I read the essay with interest; aside from my desire to see what is going on in my current teaching field, I am increasingly convinced of the need for those of us in the academy to take on roles as public advocates of our own fields and of the academy-as-academy (rather than simply job training with a few electives). It seemed to me that White's essay would address that concern, as it in fact does. He addresses, for instance, the faulty perception "that college English teaching was a matter of hiding from public life in some version of an ivory tower" (183). He also asserts that it is incumbent upon new faculty of whatever rank to become
citizens of higher education as well as campus professors, be ready to stand up in court, in a hearing room, and in committee rooms as well as in the classroom to defend the values we [as academics] represent....you must be prepared to speak out, because your job as an English professor comes with important public responsibilities you should not avoid. (194-95)
The individual anecdotes White relates are chilling. Even in something so laudable as fighting censorship, problems arise. According to White, the argument that "a literary critic and, even worse, and English professor, is so committed to reading that he [or she]...cannot come to a disinterested opinion on obscenity" (185) was confirmed by the United States Supreme Court (186). That of an over-zealous, ill-informed churchman, however, was accepted as representative of the community (185-86). The implications that 1) unthinking, untutored zeal is more legally acceptable than considered expertise and 2) that unthinking, untutored zeal is an accurate representation of the community are hardly comfortable.
The discomfort is increased in White's relation of a legislative committee meeting. White notes that his appearances before that committee failed because he spoke with the nuance necessary to accuracy "in an arena where slogans and simplifications were the rule" (191). He relates the comments of a state senator: "'Just like a professor!' he barked. 'You ask a simple question and all you get back is a bunch of gobbledy-gook!'" (192). That laws are made by such people, that expressed complexity is regarded as gibberish, is hardly soothing.
White's anecdotal essay articulates both the need for academics to participate in various public discourses and the truth that such participation will not always be appreciated. It is a thing to keep in mind, particularly with the increasingly anti-intellectual trends in American popular culture (and even among the universities, as the recent elimination of non-English language programs at a number of major state schools shows).
The ideological victories of a great many forces have come about not because those forces deployed "better rhetoric," but because they spoke so loudly and often that their droning became an unavoidable part of the general milieu. That din must be countered somehow.