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October 17, 2003

defining "public intellectuals"

I'm still being interviewed (by email) for a journal article. In response to one question, I proposed a general definition of a “public intellectual.” This is someone, I said, who tries to help (or even prod) concrete groups of people to become self-reflective and thoughtful about their own problems and interests; conscious of their own opportunities, choices, limitations, and tradeoffs; aware of their disagreements and the reasons for them; and capable of “political” action (broadly understood).

Offering professional facts or opinions can advance these goals. For example, if a scholar writes an editorial about some public problem, this may help a community to become self-aware and may modestly increase the chance that citizens will act politically. However, I am much more interested in other ways of helping communities to understand themselves and to become politically effective. Specifically, I admire efforts to organize collective projects of research or deliberation in which non-scholars play leading roles. When scholars assist or lead communities in such projects, they may be guided by their own disciplinary training. For instance, I’m working with social scientists who use computers to represent human geography; this is a powerful tool that communities can use to become more self-aware. Using methods developed by geographers, groups of citizens can pose their own questions, collect street-level data, and see illuminating visual representations of their environment. However, instead of contributing disciplinary expertise and toolkits, public intellectuals may sometimes offer practical skills that they pick up in the academy, such as writing grants, convening meetings, and persuading policymakers.

October 17, 2003 12:23 PM | category: none


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