Every now and again someone scoops up a nice handful of mud-slinging rhetoric in order to splatter some earthy common sense all over the ivory tower. This past week it was Nicholas Kristof's turn. In his op-ed for the New York Times, Kristof argues two things: 1) our current anti-academic culture is dismissive of academics (ok, a bit redundant); and 2) looking at the language many academics use, it's really no wonder why.
Why is this? Well, as Kristof points out:
Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience. This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process. Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.
Because he doesn't give any examples—and, really, there are so many juicy ones to be had—I'll take a random copy of Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and the Environment(one of my favorites), to help prove his point ... somewhat.
Berger notes that, "Post-apocalyptic discourses try to say what cannot be said (in a strict epistemological sense) and what must not be said (what is interdicted by ethical, religious, or other social sanctions). From Veronique Bragard's "Sparing Words in The Waste Land: Garbage, Texture, and Ecriture Blanche in Auster's In the Country of Last Things and McCarthy's The Road"
As they approach, the circling birds are a mise-en-abyme for the trope of periphery. Their zig-zag trajectory, an imperfect embodiment of Deleuze's rhyzomatic subjectivity. From Gerard M. Stanley's "Of Birds and Men: Taking Alfred Hitchcock to a Post-Structuralist Aviary"
Garland-Thomson's notion of the normate is again instructive here: if we apply this theoretical approach to the land-community, we can see how the strategies used to define and represent the disabled body as a deviant Other have been employed ... From Matthew Cella's "The Ecosomatic Paradigm in Literature: Merging Disability Studies and Ecocriticism"
Snore. Right? Well, it depends.
From one perspective this might be the "vast moat of dry prose" which keeps many from accessing the "heaping mountain of truth." I mean, did you even notice that one of these was completely made up? In fact, there are—and I do love this—some who will string together a concatenation of gibberish just to see if it gets past the gatekeepers. Petty, sure, but even academia needs its Trojan horses.
From another vantage, however, these quotes might just be the language of a certain tribe—language that we don't understand and that is alienating and unfriendly and intimidating if we are on the outside, or even the periphery.
And I think this is where Kristof misses the mark. The various disciplines in academia—whether it's literary theory or macroeconomics—are like so many tribes with their own customs, vocabularies, and tools that have, in many cases, taken many, many years to develop. And while there is often healthy cross-pollination between divergent fields (literary ecocriticism being just one of thousands of examples), there will—and should—always be a healthy level of idiosyncrasy among the initiates in certain academic discourses. But idiosyncrasy is found among specialists of aphids and of Aphra Behn just as easily as it might be found among beat poets and beet farmers.
Of course, Kristof's point is also that we need more public intellectuals to bridge the divide between academics and "the masses." The prophets, if they are to be useful, can't simply stay on the mountain; like Zarathustra or Moses, they eventually have to come down and teach. But as two Canadian case studies show, this can sometimes be a precarious position. While Malcolm Gladwell is adored by the many who devour his pop sociology, he is also largely maligned in the academic world. Or take Michael Ignatieff, a public intellectual who almost led his party straight into dissolution and left public office for a private one. It seems there is a real difficulty for "public intellectuals" in deciding which word gets the emphasis; but by trying to be everything to everybody, some often simply becomes nothing to most.
All this to say that Kristof's call for more intellectuals to translate the work of their tribes is not completely ridiculous, but perhaps misdirected jibe at the language of academics. Indeed, some intellectuals might like to get off their stilts and join public discourse in an op-ed, or keep a blog, or tweet. And perhaps the mountain of truth can grow 140 characters at a time. But not all academics can/want to/should do this. Perhaps this is work for the hoards of unemployed graduate students? Or, perhaps this is work for think tanks? Whatever the case, academic language is meant to bridge us to others and to be used in service to others. Whether those others are within the tribe or without, language isn't meant to alienate or isolate.
Yet the onus of responsibility is not always on the speaker. Sometime the listener, too, must look at him or herself and realize where they stand before they start slinging.