The Journalistic Encounter with Academia

One of the finest virtues of, in addition to its willingness to permit me to speak my mind on many matters, is its mix of insiders and outsiders who comment about this crazy quilt called academia. The word itself is interesting – Merriam-Webster online reports its first use in 1946, which leaves over two thousand years for the now less-used academe with the quaint reminder in the OED: “The best academe, a mother’s knee.” Indeed, the best academe has been a subject of intense debate for as long as something like it has existed, though, I reckon that mothers know best that sometimes you have to step back and take a deep breath.

That is precisely what I would like to try to do in the case of Naomi Schaefer Riley whose steadfastness in the face of a send-off by the Chronicle of Higher Education is nothing less than courage under fire. For the record, my opinion is simply that she should be reinstated at the Chronicle, which ought to conduct its own “internal” investigation of how capitulating to the academic equivalent of a cyber-attack is the best way to navigate the intensities generated by mere opinion, however “offensive” it may strike some.

Much has already been written about the nature of active political commitments that appear to override the more sedate scholarly commitments in Black or Africana Studies in particular. As long ago as forty years, a book published in my field entitled The Death of White Sociology, stood for claims about the failures of integration and the legacies of racism, both of which would encourage calls for affirmative action not principally for women but for any minority regarded as underrepresented in higher education, and eventually in more recent years for reparations.

Getting the Attention of Insiders

I should point out that nearly simultaneous with the publication of The Death of White Sociology (1973), in 1974, the University of Chicago Press published Black Sociologists: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, anticipating the now uncontroversial incorporation of such figures as W.E.B. Du Bois into the sociological canon. In many ways, sociology was the first discipline to experience the full-brunt of the coming transformations that soon enough various “outsiders” to academia would write about.

But let us not forget too quickly (and this ought to be an object lesson for those cowering at the Chronicle over who gets to be at the bloggers’ table) that criticisms, indeed, attacks on the academy by all sorts of writers have been the price paid for being too much “out there” or just “out of it”. Those making the trumped-up charges of racism, alas–something we have to look forward to even more in the next six months–operate in the same orbit as a variety of journalists, including Riley. That is to say, Riley’s observations stung, not because they haven’t been made by many others, some with extensive documentation, but rather because her observations got the attention of the insiders. Such attention is the opium of the asses.

Journalists especially writing about academia mediate between that world and the larger public, garnering attention to their concerns that “insiders” may only dream about. Occasionally there are some effective crossovers of insiders to the outside, such as Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, a book that probably more people said they read than actually read. But the point was the attention it received, particularly from the otherwise sleepy insiders. These days such writers as Peter Wood, Roger Kimball, and Peter Berkowitz, also get some real notice beyond the confines of academe, each one a kind of veteran (though not insider any longer) of not only the academic wars but academia itself. They are genuine critics whose bully pulpits are a constant source of irritation to the legions of insiders capable only of signing petitions but incapable of writing more than several understandable sentences before retreating to their jargons of internal authenticity. It is a sad testament to my colleagues trapped inside their conceptual prisons that their best shots are their signatures that follow tirades of immaturity.

The criticisms of academia come from within and without. Those without sometimes have the quality of a blunt instrument, and those within often never see the light of day. Yet from whatever direction, the most important lesson to draw from the journalist’s foray into academia is that such reactions as those that Naomi Schaefer Riley has aroused are demonstrable evidence that many are listening more carefully than ever to the outside, as they should. Now if only they would listen a little more carefully to the insiders whose hopes are not dashed by outsiders. On the contrary, whether they yet understand it or not, the outsiders, in particular, writers such as Riley, are the best hope they have for retaining employment in the coming decades. They should know that Trotsky’s “Reform, not Revolution” is the greatest hope academia has.

Jonathan B. Imber is Glasscock Professor of Sociology at Wellesley College and Editor-in-Chief of Society.


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