Very, Very Good Point

A very, very good point about the public role of academics and the role of college and university instruction from TPM Reader JS (in response to this earlier post)…

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about your blog is your historian’s perspective – I’m one too! But I think this discussion of academics’ supposed lack of engagement with broader national debates overlooks something critical: the classroom as a public space for engagement in the national conversation.

The 99% of us (yes, there are elites and drones in academia too) who pace Kristof aren’t “contributing” because we’re not writing op-eds or doing TED talks or blogging are too busy teaching. And I say this not as a complaint, but to remind your readers that we are impacting the dialogue in this country too. I teach in the CUNY system, probably the most affordable public institution left in the US. The majority of my students are immigrants, children of immigrants or other New Yorkers who are the first in their family to go to college. My students tell me all the time how their classes broaden their horizons and get them to think about their world in new ways. I myself teach modern German history: a student can’t leave my classes without confronting issues of democratization, the nature of leadership, what it means to exchange individual liberties for national security, the stakes of identity-based politics – I could go on. You mean to tell me that that is just mental masturbation with no effect on the polity?

Stereotypes of academics ensconced in ivory towers writing jargon-filled tomes no one will ever read are pretty hackneyed, and little reflect the actual world most of us who “won the lottery” and got academic jobs actually live in.