The Retreat of the Public Intellectual

September 22, 2006

In the recent edition of the alumni magazine from my alma mater, Colby College, there’s an interesting article by government professor Paul Reisert about the cultural marginalization of academia. He writes,

There was a time, not that long ago, when leading figures in higher education served as public intellectuals, addressing the vital issues of their day and receiving a respectful hearing from political leaders and the public at large. These days, if a professor from any field outside the hard sciences is being quoted in the media, odds are good that it’s for the purpose of ridicule.

Reisert opines that the remedy is for academics to reach out to society at large:

The central problem with academia today is that we overwhelmingly speak professionally only to other academics, who share our sense of what questions are important and our wider range of values and commitments…[T]hose of us in the academy need to do a better job of remembering that the 1940 AAUP Statement on Academic Freedom also commits us to put the common good ahead of personal and institutional advancement. We should, therefore, strive always to speak to a wider audience beyond the inbred confines of academia.

Reisert’s full article is worth a read. The prominence of public intellectuals has indeed waned in recent years, and it doesn’t help that universities are increasingly cracking down on academics who try to make their own opinions public. SUNY Fredonia’s attempt to quash Stephen Kershnar’s public statements and UW Madison’s attempt to silence Professor Kevin Barrett’s opinions on 9/11 are just two examples among the many.

Schools:  Colby College