Kristof, How Much Inequity Is the Right Balance?

I started simply to ignore Nicholas Kristof’s An Idiot’s Guide to Inequality, but I was pulled back into it by Russ Walsh’s Hope, Poverty, and Grit.

First, the rush to celebrate Kristof’s acknowledgement of Thomas Picketty, inequality, and (gasp) the implication that capitalism is failing seems easy to accept. But that urge to pat Kristof on the back feels too much like the concurrent eagerness to praise John Merrow for (finally) unmasking Michelle Rhee, despite his repeated refusal to listen to valid criticism over the past few years.

But, I cannot praise Kristof [or Merrow especially (see HERE and HERE)] because there is a late-to-the-party and trivial quality to Kritof’s oversimplification of the problems raised by Picketty, a framing that allows considerations of inequity and poverty to remain comfortably within the exact free market/competition ideologies perpetuating all the ways in which we are failing life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

If Kristof’s initial premise is true—many in the U.S. do not have the sustained interest needed to consider fully Picketty’s work—then that may be what Kristof and others should to be addressing. Those likely to buy and then (not) read Picketty are disproportionately among the privileged for whom the current imbalance works in their favor.

A passing and brief interest in inequity (let’s drop the “inequality,” please) is evidence that many in the U.S. remain committed to the Social Darwinism that drives capitalism’s role in creating social inequity—”I’m going to get mine, others be damned”—and equally unaware that this selfish view of the world is in fact self-defeating.

And this leads me to the real problem I have with Kristof’s mostly flippant short-cut to Picketty:

Second, inequality in America is destabilizing. Some inequality is essential to create incentives, but we seem to have reached the point where inequality actually becomes an impediment to economic growth.

And while Kristof appears completely oblivious to what he is admitting here, that second claim is the essential problem with capitalism: The ideology that humans should seek the right balance of affluence and poverty, which is the essence of capitalism and the ugly truth that the market creates and needs poverty.

So I do not find Kristof’s idiot’s guide satisfying in any way, but I do have some questions.

In the U.S., where white males outnumber black males 6 to 1 and then black males outnumber white males 6 to 1 in prisons, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks and white use illegal recreational drugs at the same rates but blacks are disproportionately targeted and charged with drug possession/use, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where women earn about 3/4s what men earn (for the same work), what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where people born in poverty who complete college have a lower earning potential than people born in affluence who haven’t completed college, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

In the U.S. where blacks with some college have the same earning potential as white high-school drop-outs, what is the right balance of inequity we should have?

Kristof’s guide may be intended for idiots, but it fails because his analysis remains trapped inside a market view of the world, a view that seeks an ugly and inhumane balance of inequity that values poverty, that needs the poor and thus creates the exact inequity we continue to trivialize in our political leadership and mainstream media.


Professors as Public Intellectuals: A Reader [UPDATED]

With Professors, We Need You!, Nicholas Kristof makes a case for professors as public intellectuals:

Professors today have a growing number of tools available to educate the public, from online courses to blogs to social media. Yet academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook. Likewise, it was TED Talks by nonscholars that made lectures fun to watch (but I owe a shout-out to the Teaching Company’s lectures, which have enlivened our family’s car rides).

I write this in sorrow, for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses. So, professors, don’t cloister yourselves like medieval monks — we need you!

While Kristof’s plea stumbles in many places (for example, left-leaning academics appear to be discounted out of hand, suggesting that society can somehow be changed only by academics who hold ideologies similar to that public), Daniel Willingham’s follow up presents a strong case as well, notably targeting the role of professors as public intellectuals in the education debate:

Kristof did not distinguish between faculty in Arts & Sciences and those in professional schools such as law, medicine, education, and engineering. These latter have practical application embedded in their mission and I think are therefore more vulnerable to his charges….

But again, I think Kristof’s blade is much sharper when applied to university schools that claim a mission which includes practical application. Schools of Ed., I’m looking at you.

Also important is a comment from Stwriley at Willingham’s The Answer Sheet post, which reads in part:

The reason is that there are far fewer professors who don’t have to worry that what they say in public will cost them their jobs and that have the time to spend on non-teaching and non-research duties. At this time, 3 out of 4 university faculty are adjuncts or other contingent faculty. It is only those in tenured or tenure-track positions, with the far better pay, guarantees of due process and academic freedom, and personal time for outside activity who can take up the role of public intellectual….

This is the real reason for the decline in professors as public intellectuals: the destruction of their profession for the bottom line of others.

The closing point in this comment must not be ignored: The dismantling of academic tenure at university and K-12 levels includes a silencing of academics—something Kristof and Willingham appear to be lamenting.

Neither Kristof nor Willingham acknowledge that high-profile cases have shown that even tenured professors risk everything by being public voices. And when professors shift into the world of blogging, the stakes often are high.

If professors as public intellectuals are needed, then, some time must be spent addressing the many ways in which institutional and public policies are working against that possibility.

Ultimately, calls for professors as public intellectuals confront a number of problems, including:

  • Traditional university mechanisms for promotion and tenure either disregard or marginalize public work.
  • A social norm of professors and teachers as “not political” remains powerful.
  • In the U.S., political leaders and the public are committed to beliefs over evidence, expertise, or experience.
  • Academics are often not well equipped to interact with a lay public, including being unfamiliar with the value and dynamics in the New Media as well as social media (Twitter, blogging platforms, Facebook).

Since I have made a conscious shift in how much energy I commit to traditional scholarly work versus public work, I have addressed these issues in a number of ways. Here, then, is a reader on the issues above as they relate to professors as public intellectuals:

See Also

The difficulties scholars have writing for a broad audienceChristopher Schaberg and Ian Bogost

Academic Self-Marginalization Not the Problem, James Kwak

Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?, Joshua Rothman

Why Is Academic Writing So Beautiful? Notes on Black Feminist Scholarship, Emily Lordi

The responsibility of adjunct intellectuals, Corey Robin

Scabs: Academics and Others Who Write for Free, Yasmin Nair

The war on black intellectuals: What (mostly) white men keep getting wrong about public scholarship, Brittney Cooper

Columbia University Fired Two Eminent Public Intellectuals. Here’s Why It Matters. Michelle Goldberg

Roundup of Responses to Kristof’s Call for Professors in the Public Sphere, Jessie Daniels

Educating the Public on the Public’s Terms: An Open Letter to Academics, Peter Smagorinsky

In Defense of Public Writing, David Leonard

academic influence on Twitter: the findings

What’s Wrong With Public Intellectuals?, Mark Greif

How Scientists Engage the Public, Lee Rainie, Cary Funk, and Monica Anderson

The Dangerous Silence of Academic Researchers, Y. Claire Wang

‘But Does It Count?’, David M. Perry

Twitter and Tenure, David M. Perry

Prof, no one is reading you, Asit K. Biswas and Julian Kirchherr

The Perils of Being a Public Intellectual, Henry Giroux

From Tweet to Blog Post to Peer-Reviewed Article: How to be a Scholar Now, Jessie Daniels

Here’s why academics should write for the public, Jonathan Wal and David Miller

Faculty trained to speak about systems of oppression should not be required to be neutral in the classroom (opinion)Nicole Truesdell

Many people call for an end to politics in the classroom, as this is seen as the source of the problem. Rather than address systemic and structural oppression and discrimination, faculty are being asked to take “neutral” stances and just teach our disciplines, leaving politics to social media and in-person conversation. Yet for many scholars, this is our work. Many of us are trained to see and then speak on institutional and structural systems of oppression. I have been trained specifically to see and call out institutional racism through an intersectional lens. If we are being told to just do our job, then we are. So the real question becomes, is society ready to accept the true point of an education, which is to develop a group of critically thinking, conscious citizens? Is higher education ready and capable of taking on this work?

That is the true point of education, what James Baldwin meant when he said in 1963, “The paradox of education is precisely this — that as one begins to become conscious, one begins to examine the society in which he is being educated.” As educators, it is our job to teach students how to think critically so that they can engage with larger social issues. That is not confined to just the social sciences, but has an impact on all academic disciplines and departments. Yet as Baldwin also said, society is not always that anxious to have a mass of critically thinking and engaged people, because “what societies really, ideally, want is a citizenry which will simply obey the rules of society. If a society succeeds in this, that society is about to perish.” That is why education matters more so now than ever as a location that should be unapologetically committed to developing students to become true critically engaged thinkers who learn how to apply those knowledges, methodologies and skills to locations outside spaces like this.