Scholars need to act with greater urgency

Steven Beschloss and Gaymon Bennett argue for academics to take their role as public intellectuals to the next phase, one that is personal, engaging and responsive to the problems of the day

September 8, 2019
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Several months ago, The Guardian changed its style guide, urging its writers to use “climate emergency, crisis or breakdown” rather than climate change. The intention was to introduce language that matched the moment, indeed shifting from what its editor-in-chief called “rather passive and gentle” language to “what scientists are talking about is a catastrophe for humanity.”  

We are living at a time of particular urgency and scale, a climate crisis that United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres described as “a direct existential threat.” While academics are not exactly first responders, this threat has led us to wonder whether existing academic processes and responses can be retooled to better suit the moment. 

And more, it has spurred us to seek new approaches that can enhance and hasten the contributions of university intellectuals – to “get in the game” without sacrificing substance or credibility, to recognise that there are times when one’s special expertise and knowledge create the responsibility to address the demands of the day.

Over the next two years, we, along with our colleague Tracy Fessenden, will be engaged with more than a dozen faculty from across the sciences and humanities in an exploration of the ways in which apocalyptic thinking influences how we, as individuals and as a society, are addressing (or not addressing) the burgeoning climate crisis. 

Entitled “Apocalypticism, Climate Change and the American Imagination” and supported by ASU’s newly formed Global Futures Laboratory, The Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, and The Narrative Storytelling Initiative, this research project will delve into contemporary and historical materials to better grasp the kinds of apocalyptic narratives that have shaped American thinking and action. 

To begin, we suspect that the pervasiveness of this cataclysmic mindset has either made people accustomed to disaster narratives or has so overwhelmed a growing public with the scale and dire nature of the threats that they resist the idea, the reality, and possible solutions.

Beyond this, we anticipate other people drawn to the prospect of the end times and still others entertained and ultimately consoled by Hollywood depictions of apocalyptic disaster in which the protagonist always survives. In every case (and there may be others we identify), it raises the question about what language and storytelling is necessary to accurately assess and constructively influence public perception, understanding and behaviour. 

One can easily imagine how this is the making of a typical scholarly endeavour, an intellectual enterprise that may culminate in a white paper or academic research study. But we see this as a research and writing project with the goal of producing and publishing articles and essays as the work unfolds. 

There are times when scholarship must be energetically engaged with issues of the day, and this communication is intended to share emerging knowledge, create dialogue, envision concrete improvements and, when possible, influence decision-making. Much like our counterparts in science and engineering have been geared to pursue projects of public interest and seek concrete solutions, we also hear the call.

As we see it, this is about letting scholars play to their strengths. Too often “writing for a larger public” is ungenerously cast in terms of vulgarisation – dumbing down. That mode of thinking presumes that we have the answers and all we need to do is share them with non-specialists in an easy-to-read manner. But we think something else is required that more meaningfully captures this effort. We expect that as scholars write for a broader public, they will begin to care about different things, ask different questions, and discover insights and new directions for their work.

At its best, our project has the potential to help scholars connect their passions and capacities, built up over years of discipline and hard work, to a broader engagement with this climate crisis. In the process, it has the potential to transform scholars’ own work, changing what they see, how they see it, and what they choose to pursue in the years ahead. 

This is a chance to try something else, space to get it wrong more than once, and encouragement to take an iterative approach and discover how producing a number of little things can generate the same kind of depth and sophistication that scholars are typically expected to produce in one fell swoop. This process presumes that scholars have far more to offer that will be valuable to a wider public than they are typically encouraged to share.

Our project can be seen in the spirit of a wider effort underway on multiple fronts in universities today to revive and recast the calling of the public intellectual. If the older mode presumed that the public intellectual relied on scholarly authority to ensure credibility, the current movement is animated by a different energy and demands a different expression. 

The urgency and scope of the climate crisis, along with other such far-reaching challenges, asks public-minded intellectuals to assess how their specialties and their personal experiences, far from being a hindrance, make them particularly well-suited to make sense of the world and, with training, connect with the widest possible audiences. 

At such times of crisis, it may take a kind of intellectual triage in which diverse thinkers band together, putting aside their individual interests for some time, to figure out how they are best suited to tackle the often overwhelming demands of a world gripped by the Anthropocene. This means taking some risks, but it’s hard to overstate the potential rewards.  

Steven Beschloss is professor of practice at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and senior director for Narrative Development at Arizona State University. Gaymon Bennett is associate professor of religion, science and technology at ASU’s School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies.  

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