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October 3, 2003

public intellectuals

I'm being interviewed by email for a journal article, and the first question asks me to define a "public intellectual." I'd like to avoid using that term (which originated with John Dewey and C. Wright Mills) to describe authors who are popular and accessible and reach large audiences. There's nothing wrong with being a best-selling author or a TV commentator, but people who are attracted to Dewey and Mills have something else in mind.

I don't yet have a general definition of "public intellectual," but I can think of three examples of the kind of work I mean. These examples come from my own life, which would be embarrassing and inappropriate if "public intellectual" were a term of praise, an honorific. However, I don't mean it that way. A public intellectual is something that any scholar can choose to be, just as any researcher can choose to be a specialist or a theorist rather than a generalist or an empiricist. One can be a good or bad public intellectual. I am (at best) a novice one whose work is rather scatter-shot and exploratory.

The first kind of work I have in mind is community-based research. This is work that involves a genuine collaboration between professional scholars and a concrete collection of other people. For example, we are beginning a project in Prince George's County, MD that aims to determine the effects of one's physical location on healthy behaviors (specifically, nutritious eating and exercise). This is a scientific research project involving an inter-disciplinary team at the University. The intention is to create generizable results, so that planners and others will be able to see whether communities can best reduce obesity by getting rid of fast-food outlets; or by attracting healthy restaurants; or by making grocery stores accessible by foot; or by clustering food stores near parks (etc). Our project happens to be public scholarship because a group of non-scholars—in this case, high school students—helped us to identify the topic and will help us to think about what variables probably affect their own behavior. They will also collect street-level data using Palm Pilots, and will learn to construct maps and graphs of value to their neighbors. It's this collaboration between professional researchers and non-professional community members that makes the research "public." (By the way, this particular project is intended to fund and otherwise strengthen a local nonprofit association, which is another sign of public-ness.)

The second kind of work I have in mind involves participation in campaigns and social movements. Over the years, I have played small roles in non-partisan political movements for campaign finance reform, civic education, civic renewal, digital media reform, public journalism, civil investing, youth voting, and deliberative democracy. Each of these movements has united existing organizations in fairly formal coalitions. Coalition members have discussed, negotiated, and sometimes deliberated about tactics, strategies, goals, and values. Professional scholars hardly ever lead such movements, but they can help by introducing relevant research findings, writing for various audiences, and organizing activities within the academy (which is itself a powerful social institution). Their work is least valuable when it is strictly strategic: when the end is assumed, and intellectuals only think about means. Then they tend to conduct research that is aimed to support pre-ordained conclusions, which is not a good method. Fortunately, one can maintain intellectual independence and a certain critical distance, without being any less useful to campaign. If anything, it is a practically helpful to have people within a coalition or movement who periodically ask whether its goals are right.

The third kind of work involves research about social issues, communities, or institutions. This would describe most research in the social sciences, the professional schools, and the humanities. What makes some such work "public" is the presence of a real dialogue between the scholar and those studied. A literary critic who writes about contemporary Southern fiction is an intellectual. She is a public intellectual if she is eager for contemporary Southern novelists to read her criticism, if she writes in a way that will interest them, and if she listens to their responses and uses their converations to inform her own work.

In the past, I have implied that "public intellectuals" only study contemporary geographical communities. This is not true by definition or a priori. However, I do think that the urge to write about very large aggregations of people or for very large audiences can stand in the way of public scholarship. It is very hard to engage in a genuine dialogue with a huge population, or to give them a role in one's work. For example, I do not see how one can conduct participatory research on the United States as a whole. Nor can one involve dead people in one's research, which means that public intellectuals cannot study the distant past. They can study a geographically dispersed community, but only if its members work and communicate together, which implies a fairly limited scale and a robust set of connections.

I do not claim that we should only study communities of modest size, or contemporary communities rather than historical ones. But then I do not think that all intellectuals should be public intellectuals.

October 3, 2003 12:42 PM | category: none


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