17 Feb 2014

Nicholas Kristof: Why Professors Suck!

Nicholas with one black person.
SOME of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don’t matter in today’s great debates.

The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: “That’s academic.” In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant.

That’s the totality of my argument, but let me write a few hundred more words just to fill this column.

For example, take academics’ infuriating tendency for writing paragraphs.

In today’s fast-moving world, paragraphs have become redundant.

They are also a challenge for the average reader’s attention span.

Nicholas with two black people.

Now where was I.

The third problem with academics is their maddening refusal to write grand sweeping generalizations. And don’t get me started on caveats.

To prove my point, I’m not going to use a single example or fact in this column. But it will still sound like gospel, not least because you’re reading it in the New York Times.
Nicholas with one black woman.

Sadly research has come to mean spending time and effort dealing with facts. Then arranging them into tables and graphs.

Bo-ring. Write from the gut. This is what the public wants. And those graphs are too small to read anyway.

And do they have to have so many specialized fields? How is anthropology different from sociology really? My own career is testament to how the two fields can be combined successfully.

Academics also snobbishly shun their subjects and keep them at a distance. Since WWII, academics have stopped taking photographs with natives altogether. They have also stopped referring to them as natives.

Wow, got very close to writing a whole paragraph there.

Throughout my career I have made a point of countering this trend and telling the intimate stories of people rather than dealing with annoyingly abstract and intangible facts.

I also make it a point to always be photographed with black or brown people. Academic journals could learn a thing or two from my selfless efforts.

But we have to be culturally sensitive when taking those photographs. On a recent visit to Africa, we asked to take a picture with a family we were visiting but I noticed that they unfortunately had sofas and chairs in their living room. This is the downside of globalization.

So we asked them to remove the furniture and took the photograph with all of us sitting on the floor. Which looked way more authentic.

And just the other morning I saw a black man jogging in the park. I stopped him and asked to take a picture with him, but he told me he was in a rush and he had to get to the law firm where he is a partner. I had to chase him through the park with the photographer following us until he finally agreed to stop and take the photograph. But he wouldn’t sit on the floor.
Nicholas sitting on the floor with a few black people

But I digress.

Universities are becoming irrelevant because they are not USEFUL. I put that word in capitals so you don’t miss its significance. Instead of offering policy prescriptions, they are still unfashionably pursuing knowledge. What have you done for me lately.

That’s why I see think tanks as the future for political thought. Even the name is very suggestive. A clearly-limited and defined container for thinking outside the box. Nimble, slick, light-weight vehicles for thoughts formed in words of five or six-letter words at most. Keep it simple and clear.

You might think I am glibly abusing my position as a globally-known columnist to undermine professors and universities. And yet.

I will openly engage with debate about this column and retweet comments addressed to me in a way that will make me seem intellectually generous and celebrate the fact that we are all talking about the unsubstantiated things I said in here. That would never happen in traditional academia.
Nicholas with a few black children. (You get the idea.)

Take the Arab Spring for example. Universities and professors didn’t see it coming. Neither did columnists and think tanks. But who wrote more words not predicting it? I rest my case.

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. Close shave.

So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like perverted, badly-dressed, needlessly elaborate medieval monks — we need you!

Legal warning: If you haven't figured by now that this is a parody of this, then you shouldn't have quit college. 

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  1. This would have been even better if you hadn't fallen victim to male-as-default. "Nicholas with one black person." vs. "Nicholas with one black woman."

  2. Kristof links to academics who make similar arguments and he adds caveats. If anything he defends the American academy more than he should. College professors aren't necessarily intellectuals. Most are simply experts. And engineers are car mechanics writ large.

    A famous Lebanese journalist just died. He was famous also as a poet. The older generation of American "public intellectuals" included poets. I came to this post through a link from an American academic who thinks the NYRB and LRB are semi-serious. He certainly wouldn't read Jadaliyya, and I think you do. The sort of academics he defends, the sort Kristof is writing about, read
    http://publicreason.net "A blog for political philosophers" It's members only.

    The academicizing of intellectual life is not healthy for a democracy. And I'm sure you and I would both rather read a Lebanese poet on the politics of the Middle East than read another political scientist at Brookings.

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  4. That chase in the park ? That happened to me in Boston.

    I must have looked awfully native back then.

    A colleague explained: "you are white, but not - that - white". Puzzle...

    [Nicholas Kristof was not involved]



Karl reMarks is a blog about Middle East politics and culture with a healthy dose of satire.

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