U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Point is Academic (Guest Post by Andrew Seal)

[Editor’s Note: This is the second of six weekly guest posts by Andrew Seal. — Ben Alpers]

You have no doubt by now encountered in some fashion Nicholas Kristof’s column from last Saturday, in which he complains that university professors have “marginalized themselves” from “today’s great debates.” Kristof blames the usual suspects—pedantry, bad prose, political uniformity, stuffiness, fear of Twitter—and ends with a cri de coeur that should shatter all our hearts: “I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!”

The backlash was predictably swift—it turns out there are a lot of academics on Twitter—as well as articulate, compelling, and true. And also, I think, missing the point.

That is not surprising: Kristof missed it, too. But in a closer reading of his column and the response to it we can see the inadvertent shadow of a sharper point, one that does pierce our hearts, if I may be momentarily as melodramatic as Kristof.

Kristof asks, how can academics be “relevant” (meaning influential), and we answered him, we are! And Corey Robin, in an excellent rejoinder, added that more of us would be—if so many weren’t hustling constantly to keep body and soul together.

Robin rightly counters Kristof’s weightless analysis with an emphasis on the material constraints on academics—particularly on junior faculty, grad students, contingent faculty, and what one might term “discouraged academics” (in the sense of “discouraged workers”)—but he keeps what I think is the more damagingly voluntaristic emphasis of Kristof’s original argument: that the issue is whether academics want to be “public intellectuals” or not.[i]

But the question at issue is not really a sociological one—either about Kristof’s academic “culture of exclusivity” that deprives society of public intellectuals or about Robin’s material restructuring of the academy that makes it brutally difficult and possibly unwise for young academics to write for the public—but a historical one. Kristof works from the premise—and Robin and others tacitly accept it—that there is a strong barrier between “the academy” and “society” and that public intellectuals nebulously mediate the two, but that premise requires serious scrutiny. I hope to provide a little of that here.


In the second paragraph of Kristof’s column, he writes, “The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: ‘That’s academic.’ In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.” But this denotation of the term is more interesting than Kristof lets on. “Academic” developed as a term to describe debates “not leading to a decision”—i.e., set off from actual governance or administration. One might think here of Carl Schmitt’s famous definition of sovereignty: the sovereign is the one who decides on the exception, the state in which the rule of law or custom evaporates. The academy—if we take this denotation of “academic” seriously—then is deliberately unsovereign, a space in which to argue out the general case, not to suspend, abridge, or abolish it to create a state of exception.

This Schmittian turn on the term is not fanciful, but runs quite close to one of the examples of its usage from the OED: “This discussion partook of an academic character, for it was well understood that, whatever the result of the discussions might be, no practical step would be taken in the present Parliament” (taken from the Times, March 31, 1886). I looked up the article, and the fuller quote sheds a good deal more light:

Mr Hunter on rising to second the motion of his hon[orable] friend the member for Glasgow, said he must make one admission to the opponents of that motion [to disestablish the Church of Scotland]. He must admit that, to a certain extent, this discussion partook of an academic character, for it was well understood that, whatever the result of the discussions might be, no practical step would be taken in the present Parliament for the disestablishment or disendowment of the Church of Scotland. But for that very reason it seemed not impossible to hope that they might have a more thorough and exhaustive discussion on this subject, inasmuch as hon. members, relieved from the fear of any immediate consequences, might be disposed to take a calmer and more dispassionate view of the question. [emphasis added]

“Relieved from the fear of any immediate consequences”—this captures in a phrase both what Kristof obviously detests about academia and what the scholars who first fought for the institutionalization of tenure and other guarantees of academic freedom most desired.

These “immediate consequences” were and are various: political reprisals, administrative favoritism, commercial considerations. But also the demand for the kind of conspicuous display of intellectual “relevance” that Kristof is making. Academic pursuits do not have to be (though they may be) the grist for governance and administration in order to have merit.

The ideal of the public intellectual, I think, was an explicit refutation of this project, though it was dependent upon it: a public intellectual was one who, by a heroic effort, transcended these strictures of academic separation from the sovereign and from the machinery of decision. Either the public intellectual ostentatiously flouted them by intentionally and vocally remaining outside them, or he (generally a he) accepted them as a professional concern but honored them only in the breach, remaining visibly rooted in, identified with, at home in, but not bound by the academy. But either way those strictures had to remain in place for the category of “public intellectual” to have meaning.

In these times, the category of the “public intellectual” is under threat of extinction not so much because of some failure on the part of academics to be “relevant” but because the enabling condition of the putative division between the academy and society has crumbled from both sides. The willed effort to vault over the groves of academe can no longer seem heroic when its hedgerows have been clipped down to shrubbery.

One side of this crumbling and clipping is covered in Robin’s post: the coherence of a career in academia—steady, adequate employment and benefits—has melted into air for a stunning percentage of the people who pursue it. But the wall between society and the Ivory Tower has been dismantled from the other side as well. The academy is now thoroughly integrated into an interlocking rotation of governance, consulting, and investment: it is not just an integral part of the military-industrial complex, as Noam Chomsky and many others have been saying for some time, but also a well-used stop on the revolving door of lobbying, think tanks, management consulting, federal or state governance, and the media.

Russell Jacoby, whose lament The Last Intellectuals I have seen connected to Kristof’s column by a number of people, critiqued an early stage of this process: the engulfment of “unattached” intellectuals by academic employment. Mark McGurl’s more recent The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing made the case that almost no novelist of significance in the postwar era has not been touched, inspired, or infuriated by a deep connection to the academy. And this trend has extended further and further, but has also shifted gears: what Jacoby critiqued was the conversion of the unattached into the careerist. Today’s academic poaching is more short-term: an ex-president or prime minister teaches a high-profile course; new interdisciplinary centers display as fellows former generals or CEOs… or current national columnists. I must confess I was shocked to note that, according to Kristof’s bio, he himself does not hold some courtesy or token academic appointment.

It is this mutual enclosure of society and the academy that we should, I think, point to when countering Kristof’s shallow sociology. Our work’s relevance is not dependent on our will to make it so; it is relevant because we are in the belly of the beast.

[i] Robin disclaims the term as one he hates, but he relents on it later in the post. I agree with L. D., who in her post responding to Kristof, argues that, while dated, “public intellectual” can still be powerful, and that by using it to challenge conventional images of who can be and is a public intellectual, the phrase’s power can be directed productively.

14 Thoughts on this Post

S-USIH Comment Policy

We ask that those who participate in the discussions generated in the Comments section do so with the same decorum as they would in any other academic setting or context. Since the USIH bloggers write under our real names, we would prefer that our commenters also identify themselves by their real name. As our primary goal is to stimulate and engage in fruitful and productive discussion, ad hominem attacks (personal or professional), unnecessary insults, and/or mean-spiritedness have no place in the USIH Blog’s Comments section. Therefore, we reserve the right to remove any comments that contain any of the above and/or are not intended to further the discussion of the topic of the post. We welcome suggestions for corrections to any of our posts. As the official blog of the Society of US Intellectual History, we hope to foster a diverse community of scholars and readers who engage with one another in discussions of US intellectual history, broadly understood.

  1. Andrew, thanks for this post. (And thanks too for the shout-out/link in the footnotes.)

    I’m wondering if what strikes us as the datedness of the term “public intellectual” may derive less from its origins in some earlier bygone time when there was a “hedgerow” between the academy and society, than from it origins in a time when people could believe that such a barrier/division existed between “the ivory tower” and “the real world.”

    You seem to be pointing in this direction when you speak of the “enabling condition of the putative division between the academy and society” (emphasis mine). I wonder if you would care to elaborate more on the relationship between the structural changes and the perspectival/perceptual changes. Was the very emergence of the idea of a “public intellectual” a precipitate of the willingness/desire/ability/need to believe that the academy was somehow separate and apart from “the real world”?

    Hope the question makes sense!

    • L. D.,
      Thanks for catching precisely what I was trying—maybe too cutely—to signal here with “putatively.” I didn’t want to expand the post to an unreasonable length, but I do think the gap between, as you say, the perspectival and the structural changes is important to consider.

      I’m by no means an expert on this—I’m reading Andrew Jewett’s (fantastic) book right now, and it’s absolutely astonishing how complex the relations between “the academy” and society have always been—but my initial inclination is to stress the need for precision regarding the variety of geographic circumstances of different colleges and universities. A college like Dartmouth, say, or especially a number of the liberal arts schools of the Midwest, were geographically isolated for a long time in a manner that could certainly substantiate a very strong notion of a chasm between academia and society-at-large. But when you think of Columbia, or the University of Chicago, or Howard (I’m thinking here of Jonathan Holloway’s remarkable emplacement of Howard within the Chocolate City in Confronting the Veil), then I’m not sure how much insularity you’re ever going to find.

      But I think there’s another half to the question which goes back to the issue of sovereignty. Setting off the academy from a compulsory involvement in the machinery of governance is also supposed to protect the ability of academics to make decisions about matters that can be classed as “academic”—especially hiring, tenuring, and the like. But we have obviously seen over and over again that this insulation can quickly become flimsy, as the examples of E. A. Ross, or Ray Ginger, or Chandler Davis attest. Emphasizing eggheadedness and the Ivory Tower can become a kind of protective coloration, and so I think we have to evaluate instances of that emphasis for the strategy behind it.

  2. in which he complains that university professors have “marginalized themselves” from “today’s great debates.”

    Kristof says this like it’s a bad thing. 😉

    But can “America’s foremost public intellectual” Melissa Harris-Perry actually function in “public,” on a level playing field, away from the nurturing arms of her fellow academicians or the Bearded Spock Universe of MSNBC, where never is heard a discouraging word?

    As for “reforming” the beast from within, once the premises of inquiry, discussion and debate are locked in [say r/c/g]*; diversity can only run the gamut from A to B. Maybe C.

    *Kristof: “Many academic disciplines also reduce their influence by neglecting political diversity. Sociology, for example, should be central to so many national issues, but it is so dominated by the left that it is instinctively dismissed by the right.”

    Further, although we invest more and more authority in “science,” scientists are no less prone to human weaknesses than normal people.


  3. Andrew–
    Thanks for this post. It’s the best thing I’ve seen in response to the Kristof piece. The general reaction seems to be largely a kind of hyperventilating defensiveness (“We are too public intellectuals! Look at my tweeter feed. Why won’t the man at the NY Times recognize us? What an ignoramus!”). The question of the public value of what we do–what critical thought in the humanities and social sciences is _for_ in some larger social sense (Knowledge for What? as Robert Lynd put it)–is not aided by loudly proclaiming that a NY Times hack is just not looking in the right places. I think I largely agree with the point you develop here, but I would add another, that you gesture at with your point about Jacoby’s “academic engulfing” of the unattached intellectual. Historically, many of the people we think of as intellectuals came out of the university or were attached to it only in the loosest ways–journalism itself, for instance, allowed people like Walter Lippman, Mencken, and later Daniel Bell or Dwight Macdonald and others to have a public voice that was intellectual but not “academic.” That is, it was possible for intellectuals to debate in public ideas that were not merely responses to immediate policy formulations but that might address issues of public concern in a way that was independent not only from immediate political needs, but also from the university. Does it make sense to think of a third kind of space between the university and the more immediate needs to convert ideas into public actions? And perhaps it is this space that is being eroded? I don’t really know, but thanks again for this fine piece. It demonstrates what a careful, indeed “academic” approach, free from the noise and bustle of the need to reach a policy outcome, might look like.

    • Your reply interests me, Dan. I’m assuming some of it is pointed in my direction. At the risk of being further accused of defensiveness, let me…be defensive.

      One of my first thoughts in reading Kristof’s piece was not myself or my close friends — all of us have had our work recognized and rewarded in the public sphere, so we have no cause for complaint — but little blogs like this one. Blogs that do two things: First, bring the news to a wider, non-academic, reading public; second, engage in and reflect on vital public questions of the day.

      If I was defensive on anyone’s behalf, it was on behalf of grad students like LD or Andrew or Kurt or Robert, all of whom write in very public ways — ways that I never did in grad school. So the bulk of my post is in fact dedicated not to those of us who have in fact been writing for a public audience, and gotten recognition for doing so, but those of us who have been doing it and haven’t gotten the recognition or deserve more recognition.

      And not just recognition but money. I felt like the center of gravity of my post was really about adjuncts like Anthony Galluzzo or writers like Yasmin Nair. And the question of economics that their writing and status raises.

      You say, ” The question of the public value of what we do…is not aided by loudly proclaiming that a NY Times hack is just not looking in the right places.”

      That’s true. But of course the question that Kristof *immediately* posed to us what not, what is the public value of what you do, but why aren’t you doing what I think you should be doing? I felt like it was incumbent on me to answer *that* question, not the question you are posing, in part because that was the question that was asked of us, and in part because its factual premise was so dubious.

      But if I were to push this point a little further, I’d say this. Ever since I was an undergrad, I’ve been surrounded by academics engaged in endless rounds of navel-gazing about “What is it that we do? What is the value of what we do do?” One of the great ironies of Jacoby’s book is that it helped provoke the very thing he was criticizing: yet another cottage industry of insular self-obsessed academic writing. (It also, as I told him an email, provoked a bunch of us to do things differently. But that’s another story.)

      I’ve always had little patience for this discussion of public intellectuals (Andrew rightly picks up on that impatience/ambivalence in his post) and, to my knowledge, my post on Kristof was the only moment when I’ve ever written on this question.

      To my mind, the point of my work was always clear: to bring theoretical and historical knowledge to bear on important questions of the day. My two great models in grad school were Hannah Arendt and Louis Hartz. (Very different sorts of models, I acknowledge.) And so I simply set out to do that kind of work. I tried to write clearly and cleanly, I’ve published virtually of my work in newspapers and magazines, I’ve made sure my two books, though with university presses, were marketed as trade books, and I tried to make sure that as many people as possible got to read my arguments and engage with them. Without a lot of fuss about who am I, what do I do, am I relevant, and the rest. (Though with a lot of fuss — at least in my head — about my failure to live up to the models I set for myself!)

      I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes here; the kind of questions Andrew raises in this post are in fact quite interesting and important. And I certainly learned quite a bit from his reframing of it.

      But in answer to your implicit critique — why didn’t I (and people like me) use the Kristof post as an opportunity to ask the question of what is the worth of what we do — I guess I’d say this: I didn’t do it because it seems like a dead-end question. At least in my case. I do what I do because it’s interesting to me. That readers also find it interesting — and on occasion even politically useful — is enormously gratifying to me.

      Beyond that, I’m not sure what *I* have to say. That others, like Andrew, might have a great deal to say, I concede. But that’s way outside my wheelhouse.

      • Hi Corey–
        Thanks for the response. I _had_ read your post about the Kristof piece, but my comments weren’t really aimed at it specifically, since there seemed to be a flurry of reactions along a range of concerns that I came across in a number of places. And I did appreciate what you had to say about graduate students and marginally-employed bloggers, who are really working in the interstices of the changing academic world we occupy. But what I really wanted to do in my comment was to praise what I thought was distinctive (in the way that intellectual history might add something to the discussion) about Andrew’s piece. Insofar as I used the writings of others such as yourself as a foil, I was just trying to point to the distinctive point of view of his post.

        I think we probably do see the problems of intellectual life and its ends in somewhat different ways, but my aim was not to make an “implicit critique” or suggest that you or others really should be concerned with these questions rather than those. But having different priorities, and framing them in the way I did, I think I made bad use of the writings of Kristof’s critics. So, long way around, my apology. And I hope this won’t derail a discussion of Andrew’s excellent post.

  4. Dan and Corey,
    Thanks both of you for commenting, and thank you very much for the kind words for the post. I don’t really have anything to add to your exchange, but do want to express that it is largely because of the support of scholars like you (and Ben, Andrew, Tim, Ray, et al.) that I, and if I can momentarily speak for them, the grad students Corey mentions in his post, feel encouraged and welcomed.

  5. Andrew, you may momentarily speak for me any time!

    I’ve been thinking about these structural changes that seem patently apparent to everyone but Kristof. Whether the change is one of precarity (as Corey points out), or systemic contiguity (as you point out) or a shrinking public sphere (as Dan points out) — and it’s not like they aren’t all connected — it’s a change that is in process.

    In one sense, as I (sort of) suggested in the post you linked, one can historicize the shifts by looking at the changing fortunes of the term “public intellectual.” But the currency of that term, the way it is used willy-nilly in ways that are historically different from what it may at one time have meant — all this is not just evidence of the fact that people are somehow thinking ahistorically in their use of the term (though that may be the case). It also points to a condition of deep structural instability. The elision isn’t just terminological — everything is sliding around.

    In some way, the emergence of the academic blogosphere, and the shape it is taking, could be a response to the structural elisions and collisions — though it is itself a very fluid space.

    I’ve been mulling over Jacoby’s whole bit about bourgeois academics’ hankering for bohemia, the desire to live in little enclaves in gentrified neighborhoods, the fetishization of coffee houses, etc. That rootedness of intellectual community in place becomes less and less possible as academic labor becomes more mobile, more contingent, more precarious.

    What an earlier generation of academics has been able to find or fashion in local spaces, we are having to (re)construct in virtual spaces. If you don’t know from year to year where you’re going to teach, you can’t very well count on being able to connect with your colleagues over coffee every week. So you find your local coffee house online.

    I was telling a buddy last week that Corey’s post (which was very heartening) made me feel a little bit self-conscious. My friend said, “Well, if you don’t want attention, don’t blog.” But — if I may speak for you and my other grad student blogging colleagues for a moment! — it’s not about wanting “attention,” but about wanting connection. I may never, ever have a job where I even get to refer to “my colleagues” as a (fairly) stable group of (stable?) people. The blogosphere is a way to find some of the camaraderie and collaboration and mutually invigorating conversation that gets lost when everything and everybody is contingent. All this online hurly-burly may seem like too much muchness sometimes — the performativity of it, the (decidedly unacademic) “publicity” of it. But the inherent loneliness of academic work — you know, that part where you have to sit at the keyboard and get it done — is made so much worse by the structural disintegration. And sometimes, finding a blogger, someone you’v never met, whose writing you can appreciate — or finding a reader, someone you’ve never met, who can appreciate your writing — can make the work and the life a little less lonely.

    And I guess that’s one of the dangers of the blogosphere, one of the temptations — that it might come to be accepted not just as consolation but as compensation for something irrevocably lost. It’s a much-needed alternative to the coffee-house, or a most welcome addition to it — but not a substitute for it.

    • L. D.,
      I love what you’re saying here, and I’d add that what makes the blogo/twittersphere such a useful mode of connection is its fit to the over-scheduled life of contemporary academia: it is not just that we are geographically dispersed (which is not entirely a new barrier), but temporally fragmented. It is really tough getting together for a cup of coffee! What on-line tools allow is a quite effective asynchrony of presence and collaboration that differs not only from the coffeehouse but also from a culture of intense letter-writing.
      So I guess I regard these tools less as compensation for something lost, for these reasons, but I certainly see what you mean.

  6. Very true, and I didn’t mean to imply that these tools were only “compensation.” I think — for me, anyhow — they are a way of constructing something that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to have at all, given the nature of academic life now. The temporal dispersal is very real, and I think it too is a function of structural changes — or at least structural differences between the ideal of the academy and the realities of academic life now.

    My PhD program is not a cohort program, and because ours is a commuter campus that serves a lot of non-traditional students, some graduate seminars — including core requirements for history and humanities — are offered in the evening. Many of my colleagues also hold down jobs (in addition to adjuncting), and it’s just not possible to establish a rhythm or routine or schedule from one semester to the next. As I mentioned on my own blog this morning, I had coffee with a friend last week, which we had to schedule well in advance, because otherwise our paths would never cross on campus. In fact, we are talking about launching a blog together just so we can have something we can do “together,” despite the utter incompatibility of our schedules.

    Collaboration, connection, collegiality, camaraderie — all these things are harder and harder to find or to sustain in a dissolving academy. Part of this sense of difficulty in sustaining connectedness is simply the nature of academic life at particular stages — I mean, is there anything more abysmally lonely in the world than writing a dissertation? (Don’t answer that!) I would like to think that this loneliness, while necessary, is also temporary. But if the post-dissertation landscape for most people means (at best?) commuting for multi-campus adjuncting jobs, then that sense of disconnectedness, and that sense of just not having time, and that frustration at having to make extraordinary effort just to manage to schedule a cup of coffee — these may not be temporary hardships, but rather permanent conditions of employment in the “new” academy.

  7. Friends and Colleagues,

    I’m just now getting to read this excellent post and comments. Great stuff! As LD noted and Andrew seconded, sometimes virtual connections are as real as we can get. And, sadly, these is The Means to reach out and receive some feedback and engagement.

    To a point Andrew made (or started to make) in his reply to LD’s first comment, I do think the location of academic institutions makes a difference in the history of academics as engaged or not in the problems of their respective times. Once upon a time I addressed this (inadequately) in an entry about “universities” in the *Encyclopedia of American Urban History (Sage, 2006, ed. D. Goldfield). My sense of the literature on the history of urban universities is that they’ve always (from the days of King’s College in NYC) been more likely engage in political/social questions in a way that might satisfy Nick Kristof. The stereotype of the disengaged, useless, impractical Ivory Tower academic can likely be found in the pages of 18th century newspapers. It’s a critique as old as our republic—and part and parcel of our intense “practicalism.” We’ve never appreciated “academic” conversations in the sense outlined by Andrew above. We want simplicity, not complexity. It’s who we are as Americans. – TL

  8. Tim, a few things —

    1. Who is this “we” of which you speak? I’m such a stickler when my students use “we” when referring to Americans of past times, but I suppose I should also be a stickler about “we” as a generalization for all Americans in the present as well. I mean, I get what you’re saying, or get what you’re doing — characterizing the “style” (in a Barzunian / Hofstadterian sense) of contemporary American thought in the broadest terms (though making a transhistorical claim as well). But I still think that “we want simplicity” is perhaps oversimplifying it a bit, both contemporaneously and historically. I think both Perry Miller and Henry May, for example, might beg to differ with your broad characterization of Americans as averse to complex thought. And to set aside the “complex thinkers” as somehow separate/apart from the “we” is, I think, part of the problm.

    2. On location, location, location — one of the things that struck me in reading Jacoby was the “problem of suburbia.” Both models to which you refer have an insularity of sorts — the isolated college town with its “ivory tower” or the metropole as the pivotal center of intellectual/cultural life. If those are the insular places, suburbia is the undifferentiated sea of sameness for many Americans — and also a sea of distance. There is no “neighborhood coffee house” in suburbia, no “local market.” It’s not that there aren’t cafes or markets — or academics, for that matter — but I think it’s a question of density. So while gentrification makes little islands of bohemia, those of us who don’t/can’t live in gentrified areas become “islands of one.” It’s a lot of work to overcome that sense of isolation, to try to bridge the distance between where we live and where we think, if you will. But if the “where we think” becomes cyberspace, then I guess it doesn’t much matter where we live. I’m still not sure if this is a great boon, or a great bait-and-switch.

    • My reference to an aversion for complexity was in terms of the political sphere. Winners in the American political sphere have a knack for boiling things down to digestable (sp?) nuggets that have broad resonance. The politicians (effectively) speak in “we” more than I would ever pretend to. And yes, they do it as a rhetorical-projective tool as much as in the descriptive one. Anyway, the theme of ‘practicalism’ runs through a great deal of American history, political and otherwise. And I think Kristof reflects both that practicalism and the desires of the political sphere. – TL

  9. I wonder what % of adult nonacademics read the N Y Times on a regular basis.
    There is something whiney and self defensive about the torrent of antiKristoffism that has erupted, esp given how often the guy speaks up for the powerless and penniless.
    As a molecular biologist, I don’t know anything about social science, but I do know about mol bio, and many papers are written with way more jargon then needed.
    The other empirical point I have are technical articles on wikipedia; most are pitched at way to high a level (of the small minority that are actually coherent).
    To my shame, I don’t have an example handy, but so many articles are pitched at a Grad School level.
    Is that not empirical evidence on inability to communicate ?

Comments are closed.