There's been a rollicking debate in the generally non-rollicking and pretty small world of academics, political types and journalists about why academics are so obscure and boring and why they won't get in the game and start contributing and carrying their weight in our country's public debates. That was the framing at least of the Times piece by Nick Kristof which (though iffy in itself) kicked off the conversation off. Here's one response, for instance, from Daniel Drezner, a very publicly outspoken academic, who was in the curious position of having the publisher of his main outlet, Foreign Policy, not only agree with Kristof's thesis but further crap on academics who try to write for a popular audience as "opaque, abstract, incremental, [and] dull" and goes on to say he's going to stop publishing them anymore.
As a general matter, I think Drezner and a bunch of other generally youngish academics are right in their pushback when they say that contrary to Kristof's claims, academics are actually a lot more involved in public debates today than they have been in a while. And a lot of that is because of the Internet and the paths to contact with the larger public has made possible. Think about Juan Cole. A vast contribution to the public conversation about the Middle East, entirely because of the Internet. There's really little precedent in recent decades for anything like him in his area of study. And there are many other academics who have made public names for themselves via online writing, though in many cases writing themselves out of the academy in the process of doing so. If they manage both, it's most likely they have tenure, which likely puts them well into their thirties or beyond.
As I thought about this though, I couldn't help but see it through the particular prism of the decisions I made in my own life which cut pretty hard to the core of this discussion.
I was supposed to be a history professor. And a good bit of my decision to leave grew out of my growing sense of the deeply conventional, channeled nature of the profession, one in which I found paradoxically little outlet for creativity or novelty.
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