Nicholas Kristof wrote a column that regurgitates a tired old argument drawn from a few headlines and without any sense of the topic on which he writes. Unfortunately it’s served as another vehicle for people to kick us academics around, as though our “misguided” work is at fault for the continuing problems the United States faces, unlike—presumably—the relevant work being done by journalists, government officials, and think tankers.
It’s fairly easy to point out the bubbles many journalists,
government officials, and think tankers live in. For example, the surface
understanding of the issues they write on; the short-term, narrow view of
policy problems they have; and the partisan and normative preferences that
undermine their claim to provide “objective” policy options. But that’s for another
I wish we could ignore Kristof’s claims, but given his
public perch, we can’t. There have been plenty of smart responses to the
inaccurate assumptions that permeate his column: Tom Pepinsky,
Steve Saideman, Erik Voeten, Erica Chenoweth, Corey Robin, Adam Elkus, Jeremy Pressman, and Karl Sharro, to name several. An important theme underlying all their comments
is the recognition that, certainly, academia has problems; but we are working
on them, and indeed there have been plenty of improvements over time. A second
theme is that Kristof simply didn’t do his research on academia before writing
The problem is that none of our efforts to explain the
reality of academia will matter to people like Kristof. The bottom line is that
he and other detractors want academia to be only one thing, serve only one
audience, aim for only one goal.
But that’s not what academia is for. We serve multiple
audiences, exhibit and teach multiple skills, and aim for many goals at the
An incomplete list would be comprised of the following: We
serve as administrators in our universities and colleges; we write policy
papers for policymakers; we write scholarly papers for other scholars; we write
short op-eds for the general public; we consult for the private sector,
government, humanitarian groups, and international organizations like the United
Nations or the World Bank.
Perhaps most importantly, we teach students basic skills and
pass on information. These are the people who become leaders and officials of
states, international organizations, non-governmental organizations, think
tanks, media enterprises, and firms. We teach the students who become
politicians, activists, journalists, think tankers. There is a place, a need,
an audience for every aspect of the work we do.
None of us are naïve enough to think that every student remembers
every skill or piece of knowledge we pass on. Nor do we think that every
academic does all of these things, and does all of them equally well. But
that’s the other problem with taking academia to task: it is composed of many,
many individuals at many, many institutions working in many, many different
fields and areas.
And our work manifests itself in many different, sometimes
un-measurable, ways. Steve Jobs took a class in calligraphy. It’s not that the Mac
wouldn’t have been developed without that class. Rather, Jobs was very clear
about the long-term benefits the class provided to the design of the machine. And
most of us are very happy it turned out that way.
My own work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might not
have gotten off the ground without a history course on the Byzantine Empire,
which I’d bet few policymakers think is relevant to proposing solutions to the Syrian
civil war today. But it led me to study the Middle East, which led me to study
the contemporary Middle East, which led me to social media and the public sphere.
Our job is to be multi-dimensional, not to be
one-dimensional. To multi-task. These are the things to be proud of, and to
flaunt. An external push to be better is welcome, and we certainly should not
retreat to an ivory tower and sulk. But we need to bear in mind that people like
Kristof will never be satisfied, because they’re asking us to d-o something we
aren’t supposed to be, and that the world would miss sorely if we tried. Let’s
celebrate our diverse work instead.