as the epitome of the perfect life. It should be of little surprise to us that this mammoth cultural shift has borne the ringing endorsement of our age’s intellectual class.

More specifically, the advent of affirmative action ought not be discounted. For about three and a half decades, undergraduate programs at the best colleges have skewed against the talented and toward those who acquire the nebulous distinction of historical disadvantage. Ditto for applicants to graduate schools, ditto for professional programs such as law and medicine, ditto for doctoral candidates, and, finally, ditto for professorial job placements, where “employment equity” has picked up where affirmative action leaves off. Though the promoters of such changes were doubtless genuine in their desire to right historical wrongs, the consequence has been palpable to today’s generation of students, and in a larger sense to the society that our intellectuals serve.

We have diluted the significance of intellectual ability and effort to such a degree that our present poverty ought not be surprising. Our academic class has failed to take up the mantle of public intellectual not because it refuses it, but because it can’t fit it. This is where the standards of the readership ought not be discounted: university administrators can paper over a lack of talent with radical gobbledygook in their own sheltered worlds, but in the real domain of public argument, the weakness of today’s “scholar” is so profound that the potential candidates can barely hide themselves in plain sight, let alone face the proverbial music. This is a matter of shame not only for the academy but for the culture as well, and one which requires our urgent attention and reflection.

Jackson Doughart jdoughart (at) gmail (dot) com