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What does it mean to be a public intellectual?
By William Deresiewicz
December 16, 2012
A book came across my desk a little while ago that urges high school students to consider forgoing college. Among the things it suggests that kids might do to “create and share value” absent a formal higher education is this: “Become a Public Intellectual.” In five easy steps (“Research a social problem you care about deeply…Start a blog…”), the budding thinkers can be on their way. The debasement of the term public intellectual—and it was pretty debased to begin with—would seem to be complete.
Before you merit the label intellectual, in my view, you need to clear a very high bar. When I hear the word, I think of the great New York intellectuals of the middle of the last century: Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Dwight Macdonald, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, Alfred Kazin—writers incomparably more gifted, students immensely more learned, thinkers embarrassingly more profound than any we have to show for ourselves today. The whole culture has gotten less literate, less educated, more shallow; the entire curve has shifted over. Why should things be different at the higher end? To be an “intellectual” today is merely to be monarch of the idiocracy.
Then there is the public part. The fact that we need it now at all suggests that we’ve forgotten what an intellectual is. It isn’t a smart person; it is someone, precisely, who speaks of public issues to a public audience. Wilson et al. were not called “public” intellectuals, because the public part was taken for granted. The longer term was introduced by Russell Jacoby (in 1987—only 25 years ago) to differentiate the older type from those who had displaced it: professors. The problem is that professors have taken it over. The phrase has come to mean an academic who occasionally addresses a general audience, as if all academics were intellectuals, and some of them were also public ones. In fact, academics and intellectuals are antithetical types. An intellectual is not an expert, and a public intellectual is not an expert who condescends to speak to a wider audience about her area of expertise. An intellectual is a generalist, an autodidact, a thinker who wanders and speculates. As Jack Miles puts it in a stellar essay on the question, “It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual.”
Public also smacks of publicity, of the new apparatus of celebrity that turns scholars into showmen and makes pundits out of hacks. Susan Sontag, already halfway towards a parody of the intellectual in the older sense—mobile in her moral positions, more a transmitter than originator of ideas, and not much of a writer at all—pioneered this kind of self-promotion. Now we have the likes of Cornel West, doing his shtick all over the airwaves.
But celebrity, like the institutionalization that comes with being an academic, is inimical to the intellectual’s mission: questioning the mental status quo. The more a part of things you are—the more embedded in the machinery of status and position—the harder that is to do. As Kazin said, “values are our only home in the universe.” Allegiances, to any group, are fatal. The intellectual’s job is to think past the culture: to question the myths, metaphors, and assumptions that limit our collective imagination. The founder of the breed was Socrates. As Kazin also said, an intellectual is someone for whom ideas are “instruments of salvation.” Becoming one requires a little more than setting up a blog.
All Points will be on hiatus for the holidays. Posts resume January 7.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.