New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote a kind of dumb piece called “Professors, We Need You!” lamenting the fact that, by Kristof’s account, professors do a bunch of arcane stuff that the public never really benefits from, even though the public could really benefit from it.
I’m probably more sympathetic to Kristof’s point than most, but, nevertheless, I thought this reply to Kristof’s post by UNC-Chapel Hill English Professor Jessica Wolfe was really smart. An excerpt:
While it is true that much academic work is specialized, and likewise true that some of it is even “gobbledygook,” Kristof dangerously conflates the difficult with the useless or obscure [… ]scholarship is difficult because its subject matter is difficult […]
Even a professor who writes challenging scholarship for a limited audience should be able to explain complex ideas with clarity and simplicity for students and for a non-academic audience. But if we condemn all difficult writing as lacking in use value, we run the risk of making irrelevant some of the most important philosophical, scientific, and yes, even literary writing that exists, from Plato (famously excoriated for his obscurity) to Wittgenstein and David Foster Wallace. Indeed, the special challenge of reading difficult texts—difficult because long, obscure, highly allusive, or written in an archaic language—is the experience that expands and tests my students’ knowledge in the classroom more than any other. That difficulty prepares them for a life in the “real world”—a world in which the most important questions, and the most important answers, are never easy.
Like my friend Matt recently told me when I was complaining about how hard it was to set up my new stereo system: “Dude, some shit s’posed to be hard; otherwise everyone would have a sweet setup. And the sound of that vinyl’s gonna be so warm you won’t even need to turn on the heat in your apartment …”