The Return of the Public Intellectual?

One of the biggest frustrations for me, as a scholar, is continual denigration (by certain academics) of my work as addressing only a “general audience.” I can’t be a “real” intellectual, you see, unless I write so that only a few specialists can parse my sentences and unearth my meaning. [It’s also frustrating that I am criticized on the other side, as being too difficult for some readers–but that’s another story for a different post.] Each time it happens, my memory forces up John Collins Bossidy’s bit of doggerel about a Boston:

Where the Lowells talk only to Cabots,
And the Cabots talk only to God.

I don’t want to live in that world, and don’t want to write for it, either. Still, each time I read “general audience,” I bristle–even though that’s exactly who I am writing for. A couple of weeks ago, I received a comment back from the editor of a volume I am contributing an essay to, telling me that my piece would be perfect for sparking discussion in a college classroom or a synagogue group. I wanted to feel complimented, but I had a slight suspicion that I was being damned with faint praise (though the editor is including the chapter). Yesterday, Robert Leston, my co-author of Beyond the Blogosphere, pointed out that there is a new description of the book on The Free Library. It says the book is for “general readers”–and it is. Yet I can’t help feeling vaguely insulted, though that is exactly what I want the book to be. The power of intellectual snobbery affects me, whether I want it to or not.

The culture of the academy is strong–and I feel its disdain even as I claim not to care. Though I pine for the days when college professors were regularly invited to speak to church groups and at public libraries (after all, if William James did it, why can’t we?), I still feel the force of the intellectual snobbery that has become contemporary academia.

I have felt this for a long time. In fact, it is one of the reasons I didn’t enter the profession on completing my PhD. I didn’t want to live as “removed” from the world as I saw my contemporaries in academia living–intellectually, at least.

Or culturally.

For my father’s generation, moving into academia hadn’t been a right or an expectation. They had come back from World War II to a future that swept them in totally unexpected directions (he became a professor of Psychology)–but they had behind them something other than experience within universities. Though I had seen no war, I was oddly proud, during my first, tentative semester as a grad student, of showing up to class in my blue work uniform with “VW” over one pocket and “Aaron” over the other, grease under my fingernails and a red rag dripping from my back pocket. I had, at least, experience of something other than school.

So it was that, on defending my dissertation, I joined Peace Corps, where I worked in agriculture (teaching farmers techniques for using oxen for plowing in northern Togo, West Africa). Later, I spent more than a decade running the store/cafe I established in a brownstone Brooklyn neighborhood. It was only when I started writing again, when I realized I could use my “intellectual” skills to reach a “general” audience, that I began to consider entering academia as a new career. It was only when I realized I could teach in a school like City Tech, where the students bring in a world far beyond my experience, that I became enthusiastic about the idea.

Almost as soon as I began teaching full-time, I also started agitating, trying to change the culture, trying to move my colleagues beyond their complacency. This got me into a bit of trouble, but it also led me to a greater understanding of why the likes of David Horowitz (with whom I developed something of a contentious relationship) view American universities so poorly. Though Horowitz is as myopic as “the professors” he criticizes, he does have a point: the arrogance, both cultural and intellectual, of university faculty is both unwarranted and harmful. It further isolates the professoriate from the culture as a whole and provides an echo chamber that masquerades as affirmation.

We professors, I thought, need to get out more.

There are many reasons we don’t, but the primary one may be our archaic and isolating processes of tenure, promotion, and funding. Each of these looks to small groups for affirmation, creating “ivory tower” hierarchies that serve as barriers to concentration on work addressed to people outside of the academy. Of course, there are needs for decision-making bodies, but they don’t have to be insular and unquestionable–as many of these are.

In addition, as the “Boycott Elsevier” movement is now showing us quite dramatically, we have allowed other barriers to be raised between academia and the “general” public–in this case, making access to scholarly journals available only to those who can afford it or who have affiliation with academic institutions who have decided to afford it.

Though speaking to small groups in churches, film societies, and other interest groups may not have the same cachet as presenting a paper at MLA, it is just as valuable an exercise–even though our inward-looking peers committees may not think so. Though writing an op-ed or a feature for our local, small-circulation weekly doesn’t look quite so fantastic on a CV as a piece in PMLA, it may get as many readers, and spark as much discussion. Then there’s blogging (since starting to aggregate, a bit, “boycott Elsevier” on Facebook, I’ve been looking at more academic blogs than ever before–and am impressed by their range and intelligence) and online publications like Raging Chicken, edited by my friend and former colleague Kevin Mahoney. Even though the audiences for these venues may not be “intellectuals,” contributing to their debates and discussions is an intellectually viable activity, and it need to be considered so.

We rue the loss of the “public intellectual,” but we do very little, actually, to return that figure to its place. It’s time we do so–by acting the part ourselves and by rewarding, rather than disparaging, our colleagues who try to do the same.

3 thoughts on “The Return of the Public Intellectual?

  1. Hi Aaron,

    This post contains a great deal of information that I have been contemplating for a long time.

    Ironically, I'm presenting at the first Ray Browne Popular Culture conference this weekend (3/31) on “Creating Public Intellectuals: Popular Culture’s Move From Niche to Mainstream in the 21st century.”

    I think I'll quote your concluding remark, because it's so poignant:

    “We rue the loss of the 'public intellectual,' but we do very little, actually, to return that figure to its place. It's time we do so–by acting the part ourselves and by rewarding, rather than disparaging, our colleagues who try to do the same.”

    Given our too-brief email exchanges over the last couple of years, I am not surprised we think so similarly on this topic. My answer: keep pounding the keyboard.

    Thanks for a great post!


  2. Thanks for the mention, Aaron. You bear some responsibility for Raging Chicken Press! After all, it was our joint “Teachnology” Grant that propelled me into the blogosphere whole hog. Here's to the public intellectuals and street fighters everywhere.


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