Go ahead, scholars, and embrace the public spirit

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Robert Weisbuch
Austin American-Statesman
December 13, 2004

Challenging universities to build synergies with their communities, Rick Cherwitz's "academic engagement" series in this newspaper has modeled a coalition. Academics alternated with public figures, including a cabinet member and corporate executive. This surprising alliance urges a new norm -- to employ and inform academic expertise in relation to the public good.

Can we realize our rhetoric? Scholars balk at first, on principle. As economist James Galbraith wrote in this series, "idle curiosity is the noblest intellectual motive," and scholars who would push back the night sometimes must disdain the immediate for the eternal. But breathing in, we need to exhale. The most learned among us must not become the most irrelevant.

Given half a chance, academics will find this wider scope deeply appealing. At the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, we tested this on the most hermetic of fields. The humanities (history, English, philosophy and so on) are like New York in Sinatra's song: if public scholarship can make it there, it will make it anywhere. We offered graduate students a measly $2,000 to take their learning to the streets.

Hundreds of their projects are detailed on Woodrow.org, but the surprising efforts are exemplified by a University of Texas anthropology student who took on a group of delinquent girls who had been sexually abused as children, using everything she knew -- storytelling, art, dance, autobiographical writing -- to improve their self-images.

To a person, students emphasized delight in discovering the efficacy of their learning. They described the experience as two-way -- their scholarly work was immensely strengthened by the lived experience. And, in fields where doctoral graduation rates hover around 50 percent and the time it takes to complete a degree approaches the ridiculous, nearly all completed their work speedily and graduated -- because they became aware that their abilities translated into possibilities beyond the academy. Many of them did, of course, become academics, but a new kind of academic.

Who represents this kind? Individuals like Jeff Perl, who responded to 9/11 by using his journal Common Knowledge to show how requiring students to squeeze themselves into other people's minds, even the minds of enemies, holds a key to international peace. Or the Bard College crew who started the Clemente program, an amazingly successful national effort to work with poor people on reading and writing.

And of course the writers in this series, like philosopher Robert Solomon and Betty Sue Flowers, the English professor whose attempt to probe "the story that we are telling as a nation" led her "out of academia itself and into more direct public service."

It is usual to say that scholars must stand apart from pressing social reality, serving as stern critics of it. But this presumes someone else gets to make social reality. I'd rather constitute reality than criticize it. That is why Galbraith, despite his sensible misgivings, opts finally for an engaged scholarship.

How do we get from a sequestered status quo to academic engagement? How does the university become, in Huizinga's phrase, "the brains of the Republic"?

Let me amplify four proposals advanced in this series. First, require an environment for making universities truly public. Every university must create a continuing, dynamic dialogue between the mentors and the employers of students, between academics and leaders in government, business, cultural institutions, K-12 education. I'm not talking about meetings every three years, but an every-hour-of-the-day exchange. Open the windows of the faculty lounge to the freshening breeze of urgent life.

This new environment must be accompanied by an expectation. One writer notes the three criteria for faculty evaluation and calls for service to society, now "a distant third," to be acknowledged importantly. I'd go further. Make the rigorous application of knowledge a normal faculty expectation, especially because this kind of service wonderfully blends the other criteria: important scholarship and effective teaching. And give faculty the time by cutting the number of committees in half and membership in the remaining ones by two-thirds.

This expectation requires an inviting structure. Problem solving, several writers note, requires multiple disciplines. Universities always praise interdisciplinarity and then fail to fund it. Yet such efforts bring new ways of organizing knowledge that challenge old boundaries. Instead of making them mere icing on an otherwise traditional cake, create a cross-woven quilt. Fund equally those departments that remain vital and those interdisciplinary programs that provably work -- and then challenge all others.

Finally, as Chancellor Mark Yudof argues, if we are really serious about recreating the university as public-spirited, a first test is to meet our nearest neighbors and share the rich life of the disciplines with teachers and students in K-12. The gap between schools and universities is arguably greater in the United States than anywhere else in the world. We can close it.

The movement toward academic engagement is less a revolution than a restoration. Most liberal arts colleges were created with an eye to serving humankind. And the great land-grant universities were formed with the express purpose "to reduce knowledge to practice."

But there is no reduction. When universities give away sole ownership of knowledge, they will gain far more than they lose. Jill Dolan speaks for the potential joy. Describing how the theatre program redefined itself as "performance as public practice," Dolan exclaims, "I believe deeply in performance's power to make the world better."

I love that belief. It is what most academics feel about their own interest, if they would be plain. So be plain, scholars. Go for it. The calm countryside of thought is beautiful and replenishing, but the city of events awaits. Make that city not the hardening of hope but the realization of our highest thought, our best American dreams.

Weisbuch is president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation.