Do college professors marginalize themselves?

New York Times columnist Nick Kristof just wrote a piece arguing that there are  “fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago” and one of the reasons is that “Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Is he right? Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham answers the question in the following post. Willingham is a professor and director of graduate studies in psychology at the University of Virginia and author of “Why Don’t Students Like School?” His latest book is “When Can You Trust The Experts? How to tell good science from bad in education.” This appeared on his Science and Education blog.

By Daniel Willingham

Today in The New York Times columnist Nick Kristof writes that university professors have “marginalized themselves.” We have done so, he suggests, by concerning ourselves with very specialized topics that are removed from practical realities. (Old joke: the secret to academic success is to dig an intellectual trench so narrow and so deep that there is only room for one.)

The second part of the problem, Kristof suggests, is that academics write inaccessible prose, isolating their knowledge from others.  He quotes approvingly Harvard historian Jill Lapore, who says academics have created “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

Kristof’s solution is that academics do more writing for the public, on topics of practical concern. To make this change possible, universities would need to change the systems by which they evaluate faculty for promotion.

I think he’s partly right.

Kristof did not distinguish between faculty in Arts & Sciences and those in professional schools such as law, medicine, education, and engineering. These latter have practical application embedded in their mission and I think are therefore more vulnerable to his charges.

I started writing about the application of cognitive science for teachers exactly because I thought that too many teachers were not learning this information in their training at schools of education.

But for typical Arts & Sciences faculty, application is not part of the mission. I think two factors render impractical Kristof’s suggestions that it be part of the mission. I’m a scientist, so I’ll write from that perspective, and won’t claim that the following applies to the humanities.

Universities and the professors they employ are best seen as part of a larger system that includes government and private industry. The seminal document envisioning that system was written by Vannevar Bush in 1945. Bush was the director of the Office of Scientific Research and Development during World War II, through which virtually all of the scientific research for the war effort was funneled.

It was plain to all that science had played a lead role in the war. The Federal government had funded scientific research at an unprecedented scale, but what was the government role to be in the coming peace? President Roosevelt asked Bush to write a report on the matter.

Bush argued research can either be <strong “mso-bidi-font-weight:=”” “=””>basic (“pure science,” which boils down to describing the world as it is) or applied (research in service of some practical goal). He argued for two points: First, that basic research lies behind the success of much practical research; e.g., the Manhattan project was a grand practical application made possible by advances in basic physics research. Second, applied research would inevitably crowd out basic research for funding because it offers short term gains.

Bush concluded that the Federal Government should continue its funding of science in peacetime, and that it should focus on basic research. Industry could fund research and development for application, and it was reasonable to expect that industry would do so. The federal investment was justifiable via the pay-off in economic productivity. That’s how the National Science Foundation was born.

Basic research has been housed primarily in the university system. That’s our role in the system. We’re not really here to work on applied problems. If a drug company wants to know the latest findings from molecular biology, they should hire a molecular biologist who will do the translation.

This arrangement actually makes a lot more sense than academics trying to do it.

Translation is more than explaining technical matters in everyday terms. It requires knowing how to exploit the technical findings in a way that serves the practical goal. For example, in education you can’t just take findings from cognitive science and pop them into the classroom, expecting kids will learn better. You need to know something about classrooms to understand how the application might work.

It makes more sense for the translators to be close to the site of the application because application can take so many forms. Cognitive science has applications throughout industry, the military, health care, education, and beyond. You really need to be embedded in the locale to understand the problem that the basic science is meant to solve.

So that’s why so many academics, when asked why they don’t make their work more accessible to the general public, say “that’s not my job.” We might add (and this is relevant to Kristof’s second point) that most of us are not very good at describing what we do in non-technical terms. It’s a different skill set. Adding “writes well” to the criteria for promotion won’t get much traction among scientists. (The technical language that comes with any specialization adds to the problem, of course.)

But again, I think Kristof’s blade is much sharper when applied to university schools that claim a mission which includes practical application. Schools of Ed., I’m looking at you.

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss · February 16