Further Thoughts on Nick Kristof

I have a piece up at Al Jazeera America following up on the Nick Kristof/public intellectuals kerfuffle of a few weeks back. Some highlights.

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.


  1. Roquentin March 12, 2014 at 10:11 am | #

    I know I’ve said something like this before, but I find it absurd that academia is still presented as any kind of alternative to the corporate rat race. From any account I get, it’s even more exploitative than a regular office. As heavily as temps are used for grunt work, I don’t think I’ve ever worked in a place where 75% of the workforce didn’t have paid time off, sick leave, and benefits. I don’t know the statistics, but I wonder if even Wal-Mart has only 1/4 of it’s work force officially working full time. This is made even worse by the ridiculous increase in college tuition in the past couple of decades. It sure as hell isn’t going to the professors……

    I almost feel as though academia is kind of like a religion. We’d all do better to stop believing in it and it would lose its power over the population. I could be a little bit like Nietzsche telling everyone “The university is dead.”

  2. Dene Karaus March 12, 2014 at 10:25 am | #

    Sadly, the paragraph sited is a well-written explanation of a mathematical formula which gives the reader everything they would need to understand the concept. There is tremendous and regrettable anti-intellectualism evidenced here by criticizing this piece as evidence of some sort of “deficit” in its writing style or content. That it may not be interesting to a certain reader or self-styled “intellectual” does not reduce its potential truth or value.

    • jonnybutter March 13, 2014 at 11:30 am | #

      Sadly, it is anti-intellectual, and regrettably so, to either, a.) not carefully read a post before commenting on it, or b.), deliberately misconstrue it. Why do either?

      • Dene Karaus March 13, 2014 at 2:24 pm | #

        Sadly for you, jb, I was not writing in response to any post, but to the concept of the original article regarding the “dryness” of the quotation. Neither was I speaking to the issues regarding adjunct faculty (the purpose of Corey Robin’s piece.)

      • jonnybutter March 13, 2014 at 4:30 pm | #

        Not sad at all – *glad* to hear it, actually.

    • Glenn March 14, 2014 at 11:12 pm | #

      Using mathematics to make a point may or may lead to enlightenment.

      I find the writing of both Badiou and Keynes valuable.

      But how can neo-classical economists consider their writing reality based when businesses find that workers not being paid overtime is essential to their survival. In other words, workers are compelled to donate their labor so that the enterprise they work for will be there the next day.

      Stakhanovite Clubs in capitalist America is a scandal those who mix mathematics with social writing will not confront.

      • Glenn March 14, 2014 at 11:51 pm | #

        or may not lead to enlightenment

  3. J. Otto Pohl March 12, 2014 at 10:32 am | #

    Your article seems limited to just the US and inapplicable to most of the rest of the world writing in English. I am certainly not in the top 1% of academics in that world as far as pay. Indeed I make less per a year than many, probably most US based adjuncts. Nonetheless I only have to spend time grading four times a year and while I have a lot of students (100-300 every semester) I usually only have one to two preps and two to four sessions a semester. I don’t think my situation is much different than many other lecturers in Africa. In so far as there are few African public intellectuals it is not because they are grading year round. For many of them they may indeed be spending most of their spare time writing journal articles. Some of these articles may be obscure. Others not so much. Here is the last one I wrote that is available online.


    • Corey Robin March 12, 2014 at 10:38 am | #

      Seeing as how the whole debate about public intellectuals was, from very the first (with Russell Jacoby’s book, which came out in 1987), a discussion about the United States, the point of your comment that my “article seems limited to just the US” is not really clear to me.

      • J. Otto Pohl March 12, 2014 at 10:44 am | #

        It is a globalized world and academia and publishing are far more globalized than most commodities. Limiting the discussion to the US seems extremely parochial.

        • Corey Robin March 12, 2014 at 10:50 am | #

          When people make claims about intellectual life in the US, you can do one of two things: respond to those specific claims or change the subject. I opted for the former; I see you would choose the latter. Both seem like fine approaches to me. There’s lots of room on the internet. You have a blog. Go to it.

          On Wed, Mar 12, 2014 at 10:44 AM, Corey Rob

  4. jonnybutter March 13, 2014 at 9:01 am | #

    A quick observation. At the Other Place, there is a mini-subthread about the assertion that tenure for academic people is a key problem. I find that assertion to be inapposite in a strange way, to the extent that it makes me suspect some sort of evolved trolling. It sounds like Republican Dad. It sounds like the kind of ‘policy maker’ who is screwing everything up in the first place.

    But assuming that it is somehow a ‘sincere’ tangent typical of a CT comment thread, then it seems to me to be of a piece with an endless re/progression of flailing scapegoating. In fact, tenure isn’t the cause of American academia’s problems any more than Medicaid recipients are the cause of state budget problems (‘test them for drugs!’). And this goes for academics in the larger culture too: they aren’t the root or even a remoter cause of our fundamental problems.

    Kristoff’s column is like of some of the American foreign policy CW you can read lately re: Ukraine: it makes at least apparent sense…..if you pretend it’s 1962!

    I say all this as someone who has little admiration or respect for the US academia as a whole (which is not to say particular academic people, obviously).

  5. Mikec March 13, 2014 at 5:55 pm | #

    Of course, bill riker was not only an intellectual but he was a darn entertaining lecturer too. He was describing a process that an economist would be permitted an equation but a political scientist? Nah.

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