intellectuals and their publics

Most of the historians I know love to argue over the role, effectiveness and even the existence of the phenomenon known as the public intellectual, and the efficacy of the individuals who may or may not inhabit this role. Indeed, this year's presidential address at the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians was on the subject of "Historians as Public Intellectuals." This ongoing conversation is often spurred on by the occasional outbreak of news outside of the academy relating to the subject. Last year, for example, Ta-Nehisi Coates labeled Melissa Harris-Perry "America's foremost public intellectual" because there is "no one who communicates the work of thinking to more people with more rigor and effect." Some disagreed with that choice and a modest debate ensued. A larger brouhaha opened up a short time later when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof expressed his opinion that "there are...fewer public intellectuals on American university campuses today than a generation ago" and he exhorted "professors" not to "cloister yourselves like medieval monks." Across the land, university faculty sputtered with outrage.

Kristof's point echoes the argument advanced by Russell Jacoby in his 1987 book, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, the work whose conclusions still animate much of the thinking about the public intellectual. In his book, Jacoby argued that today "intellectuals neither need nor want a larger public; they are almost exclusively professors...who write for professional journals that...create insular societies." (6) He lamented the decline of an earlier generation of intellectuals who made a living selling their work to small magazines of general interest and living in low-rent bohemian enclaves. After 1940 or so, the magazines themselves began shutting their doors; soon neither they nor the neighborhoods with cheap rent existed. "To live from selling book reviews and articles ceased to be difficult," wrote Jacoby. "It became impossible." The life of the intellectual had to change in response. So when the universities expanded in the middle part of the twentieth century, intellectuals decamped en masse for their ivy-covered walls.

But this greater ease and comfort came with a cost, argued Jacoby. Academic pressures push thinkers to publish for other specialists rather than for the public. This leads to work that is poorly written and inaccessible. As a result, the later generations of intellectuals lack the time, the ability and the inclination to share their knowledge with those outside of their areas of specialization.

Most of the academics I know bristle at Jacoby's arguments, arguing that our culture boasts many non-academic intellectuals and that the strictures of academia do not impede the ability of scholars to make broader contributions. In lamenting the recent mass exodus of writers and editors from The New Republic, Sean Wilentz noted that the magazine had formerly "offered its writers, professors and nonprofessors alike, the space they needed to write at full capacity." It had served as a retort to the refrain that "having retreated into our university ghettos, we professors supposedly long ago abandoned the public life of the mind." In a panel on the subject of public intellectuals hosted by MSNBC, Corey Robin, author of The Reactionary Mind, disagreed with the idea that the public participation of intellectuals has declined. Indeed, he expressed just the opposite view, that "we are living in a heroic age of...men and women of ideas...intervening in the public square." He argued that Jacoby's book had inspired later generations of intellectuals "to avoid academia and instead write for magazines" and, among those who became college professors, "to write for the public beyond the academy."

But on this point the scholar doth protest too much, methinks. Jacoby made two different arguments. The first is that intellectual life has largely moved from the public square to the universities. This seems nearly incontrovertible. The research academy is a patronage economy. Universities pay college professors a salary to publish work with other people's journals and presses, gaining for the university little beyond the prestige of being associated with influential thinkers. (Teaching and service, to the extent that they are valued in any given institution, operate on a different calculus.) Without this sort of patronage, it is effectively impossible to make a living with intellectual work. Supporting oneself by doing something else and pursuing an intellectual vocation on nights and weekends is exhausting and, in my experience, unsustainable. It also puts those writers at a significant disadvantage to those who can devote their lives to this calling. Just as important is that university affiliation offers a platform without which doors are unlikely to open. Those aspiring intellectuals who do not have an academic appointment will have a much more difficult time getting anyone to publish or read their work.

Cornel West

Cornel West

Even those academics who bristle at Jacoby's argument are begrudgingly willing, I suspect, to accept this first component: the majority of the nation's intellectual life now takes place in university-sponsored venues. The one that raises their hackles is the other claim: that graduate school, the demands of publication, and the tenure process channel one's impulses into narrow disciplinary arguments, resulting in works that are frequently cramped, narrow and dull. Since this argument tends to minimize the significance of academic work, it is not surprising that professors would be uncomfortable with it. But professional historians often cast aspersions on popular work by such figures as Doris Kerns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis and Stephen Ambrose. (Nor is this limited to history. A few weeks ago, the New Republic published a critical--"damning" might be a better word--essay about Cornel West by Michael Eric Dyson. While Dyson acknowledged West's status as a prominent public intellectual, he argued that "the last several years [have] revealed West’s paucity of serious and fresh intellectual work.") One cannot have it both ways: if one is to claim that professional history is more rigorous or scholarly than the popular variety, then it is at least possible that popular, narrative history is more accessible or relevant to the public. And my personal opinion, speaking as a reader, is that this is very much the case. Many, if not most, books and articles in academic history are tedious and predictable. Though this is a generalization that admits of a thousand caveats and exceptions, it nonetheless seems to me a fair one.

As scholars, isn't this really how we imagine ourselves when we try to get our op-eds published at the Huffington Post? The Death of Socrates (detail) (1787), Jacques Louis David

As scholars, isn't this really how we imagine ourselves when we try to get our op-eds published at the Huffington Post?

The Death of Socrates (detail) (1787), Jacques Louis David

Yet there is one area in which the claims of Jacoby and Kristof do not resonate with my own experience. That is in the idea that scholars do not engage the public because they do not want to do so. My anecdotal dealings with homo academus suggest that nothing could be further from the truth. Today's university professors often see themselves as scholar-activists: men and women of the people whose purpose is addressing injustices, speaking truth to power and providing a voice for the voiceless. Scholars such as these see their work less as an addition to the store of knowledge than as a blow for liberty. And this mission requires an audience. I suspect that many of the historians of my acquaintance would sell off their organs one-by-one if it could get them an opportunity to plug their book on the The Daily Show. If there is a dearth of historical perspective in the public square, it is certainly not because college professors have no interest in performing there.

What these conflicting observations point to is a confusion in the meaning of the phrase "public intellectual." Many have noted this confusion before, but most of the conversations that I have had on the subject concentrate on the latter word in the term. (Are journalists intellectuals? What about mathematicians? etc.) I, personally, am much more puzzled by the other word. The phrase "writing for the public" implicitly suggests that the work of a public intellectual is an act of noblesse oblige, performing a function "for" the larger community. But in most cases, the aspiring public intellectual who seeks wider circulation for his/her ideas is primarily acting out of self-interest. In the world of ideas, seeking increased recognition for one's thinking is a form of marketing or brand management. It is no more a public service than is an advertisement for motor oil. My point is not that this is selfish or crass, but only that the concern over the decline of the public intellectual might look different if we viewed it from the perspective of the public rather than that of the intellectual.

For the public, it seems to me, is not clamoring for the perspective of intellectuals; instead, it is listening to Miley Cyrus. Thirteen million people watched last week's episode of The Big Bang Theory. It is difficult to imagine any sort of intellectually-oriented article, book, podcast, speech, etc. reaching that kind of audience. Academics who seek to write for non-academic audiences are generally more modest in their ambitions: they hope to reach the people who read The New Yorker and listen to Serial. This audience is a lot of things, but "public" is not one of them. The word I would use is almost the exact opposite: nichey.

So a public intellectual, it seems, is actually someone trying to move from the small niche of academia to the somewhat larger niche characterized by newspaper op-eds and talking headery. There is nothing wrong with niches. But it is important to acknowledge that in comparison with the audience that college professors already have, this other group is larger, but only slightly more "public." Thus the idea that the public will be better off for the participation of heretofore academic intellectuals appears to be incorrect, if by "public" we mean something along the lines of "a substantial representation of the nation's population in terms of both numbers and diversity."

But this might not be the most relevant understanding of the term. John Dewey, who was no slouch in the public intellectual department, challenged the idea that the public is an undifferentiated mass of humanity that occasionally gets "aroused" or "mobilized" about a certain issue. He suggested instead that the public does not exist until that mobilization takes place. Throughout the normal course of living their lives, explained Dewey in The Public and Its Problems, humans who engage in natural social processes will "group themselves" for various purposes: "for scientific inquiry, for religious worship, for artistic production and enjoyment, for sport, for giving and receiving instruction, for industrial and commercial undertakings." These groupings often take on a life of their own, and their actions sometimes affect the lives of others outside of them. "All modes of associated behavior," explained Dewey, "may have extensive and enduring consequences which involve others beyond those directly engaged in them." When this happens, these others might wish to organize in order to address these consequences. At that point, "special agencies and measures must be formed." It is this process that "calls a public into being."

John Dewey

John Dewey

Thus, for Dewey, a public is created in response to a specific issue. His conception of a public that is made rather than found (which includes the likelihood of multiple publics within the same society) goes a long way, in my opinion, toward clearing up the confusion over the nature of the public intellectual. Under this understanding, to say that a piece of intellectual work is "public" is not to say that it reaches a large number of people, or even that it has broad cultural influence. Instead, it says that it touches on the issues that a public has declared to be of some importance to it. Some intellectual work will be not be public because it is esoteric, other projects could be quite popular and still not public because they do not touch on public issues. It is a similar reasoning that Richard Posner employed in his 2003 book Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline. Those who embody the spirit of the public intellectual, he argued, are those who write on "public affairs." That is to say, they express opinions "on political matters in the broadest sense of the word, a sense that includes cultural matters when they are viewed under the aspect of ideology, ethics or politics." While a thinker might be quite erudite or an excellent writer, if his or her work does not engage the controversial issues of the day, then that person is not a public intellectual.

Neil deGrasse Tyson

Neil deGrasse Tyson

This is not a definition that everyone would accept: it would mean that Stephen Hawking, for example, is not a public intellectual. Neil deGrasse Tyson, on the other hand, would be one because he makes public statements critical of those who would deny scientific facts.

The main point here, though, is not one about who is and is not a public intellectual. It is that reframing our understanding of the public can clarify some of the issues that orbit around the term. Thus "engaging the public" has little to do with the breadth of one's readership and more to do with the subject of one's work. But it is ultimately the public itself who decides which issues are political, and consequently which intellectuals are addressing public concerns. Thus Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind, a dense and esoteric book on the influence of relativism on college campuses that quoted liberally from Plato and Nietzsche, captured public attention upon its 1987 publication because the nation was consumed with the "culture wars." As a result, this otherwise formidable work of scholarship became part of the public political debate of the era.

Do academics want to engage the public? Contra Kristof and Jacoby, I believe that many, if not most, of them do. Do they write works on public issues that non-specialists will want to read? Not always. But this doesn't mean that they are not public intellectuals, only that they are ineffective ones.