The humanities do not need a Neil deGrasse Tyson. We need a thousand Tysons. Better yet, we need to stop waiting for the prestige economy to churn out a celebrity to save us. Instead, why not recognize all the good work that so many people already are doing in the humanities?
It’s time to vastly broaden our approach to finding the next generation of public intellectuals. My proposal: Look for teachers, not researchers.
In the wake of the success of the Cosmos reboot, it seems that everyone’s excited about Tyson. Vitae columnist Kelly Baker, Gawker columnist Adam Weinstein, and former MLA president Michael Bérubé have all written columns invoking him as a model for other scholars to emulate.
Here's Baker: Frankly, I think we should all take a page from science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson, the well-regarded astrophysicist who directs the Hayden Planetarium … . Tyson is a rock star. He can explain the complexities of science, and he can banter back and forth with Jon Stewart. Listening to him describe the cosmos makes me yearn to be a scientist.
Weinstein: Neil deGrasse Tyson is a pop science star. Thanks to him, kids dream about expanding human knowledge of the phenomenal universe. Now: Where's a liberal arts rockstar to make people care about human culture that much?
Bérubé: Why shouldn’t there be a Cosmos-like show devoted to explaining what’s been going on in the humanities for the past 30 years, and why it matters? (He then looks at the history of humanities stars, invokes the legacy of Camille Paglia, and ends by talking about the ways that directors of humanities centers might be a good place to look for the Tyson of the humanities.)
I understand the impulse that drives Baker and Weinstein to invoke Tyson’s “star” status. Wouldn’t it be great if a historian could live-tweet Lincoln and get half the attention that Tyson did for Gravity? I heartily endorse Bérubé’s suggestion that humanities directors at top research universities (including Michael himself) are especially suited to lead mass public engagement, and I’m ready to pitch his show idea, Human Natures, to the first network executive that calls.
I think, however, that there’s another way to conceptualize this problem—one that doesn’t involve just elite universities, big-time TV shows, aspirational celebrities, and the prestige economy of academia.
I work at a small university on the outskirts of Chicago. Every day I marvel at the range and depth of expertise of my colleagues. They are dedicated teachers focused on pitching their subjects to a highly diverse undergraduate body at an institution where teaching is the main priority.
My university is not unusual. The peculiarities of the North American higher education system have generated hundreds, maybe thousands, of campuses packed with busy academics who spend most of their time pondering how to communicate complex subjects to a challenging audience. Within this pool of teachers are the next Neil deGrasse Tysons of the humanities, the social sciences, the arts, and the hard sciences, too, for that matter. They’re busy. They’re focused on their own students. Many of them are, in fact, also great scholars, just as there are great teachers at the elite research universities. What they don’t have is a fancy university behind their names to get easy attention and respect from the media.
It’s possible to go from a small college to a mass media audience; I’ve done it. My path, however, was thoroughly random, based on a friend I made in graduate school who writes for CNN—and on the timing of the papal resignation, which happened just after I completed a monograph. Chance is not a system and my pathway cannot be easily replicated.
Moreover, the prestige economy stacks the deck against brilliant communicators who lack an institutional affiliation with broad name recognition. When the media looks for experts, they start with the Ivies and might work their way as far down as elite public universities. When Nicholas Kristof made his much-derided plaintive cry, “Professors, we need you,” the only universities he mentioned were Harvard, Princeton, and Stanford. No doubt it would be good if the world-class experts at those (and comparable) universities did more public engagement—and many of them do a lot already—but why should they?
Tenure and promotion at elite research universities remain principally based on scholarship. Big raises emerge from outside offers, which are generally driven by scholarship too. So it’s only rational for faculty members at research universities to ignore teaching, service, and public engagement to the extent possible. Thank goodness so many of them are so irrational and do care about both outreach and the classroom.
If there is a real market, or a real need, for more public intellectuals, especially in the humanities, then we need to get past the knee-jerk tendency to look for answers at the institutions least likely to provide them. The job market operates as a largely random force that scatters brilliant people across the country, to work in institutions both rich and poor, famous and unknown, research-oriented and teaching-driven. As the dust settles in each academic generation, some of the best people rise to the best colleges, but other equally talented people settle into their lives, happily or not, wherever the fortunes of academic hiring deposited them.
Researchers focus and specialize. Teachers at small and midsized colleges teach a lot of different topics, to widely varied populations, and their careers depend on doing it well. By teaching, they are preparing themselves to become public intellectuals, even if they don’t know it.
So the humanities don’t need a single superstar generalist. What we need is to make use of the thousands of really good communicators already out there, busy in their classrooms. We need to create systems to amplify their diverse voices.