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:
Ribuffo: Starting his story 250 years too late, Jacoby examined a narrow range of American intellectual life as normative. #USIH2015— Jonathan Wilson (@jnthnwwlsn) October 16, 2015
Noll and Worthen as public intellectuals? What is the context for Ribuffo mentioning them? #usih2015 https://t.co/DeRisMxQfK— John Fea (@JohnFea1) October 16, 2015
Interesting. Glad to see Ribuffo does not think "evangelical intellectual" is an oxymoron. #usih2015 https://t.co/KhUt5QAxMx— John Fea (@JohnFea1) October 16, 2015
Christian contemporary music artists as public intellectuals! I love it. #usih2015 #lecrae #dctalk https://t.co/FGVrzZmyZh— John Fea (@JohnFea1) October 16, 2015
Ribuffo puts evangelical intellectuals under umbrella of "public intellectual." Churchgoers make up a large "public" #usih2015— John Fea (@JohnFea1) October 16, 2015
Ribuffo: Today, w rare exceptions, public intellectuals have been replaced on TV with paired talking heads. #USIH2015— Jonathan Wilson (@jnthnwwlsn) October 16, 2015
I'd say there is no connection between truth and the size of audience. "Tension" is not strong enough. #usih2015 https://t.co/JtiZBnVGkC— John Fea (@JohnFea1) October 17, 2015
Public intellectuals as culture and program builder.. Now that IS an oxymoron--unfortunately. #usih2015 https://t.co/sz1Ygfuk7q— John Fea (@JohnFea1) October 17, 2015
Yes--need to rid this Greenwiich Village-NY Intellectuals baggage of what makes a PI today. #usih2015 https://t.co/fgkoddLfrl— John Fea (@JohnFea1) October 17, 2015
Yes--this is true if we limit PI to the legacy of NY intellectuals. #usih2015 https://t.co/4iK1oUxG5Y— John Fea (@JohnFea1) October 17, 2015
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.