Saturday, October 17, 2015

What is a Public Intellectual?

I wish I was at the Annual Meeting of the United States Intellectual History (USIH) Society going on right now in Washington D.C.  Thanks to some great tweeters--especially Jonathan Wilson--I have been able to get a decent sense of what is being discussed.

Last night I followed along as Wilson and others tweeted a plenary session on public intellectuals. The session revolved around Russell Jacoby's landmark The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe.  Jacoby spoke about the writing of his book and its relevance for defining a "public intellectual" today, nearly twenty-years after it appeared in 1987.  Leo Ribuffo, Jonathan Holloway, and Claire Potter presented papers on the role of public intellectuals in society since Jacoby published The Last Intellectuals.

You can get up to speed at #usih2015.

From what I was able to glean, all three of the respondents wanted to expand the idea of "public intellectual" beyond Jacoby's definition. Even Jacoby admitted that his book would not look the same today, largely due to the Internet.

Here are some tweets:


There is a lot I could riff on here, but I like the fact that Leo Ribuffo is willing to expand the definition of "public intellectuals to include evangelical Christians.  A few thoughts:

First, Ribuffo is suggesting that "evangelical intellectual" is not an oxymoron.

Second, evangelicals make up a significant portion of the population of the United States.  Most of them do not read the "small magazines" in which Jacoby's "public intellectuals" publish (or published), but they make up an audience that far exceeds the size of the audience of most so called "public intellectuals" today.  And, as Mark Noll and others have shown, evangelicals probably need intellectuals more than anyone else.

Third, intellectuals who are evangelicals have sought to speak from an evangelical perspective to the intellectual culture at large.  If they write for public audiences at all, they are trying to find a voice in the world of Jacoby's intellectuals.  This is well and good.  Evangelicals should speak to contemporary issues this way and seek to write in places where evangelical voices are rarely heard such as the op-ed pages of major newspapers and some of the so-called "small magazines."

But, as I have argued here and, to some extent in my Why Study History, evangelical intellectuals and scholars may be missing opportunities to speak to churchgoers on their own terms. This is a largely untapped audience for public intellectuals, but evangelicals will not just listen to anyone.  They are suspicious of secular voices and always will be. They will, however, be more open to listen to someone with evangelical credentials or someone who is one of them. We need more people to be "public intellectuals" in this world.