Where have all the public thinkers gone? Away from universities

Commentary, Education, Frontier Centre

Omer Aziz, Globe and Mail, October 21, 2013


The publication of Michael Ignatieff’s memoir has ignited a debate about the political careers of the intellectual-turned-politician. It is not the fact that Mr. Ignatieff was an outsider that makes his loss so puzzling, but the type of outsider he was: as a man of letters, we expected him to do better. Yet, more troubling than his singular defeat in the political space is the broader demise of an entire class of thinkers we call public intellectuals.

The term intellectual entered our lexicon with the Dreyfus affair, a 19th-century scandal involving a Jewish officer accused of disloyalty to the French state. Those who came to his defense were pejoratively called ‘intellectuals’ because they had chosen the intellect over simple patriotism. Discontent with mere private discoveries, the public intellectual took this logic a step further and wrote for a general audience on the pressing issues of the day. The term itself was coined by Russell Jacoby in his 1987 work, The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe.

There was always a moral and political impulse behind the writing of public intellectuals. They advanced a cause and made a case in what the ancient Greeks called the agora or public space. Illuminating truth in a chaotic world and cajoling both citizens and those in power to adopt a certain perspective was the public intellectual’s raison d’etre.

Today, universities and the internet have contributed to the gradual decline of these intellectuals. Academics and the university publishing houses putting out their works care little for interesting prose. Couching their work in the most bland and often abstruse manner possible ensures narrow readership and little criticism. The critiques which do emerge come from similarly specialized academics and are delivered in insular conferences and academic journals. Opacity is confused for profundity, as career advancement depends on publication lines in CVs. Increasingly, academics write for and speak to one another.

One can hardly place the blame exclusively on academics themselves. The very incentive structure in academia discourages broad interests for extreme specialization. At each successive rung of the academic ladder, students become more specialized and less willing to explore beyond their fields. Deep knowledge in one sliver of one subject is prioritized over broad knowledge and exposure, leading bright students to shun exploration for its own sake. I vividly recall an old Cambridge professor of mine asking our class how many of the students even read a general newspaper. Only a few hands went up.

All of this culminates in the doctorate; the glistening badge highlighting one’s ‘expertise.’ This false equivalence between schooling and education and between narrow specialization and broad intelligence is one of the gravest assumptions the academy holds. We should be grateful that George Orwell went to fight in Spain and wrote essays and novels rather than enrolling for a master’s degree (indeed, he didn’t even have a BA).

Judge Richard Posner rekindled this debate about public intellectuals a decade ago, arguing that the tendency of academics to market highly specialized expertise as general knowledge on any subject was troubling for the agora. Academia was the very antithesis of creative public intellectual work, Posner reasoned, and the media’s desire for “expert knowledge” meant that too many professors were opining on matters outside of their knowledge base. This effectively turned them into pundits in disguise.

The internet has also contributed to the decline of public intellectuals. While research suggests that people use the Web to create ideological cocoons for themselves, the problem runs deeper. Twitter and Facebook tend to exacerbate the morbid state of writing in general, as slang and hash tags replace carefully constructed paragraphs. While Twitter allows the savvy user to follow interesting thinkers and Facebook enables one to quickly share links to interesting pieces, neither does much for the creation of creative intellectual work. The internet has certainly democratized what was once a privileged country of old white men, but we should not confuse access with quality.

This begs the question: where have the public intellectuals gone? Most have passed but some remain journalists and novelists. Edward Said was a pioneer of the public intellectual tradition, militating against hyper-specialization when writing about Palestinian rights or classical music. Christopher Hitchens, as both a war correspondent and polemicist, marshaled evidence against everyone from Henry Kissinger to God. Tony Judt wrote in the humanist tradition on everything from the French left to battling Lou Gehrig’s disease.

On the right, Milton Friedman, William F. Buckley, and Raymond Aron have yet to be replaced, though it is difficult to imagine the modern conservative movement embracing a new class of right-wing intellectuals. On the left, the breed of socialist public intellectuals is nearing extinction. Pundits and number-crunching whizzes have replaced the public intellectual in the marketplace of ideas.

Most of the public intellectuals today are novelists or journalists, or they are academics moonlighting as journalists. Jill Lepore writes with startling beauty on everything from the history of political consulting to the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony. Arundhati Roy, after publishing the magisterial The God of Small Things, has remained both a writer and human rights activist. The Pakistani novelist Mohsin Hamid has given us a window through which we can peer into the minds of so many Muslims ill at ease with the war on terrorism. Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati are India’s most prominent public intellectuals, known for their popular books and vigorous debates about the future of Indian society.

These thinkers and writers and only a handful of others are the exception. When the poet critic Helen Vendler asked, in the context of university admissions, “What sort of questions will reveal the next T.S. Eliot,” one can imagine the look on the faces of admissions officials, so fixated as they are on test scores and dissertation titles. In an age of instantaneous sharing, hyper-specialization, and pseudo-expertise, another T.S. Eliot seems unlikely, though if we change incentives, we may just get one.