One of the pleasures I enjoy as an editor at The Atlantic is bringing the work of scientists and scholars to our pages. From the Object Lessons series on the ordinary lives of everyday things, to the Metropolis Now project on technology and urbanism, to our regular coverage of science, technology, and health, I have had the privilege of editing hundreds of academics, writing on topics as varied as Google’s push into smart cities, the ethics of throwing away your kids’ art, how the microscope changed scientific knowledge, and why Americans love the suburbs.
I’m hardly alone in this effort. Today you can read scholars in their own words all across The Atlantic (including in the new Ideas section, helmed by Yoni Appelbaum, a historian who made the jump from academia to journalism). Those newcomers join an august cohort of Atlantic writers of the past who were also scholars, from W. E. B. Du Bois to Vannevar Bush, and a venerable group of contemporaries who are also academics, from Jonathan Haidt to Anne-Marie Slaughter.
And this publication is hardly alone, either. The internet has made it easier than ever to reach a lot of readers quickly. It has birthed new venues for publication and expanded old ones. At the same time, a sense of urgency of current affairs, from politics to science, technology to the arts, has driven new interest in bringing scholarship to the public directly.
Scholars still have a lot of anxiety about this practice. Many of those relate to the university careers and workplaces: evaluation, tenure, reactions from their peers, hallway jealousy, and so on. These are real worries, and as a scholar and university professor myself, I empathize with many of them.
But not with this one: The worry that they’ll have to “dumb down” their work to reach broader audiences. This is one of the most common concerns I hear from academics. “Do we want to dumb down our work to reach these readers?” I’ve heard them ask among themselves. It’s a wrongheaded anxiety.