“The New Public Intellectual”

In his introduction to the 2000 edition of his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, Russell Jacoby wrote:

Intellectuals have not disappeared, but something has altered in their composition. They have become more professional and insular; at the same time they have lost command of the vernacular, which thinkers from Galileo to Freud had mastered. Where the Lewis Mumfords or Walter Lippmanns wrote for a public, their successors “theorize” about it at academic conferences.

That is not quite so true today, thanks in part to the silo busting sparked by digital technologies, but we in our ivory towers still have a ways to go before today’s William Jameses will attract invitations to address church groups and community organizations, filling their halls with excitement and conversation. Jacoby goes on:

At the end of my original preface, I indicated possible change in the offing. Driven by academic discontent and boredom, professors might want to reinvent themselves as public writers. To a limited extent I think this has happened in the last ten years. In the domain of philosophy, for example, Richard Rorty represents an effort to invigorate a public philosophy, and he has been followed by a number of others. Historians and literary critics increasingly try to break out of closed discussions into a larger public. Yet these professionals are not heeding but bucking institutional imperatives that reward esoteric rather than public contributions.

The growth of the blogosphere and the advent of social media are, today, making it easier for academics to “break out,” but we still, for the most part, speak only to each other—though, as Jacoby says, positive change does continue.

The Jan/Feb 2014 issue of Academe is headed “The New Public Intellectual.” Perhaps we should have added a question mark but, I think, we are in fact seeing a change in the way American academics relate to the rest of American culture. One article, by Nicholas Behm, Sherry Rankins-Robertson and Duan Roen, makes once more the case that the role of the public intellectual is crucial even to us in the academy. Another, by Rebecca Gould, details the legacy of Aaron Swartz, an intellectual outsider whose influence, if there is any justice in the world, will only grow. Richard McCarty takes the quest for academic freedom to religious institutions, considering the clash of conflicting public roles. Former Academe editor Ellen Schrecker provides an overview of the history of academic freedom, the bedrock for public-intellectual activities. In separate articles by Leemon McHenry and Paul Sharkey and then by Chris Nagel, one of the greatest contemporary threats both to academic freedom and the public intellectual—the continuing rise of reliance on contingent hires—is once again explored. Finally, Patricia Hill shows how the skills developed in academia can even be applied to something so mundane as jury duty.

In addition to these, I hope readers will take a look at Kevin Brown‘s “That’s Not What Happened to Me” and Jane Arnold‘s “What Do Students Think?” Good stuff!

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