As today’s solar eclipse teaches us, a lack of light can be a cold and frightening experience. Unfortunately, this summer revealed an even more unnerving darkness: the lack of intellectualism in our nation’s mass media.
In a country where in 1787 a small group of intellectuals forged one of the world’s strongest democratic systems and in the 1960s civil rights leaders brought the constitutional ideal of a “more perfect union” closer to realization, the lack of honest and informed public debaters is even more worrisome.
Our current times have challenges of their own, and if we want to avoid a national existential crisis, there are many questions we need to face with braveness and thorough examination.
Just as the opioid and obesity epidemics require the intervention of medical doctors and healthcare professionals, this information crisis requires the intervention of intellectuals and academics. And nobody is more prepared for the task than university professors all across the U.S.
I know that the responsibilities of teaching, researching and serving publicly that professors already perform are enough to ask for. But times like this require some additional steps and adaptations. The divisive questions being debated are simply too plentiful to let fester.
Is immigration an essential part of this country’s identity, or has it become an economic and social burden for some? How will we avoid the reintroduction of white supremacy into our politics? Is access to affordable healthcare necessary to promote the general welfare? Does our system of meritocracy justify our level of economic inequality? What steps should we take to stop human-induced climate change?
These are just some of the most important questions of our time, and their answers will shape decades to come. Yet the media has proved unprepared to predict and address these challenges, even in a time when information is more accessible than ever.
Overabundance of information has only divided us further without providing any clarity: Mainstream public debate on the left comes from late-night TV hosts with a talent for comedy but no scientific or academic background, while the right contributes its loud-mouthed cable news anchors who prefer yelling over discussing substantial policy ideas.
Social media and the internet provide a similar picture: Algorithms record readers’ preferences and cater to our biases with sensationalist stories that will increase the number of clicks or likes.
Academic specialization has greatly expanded our fields of knowledge, but it’s not clear whether it has allowed us to keep a united vision about our past, our present and our future. Academia needs to step outside its comfort zone of specialized knowledge and begin providing guidance to society as a whole.
The classroom is a great starting point to promote open debates that avoid political agendas and focus on the latest fact-based research. Engagement in social media will also be crucial, as those platforms, for better or for worse, represent the future of public debates and require active and informed guidance for college-graduates and non-college graduates.
Lastly, the participation of professors in the mainstream media is a necessity for both journalism and academia. Academics will provide the background the media lacks, while mainstream publications will contribute with a louder voice and reach than specialized journals.
Maybe with this joint effort, as literature professors might say, we will be able to rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Francisco Hernandez is a senior international studies major from Valencia, Spain.