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October 24, 2003

a true public intellectual

In recent entries, I considered what might define a "public intellectual." (I'm being interviewed on that topic for an article.) I then spent the last three days in the company of the Harvard political scientist Jane Mansbridge. To me, she is a perfect example of what a public intellectual should be. Not many people who hold very distinguished professorships at Harvard would take three days to attend a "researcher & practitioner" meeting on any subject, especially if most of the practitioners ran small, little-known organizations, and the researchers were mostly junior professors. Jane Mansbridge not only attended; she participated modestly but helpfully in every breakout session, listened to every story, developed relationships with many people in the room, and seemed to care about every phrase that was written on a flip chart.

Many of her comments were based on her own very influential and sophisticated research. For example, we had to face the issue of whether to include people who didn't attend the conference in the immediate next steps of our work. The risks of being exclusive and inclusive are best explored in Mansbridge's own writing. So she brought her research to bear on this and other practical questions faced by a concrete community of peers. Her research, in turn, has always been based on close and respectful observations of activists and other citizens. So I assume that she was busy learning at the conference, just as she has learned from meetings throughout her career.

Mansbridge is deservedly famous, but her fame doesn't interfere with her constructive participation in this kind of activity. She is not a "public intellectual" because she is a participant in social movements and civic reform efforts who also happens to be a professor; rather, her public participation is truly "intellectual," since the advice she offers is rooted in ground-breaking research of the highest quality. Furthermore, her stance is independent and helpfully critical, yet she doesn't try to stand apart from social movements. I have long admired the title of her book Why We Lost the ERA. The analysis is scholarly and objective, so she could have called it "The Discourse of Rights and the Construction of Majoritarian Patriarchy: The Struggle for the Equal Rights Amendment" (or something like that). Instead, she called in Why We Lost the ERA—associating herself with the movement, even as she revealed why it had failed.

Posted by peterlevine at 12:15 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

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