MAXWELL:  Ph.D.s don’t have what it takes

4/22/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A Times reader is shocked that we don’t have a Ph.D. on the editorial board. “Not a doctorate among you,” she wrote in a recent letter to the editor. “Not a new thought among you.”

As a former university teacher who overdosed on the narcissism and pomposity reeking inside the academy, let me suggest why the typical newspaper shuns Ph.D.s.

The main purpose of a newspaper is to convey information that readers can use in their daily lives. The key word here is “use.” For information to be useful, it must be understandable, meaning that the words on the page, individually and collectively, must make sense.

Experience has taught us journalists, the habitues of Grubstreet, that most Ph.D.s write terribly. They turn simple ideas _ not to mention complex ones _ into what University of Colorado history professor Patricia Nelson Limerick calls “existential trauma.”

In a New York Times article a few years ago, Limerick, who specializes in the American West, launched a lone-woman crusade to “save professors from themselves and to detoxify” academic writing.

“While we waste our time fighting over ideological conformity in the scholarly world,” she wrote, “horrible writing remains a far more important problem. For all their differences, most right-wing scholars and most left-wing scholars share a common allegiance to a cult of obscurity. Left, right and center all hide behind the idea that unintelligible prose indicates a sophisticated mind. The politically correct and the politically incorrect come together in the violence they commit against the English language.”

Why, Limerick asked, do professors write “impenetrable” prose like that of the late Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, a trenchant attack on American values and the university?

“If openness means to “go with the flow,’ it is necessarily an accommodation to the present,” Bloom wrote. “That present is so closed to doubt about so many things impeding the progress of its principles that unqualified openness to it would mean forgetting the despised alternatives to it, knowledge of which makes us aware of what is doubtful in it.”

Confounded? Instead of communicating useful information, why do he and thousands of other Ph.D.s pen these grotesqueries?

Limerick argued that writers of academic prose tend to be “shy, timid and even fearful people” who use contemporary hieroglyphs as “protective camouflage.” Okay, so what are these gentle souls concealing?

First, Limerick said, they’re hiding their hubris, their unwillingness to share their “very important thoughts” with the canaille, the unanointed public too dumb to comprehend such weighty, esoteric, arcane matters.

Second, writers of tortured prose prevent fellow scholars from criticizing their ideas. In other words, you can’t attack what you don’t comprehend. More than anything else, scholars hate and fear attacks on their work. Clarity exposes these brains to analysis.

A third reason, not involving concealment, is that academic journals and university presses expect and, therefore, demand “long, tangled, obscure, jargonized, polysyllabic” narrative. They also require the perfunctory “ritual slaughter of critics,” the review of the significant literature on the subject, which appears in the introduction of a journal article. This “lit review” alone is often more than two pages long.

Imagine a Ph.D. trying to write a 7-inch editorial, or a 16-inch column, while instinctively wanting to include a “lit review.” Now, imagine the agony of brevity and clarity _ and speed.

As for journalists, we know that most of the nation’s best history, that which is accessible to average Americans, is written by our colleagues and others, such as David Halberstam and Taylor Branch, who don’t have Ph.D.s.

We know, too, that the New York Times’ Gina Kolata, who broke the story of Dolly the sheep, makes science clear and interesting. She doesn’t have a doctorate.

If you want excellent sociology, read Alex Kotlowitz, formerly of the Wall Street Journal. His books, There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River, will give you genuine insight into race in America. Even more, you will enjoy the reading.

Finally, for our irate letter writer to suggest that only Ph.D.s can have “new” thoughts is, well, silly.

Shucks, I get new thoughts all the time. Sometimes I get them on my own. But when I want really big ones, I telephone a Ph.D. Then I spend the rest of the day demystifying the scholar’s existentially traumatized verbiage.