Commentary Magazine

Should Professors Go Public?

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Leonard Cassuto argues  that academics “need to go public.” That’s an extension of the reasoning behind his 2015 book, The Graduate School Mess, in which he questions the strange notion that advanced education in the humanities exists to produce unread journal articles.

That’s good, but Cassuto’s overall position is unconvincing. The general public, he says, does not think very well of us right now. “Professors get regularly pilloried, while graduate students have just narrowly avoided having their tuition waivers taxed.” But if we were to stop hiding our wares, he continues, people might come around. As Philip Nel, a professor of English at Kansas State who has written three books on Dr. Seuss and one on Harry Potter explains, “we have something valuable to teach others.”

That last sentence may sound snarky. But in fact, I don’t doubt that good books about children’s literature can teach us something and engage us. For all I know, Nel’s books are good. But Nel, as Cassuto reveals in passing, is, as far as the present reputation of higher education is concerned, straight out of central casting.

At one point in his essay, Cassuto tries to explain why one might live with the negative attention that public work can generate, particularly if one has “activist aspirations”—it turns out that Nel has these!—and particularly from the “right-wing tabloid press.” But he and Nel are careful to make a ritual bow to today’s wisdom concerning inequality. Nel can take the nasty comments, he says, but then, “I arrive in the public arena in the armor of privilege: as a tenured, cisgendered, straight, white male.”

This is, to say the least, pretty tone deaf in a piece designed to show that public engagement will save professors. And the tone-deafness is Cassuto’s as well as Nel’s. Don’t worry that the right-wing tabloid press hates us, Cassuto seems to say, Nel has been on NPR! In fairness, he has been noticed in all sorts of places, including the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, and TIME Magazine. Most recently, the attention Nel received was the result of writing a piece entitled, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books?

I’m sure Tucker Carlson would love to have him on, too, but it won’t be to enhance the public reputation of colleges and universities. Cassuto seems to think that the opinions of people who doubt the value of ripping off Dr. Seuss’s mask to find Bull Connor underneath don’t matter. But perhaps that’s one reason that colleges and universities are unpopular among Republicans.

I do not mean to suggest that academics who do interesting research on race prejudice should hide their results for fear of offending others. But it is naïve to imagine, as Cassuto does, that colleges and universities are disliked because they are not publicly engaged enough. Cassuto may think Nel’s riff on the themes enunciated a quarter century ago in Shelly Fisher Fishkin’s Was Huck Black? is just what our democracy needs. But that doesn’t mean that “going public” with this sort of thing is going to do anything other than reinforce the existing reputation of college professors.

Professors are already publicly engaged and frequently found on the pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post, and on podcasts and blogs. But it is thoughtless to be in favor of such engagement without reference to its character and purpose. Like judges, academics derive some of their reputation from remaining above the fray. As an academic who likes to be in the fray, I don’t scoff at the idea of public engagement, but it needs to be undertaken with more care and thought than anyone seems to be taking at the moment. I have written more about that here. In Cassuto’s case, that of a professor of literature addressing mainly the sorry plight of the humanities, more attention needs to be paid to what Cassuto acknowledges, but only in passing, in his book. There is an “incoherence in humanities education that has led critics of the academy (and not only those on the political right) to bemoan the intellectual integrity of the enterprise.”

That enterprise is not ready for its close-up.

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