Monday, February 23, 2009

The Public Intellectual

The most recent Carnivalesque, over at Notorious Ph.D., has generously spotlighted an older post of mine on being/ trying to be a public intellectual. It even got picked up by a French history blog. Anyway, with the renewed interest (and site traffic), it seems an appropriate time to revisit some of the issues raised and see where we are.

Things like the coming blog forum on Judith Bennett's work (again, Notorious Ph.D.'s doing) give me hope. It's specialists sharing their specialized readings with a larger public. Sure, not everyone's going to read these types of posts (my own webtraffic, for instance, is rather meager) but some will, even if they stumble across the site totally by accident. But will they listen to us? Do our degrees -- by which I mean the expertise we've accumulated by studying theory and context and all that other good stuff -- matter? I said yes before and I stand by that in an objective sense but in what more realistic, inherently subjective sense do our degrees matter?

I raise this because I think this is a particular moment when academics ought be forceful in articulating their thoughts about ideas/ instances where their expertise is particularly appropriate. Despite what Stanley Fish has to say, this is what it really means to have a "free marketplace of ideas." People can think what they want, they can argue for it vigorously, but people should also know that there are good reasons that certain people think about things the way they do. Are Ph.D.'s always right? Well, I almost couldn't write that last question because it seems so laughable to me. Personally, I find teaching undergraduates extraordinarily rewarding because they approach things in fundamentally different ways than I do and force me to justify my ideas and oftentimes fundamentally rethink them. I wish there were more fora for these types of interactions, even outside the university's walls.

But I more wonder about your thoughts here -- especially the majority of you, who seem to find this site by (still) googling "medieval porn". Is there space in this country for public intellectuals? Does that (necessarily) mean graduate school? Does it mean something else?


Anonymous said...


Steve said...

From a philosophical standpoint, I certainly think there is a place for public intellectuals, whether it be in an informal blog setting or an unofficial conference/forum. There is nothing more rewarding than exchanging ideas and teaching others. In doing so, we reinforce our own understanding of the field, especially when undergraduate students ask us questions we've perhaps never thought of. Does this mean that Ph.D's are always right? Of course not. But it DOES mean that there are very good reasons why a Ph.D feels the way he/she does, and those reasons are qualified and legitimate, and while they should not be immediately considered gospel, they deserve a substantial amount of consideration. After all, this is their life's work--it is their profession. If I had a question about nuclear physics, I would want to ask a nuclear physicist, since he/she would clearly know more about the subject than I do, and I would place a high value on his/her response.

The problem with public intellectualism, though, is that it hinges on a substantial degree of trust between the interlocutors; a trust that both are qualified individuals (read as having bona fide advanced degrees in their field). It was not that long ago that the Essjay controversy took place over at wikipedia. Essjay, a.k.a. Ryan Jordan, falsified his academic credentials in order to obtain a position as an administrator at wikipedia, where he would be able to judge the veracity and authority of posted articles. This is perhaps one of the reasons why academics like us do not place a high value on such public intellectual forums as wikipedia. I've told my students that if they are conducting research, they should steer clear of wikipedia precisely because there is little accountability, which is absolutely essential if a successful and genuine public intellectual forum is to exist.

Jonathan Jarrett said...

I tried to post this the day before yesterday, but couldn't get the verification image to load: hopefully better luck this time...

I get the idea that you're wanting to hear from someone other than the regulars, but I'll chip in anyway. Firstly I absolutely think there is a space, in my country at least—I wouldn't want to speak for yours knowing it so little—for public intellectuals. It can't just be me, it can't just be historians even, who get introduced to people with their intellectual job title and immediately get asked, "oh hey, I always wondered about..." Granted, for me it's often king Arthur or the Vikings, but the interest, as we've said before here, is definitely there. But, the supply is not meeting the demand. There are probably a number of reasons why: I could suggest the media's need for ratings and circulation driving a dumbing-down to the lowest common denominator, but I could also blame élitism on the part of academics. One of the reasons people are contemptuous of academic learning, I think, is that some academics seem to have so little time for the real world. I actually resolved to stop using the phrase "it's not really my period", which was a cliché when I learnt it, after I worked out that I was helping to propagate an image of historians as speciality-cloistered social recluses. But there is also still, perhaps more so in the UK, a slight contempt in parts of the profession for the TV or pop historian. It's not seen as terribly serious, and in a profession where jobs are so scarce and competition so intense being seen to be serious is much too important. So people who do know their stuff don't contribute, and the result is that talking heads or people who are good presenters but who have idées fixes or just don't know very much (I might say, journalists, but that would expose just the same kind of contempt in me), take the fore because they want to be on TV or whatever and we don't. That avoidance of the media is even reinforced systematically, in the UK again, by the Research Assessment Exercise and its categories. In a climate where one wants loads of category A output, because others against whom one's being judged will have, things that score lower than refereed journal articles, like newspaper articles for example, or, lower still, any form of internet publishing (which is still ranked with performances and exhibitions, though the categories are currently being revised), must tend to be lower priorities.

All the same, the space is there, but I think we have to take it. Only the most sceptical and interested are going to pick up our books, though that's still a number, and only those who want a degree, any degree, or are already hooked, will study under us. Where our knowledge needs to be seen is in websearches (whatever they're for... ), in comments columns under newspaper stories, in letters to newspapers, and not just tearing new holes in clueless writing but giving an alternative, showing that actually we do know something and that what we know is worth knowing. So, another sort of example, it used to be that I would start most answers to my pet questions with "well, we don't really know". This is not what the audience wants to hear! And of course it's usually true but now I start at the other end, with a source. If, instead of telling people that there's naff-all evidence for King Arthur and they should forget about it, I tell them about the bit of the Gododdin that may or may not mention him, about the later heroes he eventually replaced in the Welsh Triads, and so on, then they start with positive knowledge, not negative critique, and also get the sense of mystery and ineffability that hangs round a proper historical enigma. Also, then they can opine knowledgeably about the subject to their interested friends, and, in the words of archy, "is that feeling not one of the great desiderata of social intercourse?"

Then to your latter two questions. In the first place, I don't think such an intellectual needs to be a graduate, but I think it helps. The reason it helps is the awareness of peer research. There's nothing stopping an enthusiastic layman or laywoman becoming extremely learned on a historical subject if they want; but if they haven't also managed to acquire the techniques for criticising source material and the general feeling that others can contribute, may think differently and may have reasons for doing so, they will likely pick up a very personalised, not to say marginalised, view of the field. So again we need to be where such people can ask us questions, or else they'll write their book or make their TV program uncorrected...

But I think it's important that we be available to everyone, which means a certain amount of self-advertising at a level different from that at which we're encouraged to tout ourselves professionally, but also means not taking a side. So the phrase `public intellectual' makes me think of Schlesinger, and that I think is wrong; we should not have an office in the White House or wherever, we should not obviously be a spokesperson for an interest. It may be that we can't escape our political formation colouring our output and thinking, but being honest about that will stop us from contributing, and then the public space will go to others without such self-knowledge.

So in summary, it's not just that people need to respect us more; the easiest way for that to happen is if we respect ourselves and our knowledge enough to put it in front of people, in such a way that they too can respect it.

A last thought: you ask for more fora for interactions with untrained minds. The other day I was talking to a couple of acquaintances who'd just organised and completed a walking tour of London looking at some special interest sites. (Something similar, but by someone else entirely, is advertised here.) I said I ought to think about doing an early medieval one, and they practically begged me to actually do it. Well, I don't have the time, and you don't have a country with substantial medieval remains, but it captures my point: there are things we can do to reach such people, if we want to get out there and put ourselves in front of them.

Matthew Gabriele said...

Thanks, Steve and Jon for your comments here. All I can say is, yes, I agree. But to your last thought, Jon -- on the idea of walking tours -- I think it's a great idea. I know some scholars here work through their university's alumni office to organize trips abroad for alumni. That's certainly something similar that it seems more people in our shoes should do. You get to go abroad, see really cool stuff, and perhaps get some of those wealthy folks to have a new appreciation for the humanities (and send some of their donation $ your way...).