Letter: We seek truth, public seeks Oprah (2)

October 19, 2001

Few of Britain's Nobel prizewinners are or were "public" intellectuals. Most of them hid. Even today, the names of winners are usually unknown to the public.

Funding bodies want academics in the public eye because it makes it easier to raise research cash. Politicians want them because, like most human beings, they judge people by their criteria for success. Some universities also want profile because it attracts publicity and therefore more or better students. Journalists like academics because they need quotes.

Fine. But anyone who has ever been caught up in the media knows the public arena is dangerous. There is an enormous temptation to act like a journalist and say things that are lively but not true. Universities, however, are largely in the important business of doing the opposite - saying things that are true but often dull.

Those who think they can survive in the public world and remain true to academic principles are welcome to have a go. They do some good, but they need to guard against losing tolerance for the slower, more painful process of academic discovery.

It is not the principal job of universities to show up in public. It is to do research and to teach. Politicians and many others will never understand this, but that is because they do not understand what universities are for.

Andrew Oswald
Department of economics
Warwick University

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