Why I Write

Why I Write

A Manifesto and the Purpose of Education

A colleague asked me last week why I spend so much time writing blog entries and articles such as this one instead of publishing in academic peer-reviewed journals, which she considered a much more valiant and prestigious effort.

On the one hand, there is, of course, an element of self-promotion, of presenting and positioning myself as an expert and go-to person in my field in preparation for future professional endeavors and opportunities. I certainly acknowledge and own this.

On the other hand, writing also allows me to sort through and make sense of my thoughts and ideas, coherently articulate them, and integrate them into a holistic framework of what I stand for and wish to accomplish in life. And being able to do so outside a sometimes tedious, drawn-out, and uncertain academic review process definitely has its advantages.

But there is more. In a broader context, I may be following – albeit inadvertently – other authors’ calls for more academics to write for the general public, an idea that has even been promoted by the American Association of University Professors, despite some resistance. If this is true, then I would like to believe that there is a deeper purpose in these articles.


As author Kathleen Fitzpatrick discussed extensively in a recent book titled Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, many of our universities have lost touch with the communities they ought to serve and, consequently, have forfeited the public trust in their ability to make a meaningful contribution to public life, other than awarding degrees and credentials that may help graduates find jobs. At the same time, much of the scholarly activity and research taking place in our colleges and universities serve the primary purpose of advancing the competitive interests of academics and their institutions while often excluding the general public – including their students – from the very discourse, discussions, and debates that affect these communities.

My own research has demonstrated how the success of academic programs and entire units in the field of world language education depends on vital support from parents, teachers, politicians, and a multitude of additional external stakeholders like businesses, nonprofits, as well as government and professional organizations. Nothing we do in higher education can – or rather should – exist in isolation; the communities to which we are inextricably connected must be part of the equation and affect the way we approach our teaching, research, administrative decisions, processes, and strategies.

It is this recognition that compels me to write in a public forum. After all, the communities I serve consist of higher education administrators and staff who work tirelessly at all levels of an institution and often at the front lines in academic departments. These employees are, in my eyes, essential to the very success of any educational organization. However, they are also the ones unlikely to pick up an academic journal accessible only through their institution’s library system. And this is no value judgment. Far from it, in fact.

As I have outlined elsewhere, effective communication must always keep the audience in mind, whether the medium is written or spoken language or behaviors aimed to influence others. There are many formal and informal leaders in our organizations who make often small but in their sum impactful decisions that contribute to, or at times curtail, the success of the entire institution in providing meaningful educational experiences to our students. Often, it is not those formally in charge (i.e., our designated administrative leaders and managers) who understand best who their audience is and how to communicate effectively. Instead, it is those individuals – who may have little or no formal (graduate-level) academic background and fall somewhere along the leader-manager continuum – who are my primary audience because they are the ones often best best-suited to effect much-needed change.

Civic Responsibility

But perhaps most importantly, I find a purpose for publishing these musings in hopes that I may make a small contribution to the well-being, legitimacy, and success of our tertiary educational institutions. Why? Because higher education – and education, in general – is in crisis, as my readers will undoubtedly know.

Since the early 1980s and A Nation at Risk (1983), our schools, colleges, and universities have found themselves ever more in the crosshairs of powerful and often anti-intellectual forces. Over the years, political ambitions, business interests, and drastically changed societal expectations have led to a widespread loss of faith in the greater purpose of our educational systems. Many of my fellow citizens now blame our “failing” tertiary institutions for societal ills in this country and what they view as a decline in the United States’ power and global standing. At the same time, there is a widespread belief that the vocational skills needed to be successful in life can be acquired through short-term credentialing programs and no longer require attending a college or university.

Although I recognize that a plethora of educational reforms over the decades have resulted in little “progress” and often exacerbated the loss of the public’s trust in our institutions, it is the widespread expectation and – in my opinion, utterly flawed – assumption that any form of education is only worth pursuing when it yields immediate and tangible instrumental results that lies at the heart of the matter. I also share many of my colleagues’ view that we have been “educating” the love for learning, discovery, and intellectual growth out of our children and youth for decades. If what our students learn does not result in high grades and a competitive GPA, job prospects, higher salaries, or status attainment, it is simply not worth pursuing. Or so many believe.

This brings me to the scholarship of John Dewey and Paolo Freire and the notion of engaged lifelong learning in service of an educated democratic citizenry (Dewey) whom education empowers to recognize and eliminate systems of marginalization, oppression, and injustice (Freire). This is, of course, dangerous territory, especially considering the fact that our systems of higher education have all but surrendered to the rules and forces of neoliberalism.

As much greater minds than mine have been pointing out for years, most postsecondary students who already face mounds of debt simply cannot afford to take courses simply to quench a thirst for knowledge. The liberal arts – at least in theory perfectly positioned to provide students with new perspectives and ways of thought crucial for 21st-century life – are often discarded as useless and luxury for a chosen few. And perhaps this perception is not without merit, given how often these disciplines and associated scholarly activity, teaching, and research are at odds with the public’s and students’ interests. Even our public colleges and universities have become so preoccupied with improving their rankings and prestige, meeting (mostly) quantitative metrics and benchmarks, and increasing their profitability and fundraising that the true purpose of what education should be about has been all but lost. 

This corporate mindset has also solidly embedded itself in the administrative structures, forms of management, and leadership in many of our colleges and universities. The human element – what I consider to be the very essence of education – is under attack and in danger of being lost. Both faculty and (especially) staff are now evaluated and measured based on their productivity in relation to the cost of their employment. Administrative functions and positions are combined to form shared services clusters in the interest of cost-effectiveness, irrespective of its effect on our institutions’ ability to serve those most in need of support, mentoring, and motivation: our students.

It is no wonder, therefore, that many members of the public have lost faith in our institutions of higher learning because our colleges and universities have become so preoccupied with themselves, their image, and the need to satisfy a myriad of financial and political stakeholders that they have invariably lost touch with the communities they serve both externally and internally.


My readers may, justifiably, wonder what all this has to do with why I write. The answer is simple: Because there is a crisis and because it is my duty to at least try to make a small contribution to help improve the status quo.

In a powerful article published in The Nation on March 23, 2015, the great Toni Morrison reminded us that an artist – in her case, a writer – cannot stand idly by in times of crisis, unrest, and oppression. Instead, she wrote:

This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.

I may not be an artist, but “doing language” is what my life is about. And if what I write can improve how our educational institutions function and ultimately provide young minds with the knowledge, understanding, attitudes, and skills needed to be informed and productive participants in a democratic society, then there is purpose in my assuming the role of a “public intellectual” and bringing these thoughts to my readers.

I choose to hope that words can, indeed, make a difference.

This is why I write.  

This piece was originally published on October 19, 2019, on LinkedIn.com, and may have been updated since its original publication.