In the 1990s the philosopher and Arts & Letters Daily editor Dennis Dutton ran an annual Bad Writing contest in order to highlight turgid academic prose. If the contest were still around, this passage from The American Political Science Review might be a winner:
For a body of n members, in which there exists a group large enough and willing to pass a motion, let the members vote randomly and declare the motion passed when the mth member has voted for it, where m “yes” votes are required for passage. Define as the pivot the member in the mth position and note that there are n! (read “n factorial,” that is 1 · 2 · … · n) such random orderings of n voters (that is, the permutations of a, b, · · · , n). Then define the power, p, of a member, i, thus: pi = ti/n!, where ti is the number of times i is pivot.
As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out, this is the kind of writing that has estranged the reading public from academia. A generation ago, political scientists were public intellectuals. We wrote lucid prose. We spoke to the issues of the day. We advised President John F. Kennedy. But now all we care about is math, jargon and one another.
There’s one problem with what I’ve just said. That passage from The American Political Science Review appeared in 1962, the second year of the Kennedy administration.
At their best, intellectuals do more than package their research into digestible bits for policymakers or the public. They force us to think beyond the limits of the day, to ask the questions no one is asking. They are an invitation to imaginative excess and political trespass. Academic experts in the mainstream media reassure us with their authority; young intellectuals in the little magazines arrest us with their divinations.
It may be, however, that the economics that make little magazines and blogs possible also make them unsustainable. Many of these outlets rely on the volunteer or nearly free labor of writers and grad students or middle-aged professors like me. The former live cheaply and pay their rent with a precarious passel of odd jobs, fellowships and university teaching; the latter have tenure.
But grad students graduate, 20-somethings make families, and rents go up. Struggling writers in 1954 could flee to tenured positions in academia; their counterparts in 2014 will find no such refuge. Nearly three-quarters of all instructional staff at colleges and universities today are not on the tenure track. They’re insecure, contingent workers, an army of cheap and casual labor that make the universities go. While young writers can afford to do the kind of intellectual journalism we see at the little magazines, older adjuncts teaching five classes can’t.
Writers and academics who fret over the fate of public intellectuals may think they are debating vital questions of the culture. But their discussions are myopically focused on the writing habits of a rapidly disappearing elite. The vast majority of potential public intellectuals do not belong to the academic 1 percent. They are not forsaking the snappy op-ed for the arcane article. They are not navigating the shoals of publish or perish. They’re grading.