Opinion

How academics can engage communities

With our Ask A Philosopher booth, we turned New York City into a marketplace of ideas.

The "Ask a Philosopher" booth presented by the Brooklyn Public Library.

The "Ask a Philosopher" booth presented by the Brooklyn Public Library. Ian Olasov

I first came to Brooklyn College, where I now teach, to take a statistics class in the summer of 2006. The first thing I noticed about the campus is that it is beautiful. The second thing I noticed is that it is hidden. The main buildings turn their backs to the street. The college faces inward. It constitutes, by design, a very different world than the world of the surrounding neighborhood. It’s an institution that was built to serve the working class. Despite its problems, Brooklyn College and the rest of the CUNY system has done that with remarkable success. But you have to wonder why an institution that is for the whole city is so physically closed off from it.

The inward-facing college campus is a standard design at colleges and universities, and it embodies the ivory tower philosophy of American higher education. The larger problem here isn’t architecture, and it isn’t just Brooklyn College: it’s that colleges aren’t engaging with the communities that they belong to and from which they draw crucial financial support. CUNY alone has more than 270,000 students, and the city’s other colleges have hundreds of thousands more. But how often do the rest of the city’s inhabitants interact with its universities in any meaningful way?

While opinion polling suggests that Democratic cities like New York have a rosier view of higher education than the country as a whole, large numbers of people do not think very highly of colleges and college professors. A majority of members of both political parties think that higher education is going in “the wrong direction.” And regardless of what people tell pollsters, to judge by state and federal budgets, the public doesn’t value higher education as much as it used to. Somehow or other, universities aren’t making their case clearly or loudly enough.

It’s a complicated problem, but I think I have a part of the solution.

For the past few years, I’ve organized a series of Ask a Philosopher booths around New York City (and, recently, online). A group of philosophy grad students and professors sit at a table and invite people to stop and talk about their questions and ideas. For people who can’t come up with a conversation-starter on the spot, we set out a little bowl of questions (“Who do you trust?” “What was the happiest day of your life?”), a bowl of thought experiments (“If you had a ring that made you invisible, would it make you an awful person?”), and a bowl of candy. We’ve set up shop in farmers markets, street fairs, pride parades, book festivals, subway stations and parks.

New Yorkers have a lot of good questions. The fidgety third-grader: if we colonize Mars, who should own the land? The earnest transplant: how do you make a community? The middle-aged dad: how do you know anything about the world outside of your own head? The carefree mom: why worry about what you can’t change? (The happy warrior mom, stopping to respond: what, you’ve never heard of collective action?) The mourners: what good is philosophy when the people I love die? The young scientist: is anything really random? The retired therapist, with a hard-to-explain urgency: is color subjective?

Sometimes the questions – about gentrification, loneliness, working too hard, moving to the suburbs – are about the demands of city life. Sometimes the questions – about how we know mathematical truths, how we communicate through dance, free will, the priority of thought over language – reflect a desire to step, for a bit, outside or above those demands.

Of course, not every New Yorker shares the average professional philosopher’s sense of what counts as a philosophical question. For every perfectly well-formed philosophical question we get, someone throws us a non-starter – something about teleportation or dream interpretation or who shot JFK. But even those questions open up an opportunity to give people a better understanding of what philosophers do.

This is fun, which is reason enough to do it, but it’s also an educational experience for those on both sides of the booth. The philosophers get a richer appreciation of the problems people care about, and show visitors what the tools and ideas of philosophy can do to address them. Whereas academics are typically rewarded professionally for publishing articles in academic journals read only by other professors, giving philosophers an opportunity to do something fun and attention-grabbing creates an incentive for public engagement. The booth encourages visitors to recognize and value philosophy, and encourages philosophers to make their work recognizably valuable.

Universities aren’t going to get the support they need unless ordinary people value what they do, and ordinary people aren’t going to value universities unless we go out in public and do things that are valuable to them. There are all sorts of ways of doing this – writing and speaking for a general audience, educating people involved in the justice system and K-12 students, collaborating with community groups and policymakers, establishing museums and meetups and marathon discussion-screening-dance parties (like the Brooklyn Public Library’s annual Night of Philosophy and Ideas) devoted to a field of inquiry. The Ask a Philosopher booth is a low-cost alternative, where the public, rather than the philosophers themselves, steer the conversation. There’s also no reason why other disciplines couldn’t do the same thing. Why not Ask a Historian, Psychologist, or Computer Scientist?

In hisNew York Intellect, NYU historian Thomas Bender argues that intellectual life in the city has gone through three “cultures” since colonial times – an early civic culture (think: dilettantish gentlemen social reformers), modeled on 18th Century Edinburgh; a middle period literary culture (think: Walt Whitman), modeled on 19th Century Paris; and a latter day academic culture (think: The New School), modeled on early 20th Century Vienna. (It’s both validating and a little scary to read self-styled intellectuals complaining, in colonial times, that the city is full of shallow, money-grubbing Wall Street businessmen. The more things change…) Earlier cultures gave way to later ones as inquiry became more specialized and the needs and tastes of the city’s elites evolved.

We can’t tell yet, but we might be on the cusp of a new culture – one where inquiry is guided by the interests of all the city’s people and where universities can grow to provide all the public goods they are naturally suited to provide. It can’t come soon enough.

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