It was the headline that got my attention. “Professors, We Need you!” trumpeted the title of a recent editorial by conservative political columnist Nicholas Kristof. In a masterpiece of left-handed compliments, Kristof observes that “some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors,” and yet “most of them don’t matter in today’s great debates.” And why is that, he asks? Part of the explanation lies in a widespread anti-intellectualism in American culture, but the sadder reality is that academics have also been authors of their own irrelevance. “It’s not just that America has marginalized some of its sharpest minds,” Kristof writes. “They have also marginalized themselves.”
Kristof devotes most of his essay to explaining how such a thing has come to pass. As academic disciplines have become progressively more specialized, their subject matter has become progressively less accessible. To compound the problem, Ph.D. programs “have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility.” Aspiring academics are forced to “encode their insights into turgid prose.” Then, to make sure that their findings have little public impact, they bury their “gobbledygook” in “obscure journals” or books published by university presses with “reputations for soporifics.” (Presumably, this limits their audience to readers who don’t need to look up the definition of words like soporifics.)
There is much that I could quibble with in the details of Kristof’s explanation. It is simplistic and one-sided, although I suppose that goes with the territory of a thousand-word op-ed. The one concrete recommendation that he offers—professors should “cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook”—is also disappointingly superficial. And yet the fundamental problem that Kristof points to is undeniable. In more cases than not, there is a chasm between academic scholars and the general public. This is true, furthermore, not only of scholars in highly technical fields, where the gulf is perhaps unavoidable. (Think Sheldon Cooper in The Big Bang—does anyone really expect a theoretical physicist to relate to normal people?) It is also true of professors in the humanities who have much to offer the general public and much less excuse for the isolation in which they labor.
When I think about this problem, my heart and mind go directly to a particular subset of the larger pattern, namely the gulf that too often separates Christian scholars from their brothers and sisters in the church pews. As I have shared on numerous occasions, my heart’s desire is to find ways to bridge this gap. This is why I left the University of Washington for Wheaton College, why I want to write books like The First Thanksgiving, why I even started this blog.
In this post and the next one, I want to think out loud with you about the possible causes of the chasm and what might be done to narrow it. I think Kristof is on to something when he suggests that the root of the problem lies both (a) in the culture of American society and (b) in the culture of the Academy. I’ll speak to the culture of the Academy first—I think I have more to add to this part of the conversation—and then next time I will share some thoughts and invite your input into how the church might be contributing to the marginalization of Christian scholarship.
To begin with, let me emphasize that I think the Academy is full of Christian scholars who think of their vocations as a form of service to the church. Many of them work in small Christian colleges where they labor in obscurity, pouring out their lives in return for meager salaries and minimal professional reward. They are teachers first and foremost, and they serve the greater good by equipping generations of students to think faithfully about the life of the mind and the love of God. May their tribe increase.
And yet the vast majority of Christians in the United States will never darken the door of a Christian college or university. To connect with the remainder, Christian professors cannot rely on their teaching alone, and therein lies the rub. Kristof is right when he says that academic culture discourages efforts to speak to a broad audience. Since the rise of the American university toward of the end of the nineteenth century, the Academy has effectively separated the purposes of teaching and scholarship. To teach is to convey knowledge only; to engage in scholarship is to push back the boundaries of knowledge. The former centers on simple communication, which supposedly anyone can master; the latter requires innovation, by comparison a rare and precious commodity. At the research university where I taught for more than two decades, the unstated assumption in faculty hiring discussions was that anyone who could write a “cutting-edge” doctoral dissertation would automatically be dynamic in the classroom. Generations of American college students might think differently.
All this is to say that Christian professors who want to write for a popular Christian audience face a double whammy. To the degree that the result is palpably Christian, it will run afoul of an academic culture that equates traditional Christian beliefs with superstition and ignorance. To the degree that it is clearly intended for a non-academic audience, it will trigger the Academy’s contempt for anything “popular.” Serious scholars write for each other, after all.
My point is not to absolve Christian professors of all responsibility. Allowing for many exceptions, on the whole we have accepted the values of the Academy too readily. We have passively allowed the academy to establish our vocational priorities, to determine which questions should be important to us, to define what should pass for excellence and success. We need to be bolder than we have been, less dependent on professional affirmation, and less reticent about declaring our ultimate loyalties.
To do this we will need God’s strength, wisdom, courage, and grace. We will also need help from the body of Christ. That’s where you come in. Let’s talk again soon.