Earlier this month, an op-ed by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof stirred up a little controversy. His column follows a time-honored, if prosaic, tradition of accusing the American academic community of irrelevance. Needless to say, the article prompted quite a backlash. At the risk of jumping on the anti-Kristof bandwagon, it needs to be reiterated: Kristof has got it all wrong. Academics, especially political scientists, are more accessible than ever before. Public intellectuals are engaged like never before in an array of research endeavors that are both salient and accessible to educated publics and policy-makers.
Nowhere is this better illustrated than in Washington, D.C. Washington is home to a huge number of think tanks, most of them staffed by experts with advanced degrees. Although many hold university positions, some of them obtained PhDs not in order to pursue teaching careers, but to gain deep expertise and analytical acumen that they could deploy in public service. Part of their raison d’etre is to be an accessible part of important national policy debates. As academics rotating in and out of government and non-profit service, they impact public policy in very real ways.
Academics, especially political science scholars, are becoming increasingly proficient with new technological tools to convey their research to broad audiences. They were early adopters of blogs and can be found all over the Twittersphere. Political science and international relations scholars are some of the main contributors to Foreign Policy, whose website has a global readership. Those contributors use popular media to communicate not, as Kristof suggests, in encoded “turgid prose,” but via highly readable analyses of salient issues, which are often informed by years of rigorous scholarship.
It’s not as if academics themselves are unaware of the need to avoid a life of cloistered scholarship. In Washington especially, scholars make great efforts to bridge the gap between the policy world and academia. The George Washington University, for example, is home to the Project on Middle East Political Science, which serves as a network of scholars who are working to make Middle East scholarship more relevant to foreign policy debates. The United States Institute of Peace recently convoked dozens of experts (with no shortage of PhDs among them) to a “Peace Games” exercise aimed at gaming out peaceful policy options for Syria. Furthermore, academics routinely discuss their research in a wide variety of Washington-based think tanks, which usually open their events to the general public and the press. In short, Kristof is wrong; professors are often intimately connected to relevant policy debates.
Kristof also overlooks the fact that scholars are still trusted, sophisticated curators of knowledge. They have always played this role by guiding the intellectual journeys of their students, but the internet now enables them to do it on a large scale. Massively open online courses have caught on, granting thousands of people access, albeit circumscribed, to ivory tower institutions. Academics’ Twitter feeds abound with links to their recent work. Many scholars make concerted efforts to publicly showcase the best and most relevant scholarship of their peers for the edification of policy-makers and publics alike. And while junior faculty in political science departments may indeed struggle to publish increasingly specialized research, there are plenty of graduate students in terminal master’s degree programs who are producing high quality, original work that doesn’t turn readers away with complex formal models or opaque quantitative analyses.
Something tells me that Kristof misses the days when public intellectuals were universally revered as men and women of wisdom, great sages to whom the nation turned for moral and intellectual guidance. I certainly empathize with his misgivings over anti-intellectualism in American life. But in Washington, at least, which is arguably the place where academic accessibility and policy relevance are most important, professors are not cloistered monks; they are an active, public part of this city’s vibrant intellectual life, especially when it comes to important foreign policy issues. One wishes Kristof could see that more easily.
Ben Nelson is a second year graduate student at the Elliott School, earning a master’s degree in international affairs, with particular focus on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East. His areas of interest include U.S.-Egypt relations, democratization, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. He currently serves as the Managing Editor of the International Affairs Review website, and can be found on Twitter at @nelsondb1.