When professors speak up

Joe Hogan

In a recent New York Times column titled “Professors, We Need You!,” Nicholas Kristof laments the fact that academics seem to have little real effect on the public’s understanding of the most significant issues of our time, such as the recent economic crisis and the changing politics of international relations. Kristof considers this sad fact ironic for an obvious reason: academics commit their lives to the study of some of the most important areas of human concern, but very rarely attempt to speak or write about their insights in a manner intelligible to much of the general public. Kristof, for this reason, calls for more academics and professors to be “public intellectuals,” or people whose ideas have some positive effect on the social conversation.

Kristof’s point very clearly applies to college campuses, where professors logically ought to speak openly and routinely about issues that affect not just them but students, administrators and the public. But commonly this does not seem to occur. Instead, to the detriment of many students, professors often seem cloistered in their offices, content to write and speak about their arcane and isolated fields of study without relating their work to anything that goes on at the university and in the wide world.

For these reasons, many students who were in some way involved in recent campus-wide debates—such as those concerning university policies about donors and bias incidents—were heartened and exhilarated by the ways in which their professors gave their input, both in the classroom and in the pages of the Lanthorn. Students were exhilarated not because professors simply parroted their views (judging from the diversity of opinion in the student body and the faculty, this could never have been so); instead, they were exhilarated because professors, by entering the campus-wide debate, affirmed both the importance of the issues students raised and the moral and social imperative of addressing them with intelligence and equanimity. Not only that, professors exemplified how to apply scholarship and academic knowledge to contribute to debates of immediate importance. This is precisely the variety of “public intellectualism” that Kristof desires for the world.

The main question: how is this call for professors to contribute more often and with greater vigor to campus-wide debates at all necessary for GVSU? The reason, I believe, is that such engagement by professors is not merely beneficial to, but is an essential aspect of, the kind of education GVSU purports to provide. It is a premise of our university that higher education ought to engage social issues at every level—campus-wide, regional, national, international. In fact, GVSU includes in its mission statement the goal of educating students to “shape their societies.” But how can such a practice be taught? Only outside the classroom, only in the realm where ideas are in all ways weighed, measured and scrutinized by the public can professors model the kind of applied-scholarship that is essential to the very reason for being of the university. This may at times be a painful, even a doomed effort, but it is critical to teaching students how to apply their knowledge to the most pressing issues of their day. In this way, such an education can prove that universities serve a function greater than mere “job preparation” for students: they are, instead, the best means by which students can learn to contribute to public debates that determine, in a very real and immediate sense, the growth and direction of society.

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