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When Does Scholarship Give Way to Bombast and Bluster?

By Rick Hess — January 16, 2018 6 min read
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I’ve now been doing the Education Week RHSU Edu-Scholar Public Influence Rankings for about a decade, striving to recognize scholars who do academically significant research while also contributing to the public square. After all, I’ve long argued that on an issue like education, our impassioned public debates benefit when scholars take the time to engage. Of course, encouraging this kind of activity always runs the risk of introducing perverse incentives.

As I’ve written each year for most of the past decade, I have addressed two common questions while unveiling the rankings: Can somebody game this rubric? And are you concerned that this exercise will encourage academics to chase publicity?

In years past, I’ve dismissed these worries, noting that if scholars were motivated to write more relevant articles, pen more popular books, or communicate more accessibly, that would be great. And, while there’s obviously a point where communication turns into sleazy self-promotion, most academics were so far from that point that I wasn’t unduly concerned.

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In this special collection of Commentary essays, Frederick M. Hess and four education scholars discuss the pros and cons for academics who want to wade into public debate.

Read more from the collection.

However, I make no such assurances in my discussion of the rankings’ scoring rubric this year. To tell you the truth, I’m no longer confident on this count. Mind you, I haven’t decided that the exercise is counterproductive (if I had, I’d have stopped doing it), but I am wrestling with second thoughts.

I still want scholars to contribute to public debates on education and offer their insight, analysis, and perspective. Scholars have the training, independence, and opportunity to master bodies of knowledge. To delve deeply into data. To scrutinize programs and practices. To challenge popular assumptions and empty slogans. All this is especially true when it comes to a field as public and democratic as education—where I believe that responsible scholars accept a professional obligation to share the fruits of their labors.

At the same time, we inhabit a hyperpolarized era of ubiquitous hot takes. Public debate is dominated by 24/7 social media and short-lived feeding frenzies. In such a world, scholars can be tempted to settle into the attention-getting habits of a media-saturated culture, offering up easy talking points and pat answers. Outlets like cable news, Twitter, and Facebook reward hashtag tirades and fuel a desire for dopamine-inducing retweets, likes, and clicks.

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Meanwhile, there seems to be emerging a new consensus that the usual rules no longer apply—either for President Donald Trump’s enthusiasts or for the “resistance” that opposes him. (Of course, few academics are aligned with Trump, so this is, in practice, a one-sided show.)

It’s become remarkably easy for those entering public discussions to fall into the rhythms of rote partisanship—which undermines the whole point of asking scholars to engage in public debate in the first place.

Take Twitter, for example. The Twitter-sphere has become a popular outlet for education scholars to share their work. Nearly two-thirds of this year’s 200 RHSU Edu-Scholars have an account, a sea change from a few years back. This can be a fine thing; indeed, I include scholars’ Klout score—a measurement of an individual’s social-media influence—as one metric of influence. But, not infrequently, what academics offer on the platform reads more like the ravings of unprofessional ideologues or our emotionally stunted president than like the insights of the scholarly mind.

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Things get even thornier when we combine all of this with the ever-expanding universe of advocacy groups, education-specific media, think tanks, and foundations—all of whom are busily seeking out “mission aligned” scholars they can channel and promote.

Meanwhile, more than a few universities are investing in expanded public relations operations, new-media facilities, and the like. This has all yielded growing opportunities for scholars who are regarded as useful (by one side or another) to be celebrated for taking sides in debates over school choice, student discipline, college costs, and more.

What’s going on, I think, is the product of evolving professional incentives. Funders focused on “evidence of impact” are increasingly looking to metrics like media hits. Meanwhile, as the world keeps moving online and old outlets decline in importance, algorithms and web traffic carry more weight. This means that some conventional forms of scholarly engagement which fail to generate excitement or clicks—such as serving as a voice of caution and experience—are less and less appreciated. Meanwhile, attention-getting activities—such as offering cable-newsworthy hot takes, catering to popular enthusiasms, and devising politically appealing agendas—glean larger and larger rewards.

This has all colored my thinking about just what publicly engaged scholarship does and what it should mean.

Put plainly, I worry about when publicly engaged scholars cease to be ambassadors of reasoned discourse—and begin to import the excesses of 21st-century, hyperbolic bombast into the academy. In universities that already strike me as too often politicized, ideological, and given to self-regarding posturing, this can snowball in a hurry.

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After all, I’ve always thought the biggest contribution of scholars is not this analysis or that study, but their ability to challenge assumptions and push public debates beyond predictable party lines. Public scholarship can and should force us to wrestle more deeply with how discipline reform, social-emotional learning, or “free” college actually works in the real world—and not just in theory. Yet that kind of work (to the extent it even gets pursued in the first place) constitutes only a sliver of what enters the public debate. What crosses over instead seems to be the simpler, one-dimensional declarations about what “works” and about who is morally “right.”

So, here’s where I come out: I don’t want less scholarly engagement, but I do want scholarly engagement that strives to enrich public deliberation. For what it’s worth, here are six questions I ask in trying to determine if a scholar is clearing that bar:

1) Are scholars deliberate in describing what we actually know, clear about the limits of the data they’re discussing, and transparent when shifting from analysis from advocacy?

2) Do scholars make an attempt to model respectful, reasoned debate, avoid ad hominem invective, and acknowledge that most big educational questions offer plenty of room for good-faith disagreement?

3) When championing programs, policies, or practices, are scholars attentive to how they will play out in the real world—and not just in white papers and flashy PowerPoints?

4) Do scholars complicate partisan narratives by evincing an awareness of past missteps, possible perverse incentives, budget constraints, and other factors that will determine how well-meaning ideas actually play out?

5) If scholars’ op-eds, radio appearances, or television interviews were used in a classroom, would they come across as educational resources or as exercises in partisanship?

6) In using social media, are scholars snide, uncivil, and dismissive, or are they modeling the behavior we’d hope to see from professional educators?

Scholarly engagement is a complex beast. It’s always a mix of the good and the bad. But taking care to set and responsibly police norms can go a long way toward helping us distinguish between the two—and perhaps encourage scholars to stay on the right side of that line.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as When Public Scholarship Gives Way to Bombast and Bluster

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