A public intellectual is someone who can talk about anything for five minutes and nothing for six—or so the joke went in publishing circles a few years ago. But is that how it should be? What, after all, qualifies someone to be a public intellectual?
In the June issue of Harper’s, Tom Wolfe raised this touchy question in his delightful squib “In the Land of the Rococo Marxists,” which will surely stand with “Radical Chic” as a piquant satire of its age. In “Rococo Marxists,” Wolfe defines an intellectual as “a person knowledgable [sic] in one field who speaks out only in others.” Or, alternately, as a person who “didn’t need to burden himself with the irksome toil of reporting or research. For that matter, he needed no particular education, no scholarly training, no philosophical grounding, no conceptual frameworks, no knowledge of academic or scientific developments other than the sort of stuff you might pick up in Section 9 of the Sunday newspaper. Indignation about the powers that be and the bourgeois fools who did their bidding—that was all you needed.”
Wolfe’s prime example is Susan Sontag, whom he rightly lambastes for writing whoppers like this one, which appeared in Partisan Review in 1967: “The white race is the cancer of human history.” “Who was this woman?” gibes Wolfe. “An anthropological epidemiologist?” No, “she was just another scribbler who spent her life signing up for protest meetings and lumbering up to the podium.” How true. And to Wolfe’s list we must add the likes of Toni Morrison, who, in The New Yorker, gave us the unforgettably asinine pronouncement that Bill Clinton was the first black president because, among other things, he was a “McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving” boy from Arkansas.
Wolfe is right to point out that many of today’s so-called public intellectuals aren’t experts. Many of them are just opinionated dilettantes who’ve shunned the sticky grooves of academe. They’ve taken refuge in journalism instead, because it’s a profession that affords them the opportunity to engage polemically with the public. Meanwhile, the academy, which used to be and still should be the seat of the public intelligentsia, has for the most part removed itself from any meaningful public discourse—choosing instead to swirl its obfuscatory jargon endlessly around the self- enclosed world of hyper-subspecialized “theory,” like toilet water in the bowl.
But is Wolfe right? Must we choose between pinheads and talking heads? Isn’t there a middle way? There will be if Max Kirsch, Teresa Brennan, and their colleagues at Florida Atlantic University (FAU) have anything to say about it. Last fall FAU launched a new interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in, of all things, public intellectualism. In the course catalog, Brennan, who is a professor of humanities and public intellectuals at FAU, and the program’s curriculum designer, declared the goals of the new doctorate: “We hope to try and return to public life some of its intellectual ballast, which has been, more and more, absent of late. We are instituting a degree program that is precisely not geared to the specialized market and which leaves space to think.”
Kirsch, who is director of the program, puts it this way: “Higher education, to a large extent, has isolated itself. So, now, most of our public intellectuals are just pundits. The philosophy of our program is to develop Ph.D.s who have both a deep understanding of anissue and who can engage the public.” To this end, the degree program centers around issue-driven courses that cover everything from bioethics and biotechnology (e.g., cloning and euthanasia) to race and ethnic conflict (e.g., Northern Ireland and the American civil rights movement). So much for the theory bog. As for jargon, Kirsch says: “We don’t even take them unless we know that they can write, and that they can write clearly.” Can it be? Strunk and White have come at last to the land of advanced degrees?
Kirsch admits that he and his colleagues are still working through the usual start-up bugaboos—revising the curriculum when necessary, hammering out the topical particulars—but he’s optimistic that FAU’s program can both spark academic reform and invigorate the public sphere. With any luck, some day the rest of the academy will follow suit.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on July 4, 2000