Scholars and Public Intellectuals: The Bad Old Days Before Blogging

I am flattered to be in the company Brandon places me in. When I was still growing up, I wanted to be Tyler Cowen then, I figured he moved way too fast for me. I have the utmost respect for Robert Higgs but I wouldn’t dream of mimicking his nearly super-human determination. I suspect Brandon put me on purpose in that flattering company and that he will soon ask me to stay after the meeting to sweep the room in return. Brandon also implicitly gave me permission to do what old dudes love to do (and often do well): reminisce.

I had a mostly but not exclusively academic career. It began so long ago that the hardest part of my doctoral dissertation was getting it typed from its long-hand last draft (yes, “typed,” with a typewriter; do you even know what this is?) Few graduates students knew how to type. Those who did were all females who had taken the trouble to learn in high school,. Below are two things that have changed for the better since those days, changed specifically in connection with blogging.

When I was a young scholar, I quickly discovered that having good co-authors was extraordinarily important. Myself, with one exception I won’t name, I always had co-authors, that is, co-investigators, I did not deserve. The difference in quality, in reach, in scope, between what I could produce by myself and what I did with others was so great that I seldom even tried to go it alone once I had discovered the force multiplier of well chosen others.* But finding potential research partners was costly, haphazard and often disappointing.

Apart from the necessarily limited local offering at your own university, you had to wait for your first high-powered publication, hoping it would draw admirers who would then take the trouble to contact you. Of course, you could do the same with others. To some extent, it involved the same sort of hesitancy one experiences trying to pick up a good-looking person in a public place. And, in some disciplines, publishing an admirable article in a well esteemed periodical may take years, of course. The poor traditional remedy was attending academic conferences, listening to others at formal presentations sessions and then, making advances. This worked to some extent but it was an inefficient system with a piteous yield.

The contemporary blog with a theme, such as Notes on Liberty, offers the young scholar the immense advantage of being able to present in a stress-free fashion samples of his work to many strangers of a similar cast of mind who are also hanging out around the blog in a relaxed frame of mind. Some of these will turn out to be potential coauthors. The blog will give them a social context for reaching out that is less intimidating than most.

Needless to say, the same features of the blog may facilitate being noticed by useful senior scholars. (I said “may” because I have no certainty about the extent to which such august persons go slumming on blogs. I have my suspicions though.)

Next: many people who become academics begin a with a general interest in ideas. Soon, they discover that the organizations that are willing to put bread on their table while they indulge their tastes are mostly universities. This is certainly true in the English speaking world. It seems to me that this is also largely the case in the French speaking world, and in the Spanish speaking world as well.

Once involved in a university career, the same people soon figure out that to progress in that career, or simply to remain in the career, they must publish in scholarly journals at a good clip. Unfortunately, in most disciplines, journals require a much narrower enterprise than the typical aspiring public intellectuals dreams of. This is intentional: Specialization encourages attention to detail in reasoning and it punishes sloppy logic. It also promotes respect for facts. (I mean outside of the post-modern English discipline, of course). Scholarly formats often leave authors unsatisfied in one particular respect, the formal limits they imposes on their discourse. I have often myself been in a situation, – and likewise observed others to be – with an eighteen page empirical paper that seemed to me honestly to authorize fifty pages of innovative narrative. The journal format usually allowed only one to three pages, four, if you played your cards right, or if the editor dated your sister.

Some will comment that a person can pursue a two-track career with scholarly publications on one side, and more general narratives in other media, on the other. That’s true enough but if you consider the large number of America academics in general compared to the two handfuls nationwide who have a public voice, you will guess that the dual career path must present formidable obstacles.

The one I encountered personally – which I think is quite common – is that the gates of outlets for general well-informed but non-technical narratives were as narrow of those of the most respected academic journals, and also vastly more capriciously opened. And in case, you are wondering no, I am not thinking only of the New York Review of Books. It will take me a long time to recover from the contemptuous rejection I received from the newspaper of my local community college. (That was twenty years ago. I was a well respected scholar by then.)

A good blog with an open editorial policy such as Notes on Liberty will give many a chance to circulate opinion pieces and other narratives not fitting a normal scholarly format. Those may spring, by the way, from the same source as their scholarly production narrowly defined. When I was churning out statistical empirical papers in the sociology of economic development, I felt I had lots of things to say to the general intelligent public, springing from the endeavor of producing those papers, things that never got said.

I am not sure how many of those who read these words are academics, or aspiring academics, or frustrated academics who long to be also public intellectuals. I hope I reached a few of you, all the same. What I can tell you is that my life would have been more satisfying (even more satisfying) if blogs such Notes on Liberty had been available when I was just sharpening my pencils.


* Nonetheless, I wrote alone and off the top of my head a little paper that keeps cropping up in the class syllabi of several military schools forty years later: The distributive state in the world system.” Studies in Comparative International Economic Development, 15-3: 3-21. 1980. (A little harmless bragging!)

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