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Speaking to Rubes
Published on September 20, 2011 by Sara Foss

Over at The Daily Howler, Bob Somerby often wonders who college professors aren't more actively involved in trying to educate the public about the important issues of the day. On Tuesday, he suggested that "it's easy to be disinformed because of the professors. Has any group failed you more reliably over the past several decades? As more and more parts of our public discourse have been seized by disinformation, you could always count on the professors to stay away from the field of battle. No explanation or clarification was likely to come from their refined aeries!"

Academia is one of those institutions that I have wildly mixed feelings about. On one hand, I usually like academics, because they tend to be smart and thoughtful. On the other hand, I'm frequently amazed at their tunnel vision - they really seem to think their doctoral research is important, an attitude often accompanied by a failure to understand or care about the problems concerning working class Americans.

Somerby points to a New Yorker article about New York Times columnist and prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, in which reporter Larissa McFarquhar describes how Krugman's academic friends tried to discourage him from writing for a newspaper, saying it was a waste of time. According to the article, "Krugman cared about his academic reputation more than anything else. If he started writing for a newspaper, would his colleagues think he’d become a pseudo-economist, a former economist, a vapid policy entrepreneur like Lester Thurow? Lester Thurow had become known in certain circles as Less Than Thorough. It was hard to imagine what mean nickname could be made out of Paul Krugman, but what if someone came up with one? Could he take it?" Somerby considers this a pretty interesting reaction from Krugman's fellow professors, and sarcastically asks, "Why would any Serious Person want to write a mere newspaper column? Why would any serious person want to speak to the rubes?"

I've run into this attitude more than once, particularly from writerly types. Journalism is hack work, newspaper writing isn't real writing, blah blah blah. Better to toil away in a creative writing master's program than go out and write something that tens of thousands of people, perhaps more, will read.

Of course, new Census data shows that the only people currently seeing wage gains are those with advanced degrees. Which might help explain academia's relative unconcern about wage stagnation and other issues affecting workers.

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