New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof
New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof

On February 15, Nicholas Kristof published an op-ed titled “Professors, We Need You!” in the New York Times, expressing “sorrow” and concern about academia’s retreat from the arena of real-world debate. He argued that the lust for tenure and the rat race to get published act as constraining preoccupations for the academics, while writing a blog post for the public or engaging in real world analysis have been relegated by them to the status of “frivolous…public pontificating”.

While Kristof’s op-ed seems to be motivated by a genuine and indeed important concern about the inaccessibility of research in academic disciplines, it nonetheless makes vast and misleading generalizations. Kristof speaks about Rick Santorum scolding President Obama for wanting more kids to go to college but he conveniently neglects the hue and cry that Santorum provoked as a consequence. He speaks of the Republicans denouncing funding for social science research but overlooks the restoration of this funding by Congress to the National Science Foundation for research not related to national security or economic interests. He calls upon the International Studies Association for attempting to ban its members from having personal blogs but fails to consider that the proposal was popularly opposed by members and is now practically dead. Meanwhile, other academic circles such as in the American Political Science Association have for years debated how to strategically convey the research of its scholars to the public. The latest issue of the American Political Science Review, the same journal Kristof criticizes, in fact contained articles about Afghan support for the ISAF missionMuslim and Hindu cooperation in South India, and the financing of American wars (among others).

It may be true—or partly true at least—that tenure and publication is a big priority for the academic world and that the economic data produced by the likes of Paul Krugman and Robert Shiller in their New York Times columns is easily accessible simply because of the relatable nature of that data. However, to entirely dismiss the hundreds upon thousands of political scientists’ writing as utterly abstruse and completely irrelevant is unfair now more than ever, given that many of them are actively seeking to use blogs, Twitter, Facebook, TED talks, and several other channels to transmit their findings to the public. It appears an audience is not as feared by the academic community as Nicholas Kristof would have you believe. The professors “we need” are the same professors he casually disregards.

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