Professors are working to understand and solve policy problems

Danielle Allen is a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study. Her forthcoming book is “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.” She is on Twitter: @dsallenias.

Last weekend, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof lamented a lost era when academics were public intellectuals who strode the halls of power, remedying the world’s ills with elegant essays in Foreign Affairs. These days, Kristof suggested, scholars are remiss if we do not sally forth in the public interest armed with pithy tweets.

Academics, he said, have blanketed themselves in turgid prose, and therefore we have mainly ourselves to blame for public indifference to our work. In a follow-up piece, his one piece of hard evidence for academia’s alleged degeneracy was the 1996 Sokal affair, in which a polemicist published a fake article — a wretched piece of writing and argumentation — in the journal Social Text. This is akin to judging the world of journalism by the fabrications of Stephen Glass, also nearly two decades old.

Let’s at least update the picture. Here are key features of the contemporary academy worth understanding:

Progress in the biological sciences directly connected to the high-impact domain of health care have fueled the greatest growth areas of the academy for the past three decades. Thanks to journals such as Nature and Science, this work gets “translated” for the general public. And a number of natural scientists report for government duty; among them, the physicist energy secretaries Steven Chu and Ernest Moniz.

Remarkable breakthroughs in mathematics and computation have enabled advances — economic and political — in understanding social systems. These breakthroughs have been recognized with Nobel Prizes to the likes of Leonid Hurwicz, Eric Maskin and Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom’s work has been important for efforts to develop policy approaches to climate change. The developments drive increases in the amount of quantitative or difficult theoretical material found in scholarly articles. This is a feature of the contemporary social sciences that Kristof criticized. Yet the field he singled out as an example of continued public relevance is economics, and, within the social sciences, that dismal science is king of the quants.

Work in area studies — concentration on specific regions such as the Middle East or Southeast Asia — has declined, as Kristof said. This is partly because many scholars aspire to find patterns transcending culture and place but also because the federal government has reduced funding for area studies from Title VI of the Higher Education Act. In 2011, such funding was roughly halved, from $34 million to $18 million. With additional dramatic cuts in Titles VII and VIII and the failure of our K-12 schools to cultivate second languages, colleges no longer have student populations with which to build area studies programs. New York and Los Angeles have school-age populations that speak more than a hundred different native languages. Therein lies a resource of profound value left largely untapped.

Finally, the professoriate is shrinking. I doubt that in absolute terms there are fewer “public intellectuals” now than 50 years ago. The New York Times’ opinion page does not lack for scholarly opining. At the Huffington Post my tribe is thick, and Kristof quoted a passel of high-profile academics. Yet all is not well in academe. In 1969, roughly 78 percent of faculty was in tenure-track or tenured jobs; by 2009, it was 34 percent. Adjuncts have become the majority. If we members of the professoriate have a problem, it is that we do not teach enough. (As a scholar at a research institute, I am Exhibit A.)

There are also relevant features outside the academy. Getting into government is probably trickier than in the past. When the Obama White House requested that I serve on the National Council on the Humanities, I agreed to have my name put forward. I went through the lengthy FBI check, including repeated probing of friends about my nonexistent drug use.

But in the end the White House decided not to move my nomination forward. There were two reasons. First, taxes. In 2009 and 2010, the years of my divorce, I filed my taxes late — four weeks and 10 days, respectively. Second, I was not willing to commit to never criticizing the administration, nor to restricting my publishing agenda to topics that were unlikely to be controversial. There is just no point trying to be a public intellectual if you can’t speak your mind. This requirement was conveyed and discussed through phone calls; I have no written record to prove it. But that was how it went.

Why did the White House want such restrictions? Lawyers told me that the administration didn’t want to have to deal with even one news cycle being overtaken by media frenzy about something some low-level official had said. The administration was trying to survive in our 21st-century media environment.

If we have a problem with the intellectual caliber of our culture — and I think we do — it is everybody’s doing, not just the profs.

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