Dreaming in Translation
Academics harbor a lot of learning. But all that knowledge and insight often remains unused in the public. In an odd parallel with the old story about Las Vegas, what’s learned in colleges and universities often stays there. Part of the reason for this is that citizens outside academia are too busy with their own work to follow scholarly publications or attend college classes; and many don’t have the time or money for academic training, or even notice why anyone needs this kind of work.
But another reason for this disconnect of “town and gown” is that academics often speak with more intricacy and complexity than most people have patience for—and sometime analyze with more elaboration than is immediately necessary for the understanding how to steer through key issues and problems. Using academic learning for understanding direction would actually be helpful to the average person. True confessions: I live the professor type, ready to elaborate in detail; I thank my children for warning me about too much “complexifying.”
Intricacy of knowledge and complexity of understanding are good things; they provide abundance of facts and rich nuances of insight. In fact, our colleges and universities are treasure houses of learned women and men, with rich scholarly resources in journals and books that can address virtually every issue on the planet. But ironically, the greater the learning, the more those treasure houses become ivory towers separated from daily life. The more profound the expertise, the more its fruits become off limits to average citizens.
In the modern USA, as in other mass democracies, these restrictions have not emerged by political censorship or police tactics, but as unintended side effects of our great academic achievement. A funny thing happened on the way to building enormous scholarly expertise: fewer people are reading their work. Surely, there are a number of intrepid public intellectuals writing clear texts about sophisticated topics, and media outlet do bring on academic experts for learned but brief commentary on pressing issues of the day. But beyond these few connections to higher learning, there are dwindling readers for academic publications, and students often prepare for future life already primed in this same spirit by treating courses in the humanities and social thought as obtuse barriers to “get out of the way” on their paths to technical training.
Lamenting the social fate of higher learning does not mean that these pools of knowledge are always helpful or that academic insights are always right—far from it. After all, even if every person began reading more scholarship, we would still have problems. However, more access to academic knowledge and insight offers the promise, not of perfection, but of improvement, through some increased understanding. Understanding of the contexts around problems does not solve, but it can give resources to the imagination to think outside the box of current assumptions; and understanding of contexts can supply the heart with sympathy for different points of view, and stoke the will toward greater motivation to carry on despite discouragements. And yet, even those modest steps are not generally available to the public because academic discourse can be very difficult to follow…. Discourse: there, I said a word often used by academics, but one that simply means communication, or more plainly, discourse means talk—even as it suggests talk with more formality and earnestness than the usual string of words. Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.
So can we talk? Scholarly intricacy and complexity are good, even vital, but they are not always needed, all the time. I have a dream picturing scholarship as an accordion, with some expressions of its knowledge and insights pulled wide for expansive coverage, but at other times pushed in for briefer access, with ideas more clear and accessible to non-experts. In this dream, as complicated issues arise, citizens confronting problems would play the notes they need based on their available time and prior preparation. Different parts of scholarship would meet citizens where they are; and in fact, briefer renditions of profound scholarly knowledge and insight could serve as introductions to its more intricate varieties. Did that brief and clear piece strike an interest, or even address a need? Dear reader: Read on…. And dear academic: Write on….
But then I wake from the dream to our current situation. Most public discussion flows with few contributions from academics. Instead of discussion for learning, for clues and insights about public issues, we have another discourse, based on fighting, with eagerness not to figure things out, but to show how all the other guys are not figuring things out. Public discussion has become a Mutual Denigration Society. “Talk Shows” are often about fighting; honest labeling might adapt the name of one of the most venerable talk shows, “Meet the Press,” to call the TV and radio shows that involve more ranting than listening “Press the Meat”—with “raw meat” to stoke the fighting spirit. Got problems? Oh yeah, when the shouting stops, those problems are still there.
In this setting, the treasure house of scholarly insights is not only unavailable, but it is generally not even recognized; the appearance of professors in public discourse often reminds citizens of the complications of that discourse, of that fancy talk. All those insights are at best unused, and often just ridiculed. Most citizens face an awkward if not impossible choice: stay in the public arena of incessant outrage, or drop everything to get a graduate degree, since that’s what it might take to understand that other discourse, in the calmer but more complicated world of academia.
I dream of a brighter day, when there will be more bridges between public curiosity and academic thinking. The dream does need action on both sides; it takes two to tango, as my father would say. This dream assumes enough public curiosity to want to do more than grow angry and afraid about our problems, to want to pursue greater understanding. I realize that will be a challenge since tapping our gut emotions can be much more satisfying than figuring out how to deal. In the immediate, it’s just funner, as my kids would say (and don’t you know, funner is a funner word than most); but the satisfactions are short term. These potent emotions are vitally important; they serve as warning signals; but they are not the only important parts of our robust minds and hearts. Let’s use these warnings to figure out the next best steps for any problem we face. Got rough seas? After a few impulsive laments and clarifying curses at the winds, try adjusting the sails.
Turning to academia, this dream is built on the possibility of translating academic thinking in clearer ways than are usually presented in academic journals. With these words, with this web page, I can’t change public attitudes, and I can’t change academic discourse, but I can take a step. My step will be to write essays and stories, with knowledge and insights drawn from my own field of academia, but expressed in briefer and more accessible ways than most scholarly discourse.
This dream is the work of The Public Classroom: to open the windows of academic thinking by translating its rich work into briefer form. The first steps will be small; and PubClassroom.com is a work in progress. Watch for more brief essays using academic insights to address public questions. Read on—and turn to Ask the Prof to add your suggested topics for further inquiry.