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The World Beyond the Ivy-covered Walls

The World Beyond the Ivy-covered Walls

The community of scholars must overcome its disdain for all things nonacademic.

Recently, Dr. Louise Richardson, executive dean of the Radcliffe Center for Advanced Study and an expert on terrorism, got the kind of fawning treatment on that the media usually reserves for such weighty topics as the Tom Cruise-Katie Holmes baby pictures. Using phrases like “dispassionate” and “admirably clearheaded,” the feature writer praised Richardson for “effectively demolish[ing] virtually every myth that the Bush administration has promulgated about terrorism, and demonstrat[ing] why its policies have greatly increased the threat to the United States.”

Now for those of you who don’t read much beyond the rarified air of Diverse and other higher education publications, I can assure you that those are words of high praise indeed.

Media coverage of academia is usually something to be avoided; something that generally penetrates no deeper than spoofs of cultural studies panels at the annual Modern Languages Association convention. Occasionally, a snotty putdown of some academic’s book will appear in your local paper’s book review page. But that’s often as far as it goes.

So to read such a serious treatment of an academic figure — to hear her describe how she “emerged from her academic shell” because lives were being lost — was to glimpse a world in which the academic mission of fearlessly seeking out new knowledge suddenly mattered to the world.

Then, of course, I read the e-letters in response to the article: “Thank God this book was written by an academic,” wrote a self-described conservative, “because no one will ever read it.”

Not true, of course. But the exchange highlighted an issue that’s been on my mind ever since I took a detour from journalism into doctoral studies just over a decade ago.

One of my most vivid memories of the transition is from one of those grad student parties that begin every semester — the kind where earnest young women in black hang around a keg to talk about Lacan and Nietzsche with young men whose parents think they should be on Wall Street.

Anyway, the pivotal moment came for me after one young man, who was later to drop out of school to become an indie rock musician and successful restaurateur, gave a particularly brilliant riff on politics and society. “Wow,” I said, “these ideas are really provocative and really important. Have you ever thought of writing for a general audience — maybe an op-ed or something?

The young man and his companion looked at me as if I had suggested they drink the Kool-Aid.

No, their shocked eyes said, they hadn’t considered such a move. Their body language clearly communicated how they felt about my suggestion.

This was the first time I encountered the academic’s disconnection from, and outright disdain for, the world beyond the ivy-covered walls. But it would not be the last. I remember being shaken to the core when I learned that writing a textbook would be considered “a kiss of death” in certain academic fields.

A similar moment came during a panel discussion with the editors of the nation’s most acclaimed academic and literary journals. The editors of Callaloo and Feminist Studies were met with shock and alarm when they described weaving academic essays with new fiction, poetry and the writing of artists and activists. “I have to say I’ve never heard of such a thing,” said the editor of American Literature, appearing thunderstruck at the very thought. “Ours is a magazine for professors and graduate students in the English field. We’re not for anyone else.”

I was appalled by the myopia and the prejudice. What academics need to come to grips with is that there’s a whole wide world of “anybody elses” out there, and they’re not just an undifferentiated blob of people who don’t read.

Not only do they read and write, they also have thoughts, some of them quite dangerous for the whole academic enterprise. They include men like:

– Rep. Gibson C. Armstrong, a Pennsylvania lawmaker who succeeded in creating a legislative commission to investigate claims of “left-wing bias” in the academy.

– David Horowitz, whose “Academic Bill of Rights” has stretched the concept of academic freedom to include the right of students to be free from any pesky ideas about life or the world that their education and backgrounds have not prepared them to accept.

– Daniel Pipes, a self-proclaimed “counterterrorism expert.” He is the founder of Campus Watch, a project aimed at debating and discrediting the ideas of Middle East scholars who disagree with his arch-conservative views.

These are the kinds of voices Louise Richardson is daring to debate when she enters the public realm to promote reason and evidence as tools of public policy. She will almost certainly be vilified by some, even as others dismiss her.

The community of scholars must not let her stand alone.

Indeed, the community of scholars must begin standing up itself. The time to begin is now.

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