Saturday, February 15, 2014

Nicholas Kristof Insults Academics

What is he saying?  It seems as if Mr. Kristof is speaking out of both sides of his mouth in his recent article Professors We Need You!  In Sunday's New York Times, his title suggests a sympathetic stance about the value those in ivory towers might offer in solving our world's ills, if only they weren't repeatedly marginalized by "American life."  But he provides overwhelming evidence that there are bona fide reasons for marginalizing professors and he even goes so far as to blame them for marginalizing themselves.  They've neglected the qualitative in favor of the quantitative.  Most political science professors can't formulate a policy prescription.  Professors submit meaningless gibberish to scholarly journals.  Kristof repeats insult after insult, sort of like gossip, to prove the point that professors have nothing valuable to provide in formulating useful public policy.

He begins by discussing professors although soon changes the target population to academics.  Is he referring to all academics?  Is that everyone who does research or just professors?  Categorizing people who differ in many ways into a singe group and comprehending them as being all the same is a dreadfully dangerous practice for anyone who presents him or herself as a humanist.  An epidemiologist would understand that there are sub-populations of academics and that they function differently, for different target audiences, therefore with differing influence.  A sociologist would likely explain that ascribing a group of people to a single category based on one obvious, easily observed trait is a fundamental requisite for creating and perpetuating inequality and prejudice.  An econometrician would understand that there are varying magnitudes of ineptitude (or value, depending on your perspective) expressed by academics according to multiple factors that vary in the effects each one has on each individual.  Lumping everyone into one group and saying they're marginalized illustrates fundamental thinking.  And what was he thinking when he categorized economists (except for Paul Krugman) as Republicans? 

Reframing the problem might be more productive than arguing about whether or not academics are marginalized.  The real issue may be that the research produced by academics or professors is often ignored, never has a voice, and may not even be conducted in the first place, in the context of our current government structure and political system.  Conscientious, well constructed, quantitative research studies can provide valuable insight into the effects public policy has on health, education, and general well-being of various individuals in a general population.  And ideally, research produced by multiple disciplines might be used to diminish factors that harm people, and create both public and private incentives for more humanistic policy outcomes.  But without the political will to manifest the American ideal of equality, it's not just academicians who are marginalized.

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