Friday, February 13, 2009

The Surprising Death of the Public Intellectual and a Manifesto for Its Restoration

Jo Guldi, Absent3

These days few professors of the humanities grace our newspapers on public questions. Consider the issue of sexuality. One is more likely to hear from an columnist like Thomas Friedman, who condemns on the basis of his flat-earth theory the injustice done a Pakistani victim of rape, or an evolutionary biologist like Randolph Nesse, who employs our hunter-gatherer ancestors to explain the courtship rituals of the American bar scene. A reading of how young women feel about nudity differently from their grandmothers, constructed from the novels of Nathanael West? An editorial about the unintended consequences of American feminism by generation, race, and class, as conjectured by a historian? Both are unusual in the extreme.

Public scholars of the humanities have become a rarer and rarer species. The last great demonstrations appeared in the late 1970s and 80s, when sociologists like Richard Sennett and Benedict Anderson took on the themes of public interaction and nationalism. Intellectuals with an explicitly public stake in discourse flourished in the recent present, when they ranged from intellectuals who favored direct intervention, like William Sloane Coffin, the Yale University chaplain who organized busloads of freedom riders headed south in 1961, like novelist John Hersey’s championing of anti-nuclear proliferation in the pages of the New Yorker. There were indirect public intellectuals, too, like Hannah Arendt’s excavation of types of public interaction and sociability from ancient Greece to the present day, delivered as lectures around the nation, or Irving Howe’s literary essays on topics like Ralph Ellison and the contemporary color line, published in The Nation, The New Republic, or the journal he founded, Dissent. Indeed, intellectuals of the 1950s sought out a public arena in which to engage questions of justice and to define notions like democracy. Their work in dissemination and public argument, as much as their intellectual work, underwrote the self-understanding of a generation of activists.


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