Sunday, January 24, 2010

We're all public intellectuals

Horace has a great post taking issue with Louis Menand (et al.)'s call for academia to produce more "public intellectuals" rather than narrow, navel-gazing specialists--and especially with the notion that "public intellectual" is a job that more Ph.D.s could and should aspire to.

It's a long, thoughtful post, and you should read the whole thing, but the argument I find most compelling is the case Horace makes that as teachers we are public intellectuals, and ones serving a more important and diverse audience than those rare people who get published in The New Yorker.

As Horace notes, part of the problem with the argument that academics are overspecialized is that in our daily work lives, we rarely are: we teach survey classes, we teach texts outside our field, and we do, in fact, make big connections and address the concerns and interests of nonspecialists--our students--all the time. And most of us, Horace and myself included, aren't teaching the elites that Menand both teaches and writes for: we're teaching at state institutions, to first-generation college students or adults holding down full-time jobs and raising a family at the same time. Sure, we write on esoteric topics, but having an active research life means we're on top of the developments in our fields and can translate some of the most important ones for a lay audience (again: our students).

I agree with Horace that being a public intellectual in the classroom has political implications, the most important being helping to mold smart, thoughtful citizens. Horace writes,
While Menand wants a public intellectual who functions in the public marketplace, I want (and want to become) a different kind of public intellectual: the sort who engages the public sphere of our commonly owned government and governance. And for me that starts in the classroom, and in fact demands that I be the political provocateur that I sometimes become. I will tie Wordsworth's laments in "Tintern Abbey" to arguments over mountaintop removal. I will make clear that the imperial tactics in Heart of Darkness are primarily economic, and therefore still entirely in operation today in the under-developed world. I will note the particular nature of the construction of masculinity in Tennyson, and the ways that those constructions are still rooted to our sense of nation and empire as well as leadership and achievement. These are reading tactics that help my students translate the ideas of literature into the very practical world of their own.

Now, this is something that I do not do--make explicit political connections in the classroom, for reasons that I discussed in this post and its comments--but in a more general way I think that what goes on in my classroom can have both personal and political effects (though they need to happen in my students' own heads and lives, and on their own time): I hope that taking my class on sex and gender in the Renaissance enriches the ways my students think about those topics in the present day, simply by giving them a different cultural context and allowing them to think outside the terms and ideas that we take for granted.

But more generally, and maybe more importantly, by being public intellectuals in the classroom, we're modeling for our students what it means to be engaged by literature or history or art, and why those subjects might continue to matter and have relevance for them even once they're out of school. I think often about a comment a reader left on my blog, a couple of years ago, after I'd written about three former students who had collectively asked me out to lunch. I was trying to figure out whether they were looking for me to be a friend, or were thinking about grad school, or what--and my reader remarked that many smart young people are just looking for ways to be in the world, and that we often model that for them in ways we're not aware of.

That's not the job I'm paid to do, but it's one I'm pleased to perform, at least occasionally, whether I know it or not.


Anonymous said...


I enjoyed Horace's post for similar reasons---and am looking forward to reading Menand's book. I, too, teach mostly gen ed classes;I write regularly for reference books aimed at students like my own; and I often speak at local usually humanities/literature-related events or gatherings about subjects that I also discuss in the classroom. I would never have referred to myself as a public intellectual, by in my college and college town, that's exactly what I am.

But your last paragraph struck a nerve with me, especially since each year, there are usually 2-3 students, usually former students, but not always, who seek to get to know me outside of class, something that I still question. I love that comment by one of your astute readers: looking for ways to be in the world. That's beautiful, and now seems so obvious. Thank you for that.

Horace said...

First, thanks for picking up the thread so thoughtfully. Second, I don't think I had quite gotten all the way to what the idea of the public intellectual means to our students (at least in that post), but I think you're right on. And we can push it even further, that more than just being engaged in literature and history (as if that's a "just") it's about thinking long and hard, and that doing so has value on its own. That being thoughtful and intellectual, through history, or literature, or the other arts: that this is a way of being in the world, and it's both different from many other paths and deeply important.

Anonymous said...

Maybe community colleges would fit Menand's requests a little better. I've been at my CC for almost 10 yrs. I publish things in academia when I can but I also write stuff for the local newspaper or speak at the Rotary. Menand or other R-1 types may think of us as "podunk" but I truly feel like a public intellectual where I am.

Doctor Cleveland said...

I can think of scholars in my own field who have moved from writing for an academic audience to writing as a "public intellectual" for a popular audience, and ridding themselves of all that tawdry research. But scholars I'm thinking of aren't intellectuals at all any more. They just play them on TV (okay, on PBS, when they're lucky).

anthony grafton said...

Thanks so much for this wonderful post, and the link to Horace's very thoughtful one as well. I once heard Martin Jay of Berkeley argue, very powerfully, that the real public intellectuals are those who model the intellectual life in great lecture courses and introduce students to it in seminars; also those who write the rare (but wonderful) books that are adopted for courses and reach thousands as assigned reading. He convinced me.

Of course, a few people manage to do all of that and also do the sort of periodical writing that the term "public intellectual" usually evokes: Stephen Greenblatt and Natalie Zemon Davis spring to mind.

More generally, if you wanted to write a real history of those American public intellectuals who had the biggest impact on the world, you'd include more African-American ministers than one-time Trotskyists.

A shame the category is defined so narrowly most of the time: good to see it reclaimed for a wider range of pursuits and ways of being in the public world.