How did “academic” become synonymous with “irrelevant?” Wouldn’t it be a good idea if our smartest, best-informed people played a more active role in society? And yet, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof writes in a recent piece, “Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.”
Kristof quotes Harvard historian Jill Lepore’s description of much academic writing: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”
I agree. When I’m consulting with clients on anything to do with writing, I spend a lot of time undoing the results of a college education. That’s not out of any hostility to higher learning — I was an English major and believe deeply in the value of the life of the mind.
But — call me a philistine — I believe communication should communicate. That means making yourself clear to your listener, not just yourself (assuming you understand yourself, of course).
Read on for Kristof’s provocative, thoughtful take on this.