Traditional academics deepen knowledge, public academics expand it.

Many academics get annoyed by their colleagues who engage with the public. This could be writing op-eds, doing TED talks, advising think tanks, doing media interviews, and writing books that are accessible to the public.

Before diving into analysis, let’s define some terms. We can call academics who don’t engage with the public, “traditional academics” and academics who do engage with the public, “public academics.” I use the term “public academic” instead of “public intellectual” because public intellectuals can be outside of academia. For example, public intellectuals can be journalists, podcasters, writers, etc., with an intellectual approach. I want to focus on the distinction inside of academia.

Traditional academics get annoyed by public academics for three main reasons: for selling out, wasting time or doing work that isn’t serious. Here’s why none of these reasons make sense:

The selling-out argument

Public academics are in it for the money or fame, the argument goes. By engaging with the public, they are simply seeking the spotlight or financial profit. An example of seeking the spotlight is doing a TED talk. You aren’t paid, but you’re in the spotlight. The most viewed TED talk on Youtube has 47 million views. The least viewed TED talks on Youtube usually have a few thousand. In contrast, most academic papers are read by about 10 people.

Seeking the spotlight or profit need not be separate. They can align. This alignment might come in the form of something like writing a book. If you write a book that is accessible to the public, it has the potential of more people reading it. This means there is the potential for more book sales, and more profit. Thus, by being in it for the money or the fame, public academics are selling out.

This argument fails because it is uncharitable. It takes the worst possible motivation for doing public work. Why not suppose that public academics are spreading ideas for the benefit of others? Unless there is actual proof of poor motivation, it shouldn’t be taken as true. Argumentation should be charitable.

The unserious-work argument

By engaging with the public, public academics detract from focusing on “serious work” such as publishing academic journal articles and academic books, according to this argument.

But this definition makes no sense. It’s just a prejudice on the part of traditional academics. This is because traditional academics either (a) don’t do public work; or (b) can’t do public work because they don’t have the skill set. There are no good reasons to think that public work equals “unserious” work. True, public work usually isn’t as deep as traditional work. However, public work is usually more broad than traditional work and usually has more impact. The public academic could just flip the definition around and say traditional academic work is “unserious” work, since it’s narrow and has little impact. The point is that between traditional work and public work, what we deem to be “unserious” is arbitrary and based upon our prejudices.

The wasting-time argument

Academics should spend their time on the most important work, according to this argument. Academic research is more important than public work. Therefore, by spending time on public work, public academics are spending time sub-optimally. Arguments about academic research being “the job” of the academic and viewing public work as “not the job” of the academic occasionally feeds into the wasting-time argument. But it doesn’t need to.

The wasting-time argument fails because academic research is not more important than public work. When knowledge sits in the hands of a few, its value is limited. Ensuring others benefit from knowledge is just as important as knowledge production itself. The secondary point of viewing public work as not the job of the academic also fails. We could easily reconceptualize the academic job to require public work. In a limited sense, this already happens with requiring academics to teach students. Students aren’t exactly members of the public, but they aren’t academics either. The good professor is one who acknowledges this and acts in between the traditional academic and the public academic. At the very least, the academic job could be reconceptualized to equally value public work and traditional work.

The best of both worlds

Traditional academics and public academics have different aims. The best academic system is one which allows both types of academics to flourish. Society needs traditional academics to deepen knowledge. Society also needs public academics to expand knowledge.

As a publicly funded institution, academia has a moral obligation to expand knowledge. Society has a right to understand what they are funding. More importantly, knowledge is not something that should be kept in the hands of a few. Knowledge deepens, enriches, and makes our lives more meaningful. Everyone has a right to this.

Even if traditional academics are unconvinced by these arguments, they have two self-interested reasons for wanting public academics. First, public academics keep academia relevant in the eyes of the public. Second, public academics’ communication with the public can inspire the next generation of traditional academics. Traditional academics can’t do this themselves since almost no one, other than fellow specialists, can understand them. The public academic is needed as the middleman.

Tejas Pandya is a master’s student studying philosophy at Dalhousie University.

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Academia needs public academics — University Affairs

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