This post at the Daily Dish got me thinking.

At this point in my academic life, I have read an awful lot of book reviews and academic articles, and participated in a lot of seminars and conferences, some good and some bad. I am not sure where the balance lies – my impression is somewhere on the bad side of center, i.e. academic discussions are anything but consistently productive and, more to the point, relevant to any larger question of importance. In other words, there’s a fair amount of academic hairsplitting that goes on when “interpretation” games take importance over the subject material itself. I am thinking particularly of any discussion that has to do with parsing labels – for example, just how Scottish was the Scottish Enlightenment? It makes good discussion material for about ten minutes but quickly degenerates.

Conor Friesdorf has this to say about cable punditry:

I’d pose these question to everyone who has made arguments on either side of the question: why does it possibly matter? Can anyone make a compelling case for the importance of this conversation? Or is it, as I suspect it to be, an exercise in forgettable punditry that’ll be completely without consequence and forgotten entirely by the time Congress returns next year?

Reading that passage, it struck me that we could easily be talking about two academics sparring over pet interpretations – an exercise if not in ego than in an attempt to fill up dead air in a conference that really ought to recess for a coffee break. How much of what academics do is serious research and how much of it is simply engagement in the academic equivalent of punditry?


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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