To those who are disparaging professors:
I have been deeply disturbed over the last year or so by the small but vocal number of people—colleagues, friends, family (many of them teachers!)—who have disparaged tenured professors, basically saying in one form of another that they produce “nothing of value.” The latest of these criticisms came from Nicholas Kristoff who, while not exclusively critiquing their output, chastised these intellectuals for not being “public” enough. This charge may be taken as an implicit critique of their work, at least that portion of their work that does not lend itself to the 140 character tweet or the 30 second sound bite.
The value of this kind of work cannot be measured in the moment, perhaps cannot be measure at all. This does not mean that it has no value. Would anyone question the importance or relevance of the 20th century revolutions in Latin American countries? And yet many people question the practicality of studying psychology, philosophy, literature, and religious studies. Do they not realize that it was Gustavo Gutierrez’s study of these things that, along with his experience living among the poor, led him to the creation of liberation theology, which inspired all of those revolutions? Whether one agrees with those revolutionaries or not, you cannot doubt their relevance, nor the relevance of the intellectual work that inspired them.
Would anyone question the relevance of the American Civil Rights movement, or of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr.’s leadership in it? And yet how many times did I endure my father-in-law’s jokes (“What kind of food cart do you open up with a degree in philosophy?”) when I followed Dr. King as a student of religious studies at Boston University? (For the record, the only thing my father-in-law truly respects more than my religious studies and philosophy teaching is fodder for a good joke.)
If your son or daughter wanted to study ancient languages, as a philologist does, you might not see the utilitarian value in this. And yet would anyone deny the impact of Friedrich Nietzsche’s thought on so many millions of people? One need not look past his influence on the music of Bob Dylan, who voraciously read Nietzsche while he writing the songs the whole world sings.
I realize these are just three examples. If I could take any more time away from my own reading, writing, and teaching about irrelevant work that has no value, I would provide 300 examples. For now, suffice it to say that when someone disparages the work of the academic as having no value, (s)he does not prove that the work has no value; (sh)e only proves that (s)he do not understand its value.