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.
Like all experts, academics are used to speaking to a specialized audience. That’s true no matter their discipline, from sociology to geotechnical engineering to classics. When you speak to a niche audience among peers, a lot of understanding comes for free. You can use technical language, make presumptions about prior knowledge, and assume common goals or contexts. When speaking to a general audience, you can’t take those circumstances as a given.
But why would doing otherwise mean “dumbing down” the message? It’s an odd idea when you think about it. The whole reason to reach people who don’t know what you know, as an expert, is so that they might know about it. Giving them reason to care, process, and understand is precisely the point.
Read: What it means to be a public intellectual
The phrase dumbing down got its start in entertainment. During the golden age of Hollywood, in the 1930s, dumbing down became a screenwriter’s shorthand for making an idea simple enough that people with limited education or experience could understand it. Over time, it came to refer to intellectual oversimplification of all kinds, particularly in the interest of making something coarsely popular. In education, it named a worry about curricula and policy: that students were being asked to do less, held to a lower standard than necessary—than they were capable of—and that is necessary to produce an informed citizenry.
In the process, dumbing down has entrenched and spread as a lamentation, often well beyond any justification. It’s easy to scorn things that are popular, and vaunt those that are esoteric. Popular culture has even begun wielding this weapon against itself, equating esotericism in music, television, comics, or any number of other arenas that would have previously been seen to dumb down culture as a defense against the crudeness of popularity.
I suspect that what scholars and other experts really mean when they express worry about dumbing down is that they don’t want to be bothered to make the effort of reframing their work for audiences not already primed to grasp it. It’s hard to do and even harder to do well. That’s a fine position; after all, it’s the full-time job of journalists and nonfiction writers to translate ideas for the general public from their specialized origins. Not all scholars can, or should, try to do this work themselves (although to do so exercises the generosity that comes from service).