A few days ago, I interviewed the critic and political columnist David Bromwich for The Review. We talked about a lot of things, but a brief exchange in which Bromwich criticized academics’ use of Twitter — hardly the primary focus of the conversation — was, of course, what got noticed on Twitter. A handful of scholars concurred with Bromwich’s judgment; hundreds more defended the honor of Twitter against what they construed as ivory-tower snobbishness. The whole spectacle was evidence for Twitter’s peculiarly puritanical intensification of Marshall McLuhan’s core perception: “The medium is the message.” Here’s what Bromwich said.

“I know of faculty, both here and at other universities, who are major personalities on Twitter. They tweet links to articles, and they tweet instant reactions, off the cuff, sometimes witty and sometimes not. And there is some demagoguing. On occasion, they are compelled by an inward or outward pressure to delete their tweets.

“To me, this simply goes against the vocation of being a scholar. Let’s not be too high and mighty, but still — we are understood to be people who deliberate, who take some time to get at what we believe to be the truth. The whole ethic of snap reactions goes against that. In the long run, it’s going to reduce the prestige of professors. It makes us more like everyone else, which a lot of academics have wanted to be all along. That’s part of the problem — the idea that we should try to erase the distinctions that separate university life, academic life, from society.”

Crucially, Bromwich’s criticism of Twitter is embedded in a larger defense of what he elsewhere in the conversation calls “the presumptive difference between the university and a popular culture that depends on the fast flow of opinions and isn’t concerned with a conscientious search for truth.” For obvious reasons, the insistence on this distinction can sound antidemocratic, and many on Twitter assumed that it was. A representative response: “Unless I missed the anointment ceremony … we are like everyone else.”

But academics are not like everyone else — or at any rate, academe is not like the other professions. The conviction that scholarship is in some sense an autonomous sphere is probably not one that scholars can do without, at least not if they want to retain the foundational privileges of academic freedom and the tenure system. Those institutions are oriented toward a vocational ideal of the academy; they do not exist in other professions, because they would make no sense there. Corporate lawyers might be rich, but they are bound by golden handcuffs. Dentists don’t have dental freedom. To dissent from Bromwich’s insistence that academic life is different from other kinds of professional life — to imagine that that conviction is simple snobbery — is to abandon academic freedom in any of its senses.

Tenure is under attack anyway, as no one reading this will need to be reminded. And declining job security in other industries will hardly make the American public more disposed to appreciate its value in academe. When Bromwich refers to the threatened “prestige of professors,” his concern is not that they won’t be accepted to the country club. His concern, precisely, is that they won’t continue to be granted, by the wider society, the freedom to do their jobs.

That freedom exists only to the extent that faculty members have a special status. “Tenure,” as Alice Dreger writes in Aeon, “warms the universities that are the incubators of American democracy.” In other words, “academics already are just like everybody else” might not be the democratic credo Bromwich’s critics think it is. Any defense of the imperiled institutions of tenure and of academic freedom will need to rely on the opposite premise. To fail to do so is to risk colluding with the state legislatures gutting funding and eliminating the protections of tenure. Those politicians, too, are certain that there’s nothing special about professors.

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Write to me at len.gutkin@chronicle.com.


Len Gutkin