Public Intellectuals, Public Life, and the University

By Brouwer, Daniel C.; Squires, Catherine R. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Winter 2003 | Go to article overview

Public Intellectuals, Public Life, and the University


Brouwer, Daniel C., Squires, Catherine R., Argumentation and Advocacy


In 1999, Florida Atlantic University (FAU) commenced its "Public Intellectuals Program," an interdisciplinary, Ph.D. degree-granting program in Comparative Studies. Writing about the new program in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Alison Schneider remarked: "Starting a Ph.D. program for public intellectuals is a little like hanging a target on your back during hunting season" (1999). The analogy was apt, for educators, academics, activists, and lay people alike leveled potshots at the program. Some took offense at the hubris of the program and its goals, claiming that classroom instruction cannot adequately nurture public intellectuals and that, besides, public intellectuals might be nurtured but cannot be manufactured in any academic program. Others criticized the program's overly narrow conception of "public" and its redundancy. Skepticism toward the program even took a geographical bias, as Schneider noted the perception that one is much more likely to find a palm tree than a public intellectual on a Flo rida campus.

This adumbration of the controversy engendered by the FAU program draws attention to the nexus of universities, public intellectuals, and public life. In this and similar controversies, participants express concern about the health of society, about the proper goals and means of education, and about the relationship of education to public life. Prominent in discussions of this nexus are voices of skepticism about the animating and ameliorative capabilities of educational institutions. From the Right, critics of educational institutions and practices decry fragmentation, the emphasis on identity and marginality, and the collapse of normative standards. From the Left, critics of education rail against capitalist principles that under-gird education, corporate colonization of the university "lifeworld," and the marginalization imposed upon radical forms of scholarship. From multiple directions, folks wonder if scholarship produced in higher education can be counted on to have measurable impact on social well-bei ng. These concerns congregate in anxieties over the lives and works of public intellectuals.

In this essay, we examine the dynamics of commentary and controversy about public intellectuals in the mainstream press from 1987-2002. (1) Commentary about the relationships between public intellectuals, universities, and public life has been especially robust since 1987. In that year and since, book-length treatises such as Allan Bloom's (1987) Closing of the American Mind, Russell Jacoby's (1987) The Last Intellectuals, Richard Rorty's (1998) Achieving Our Countiy, and Richard Posner's (2001) Public Intellectuals have spurred and influenced much public commentary. While not every debate about public intellectuals since 1987 draws exclusively from these authors' theories and agendas, these books demarcate a flurry of scholarly and lay activity concerning intellectuals that meshed with other widespread public controversies: the "culture wars," affirmative action, and reconstruction of the welfare state, to name a few. As such, the publication of these books and the implementation of FAU's program provide a t imeline for exploring the contemporary meanings and debates surrounding the figure of the public intellectual.

Study of this widespread commentary and controversy has the potential to tell us much about "the public" and about the relationship between higher educational institutions and public life. The ways in which journalists and critics defined public intellectuals necessarily invoked particular understandings of what is "public." In turn, these variations provided competing normative models for social life. For example, definitions of public intellectuals in which they were positioned outside of the academy exposed a manifest, sometimes latent, skepticism about the social functions of universities. The comments that we unearthed generally assert that public life is in poor health, that public intellectuals are non-existent, ineffectual, or inscrutable, and that universities are poorly equipped to affect positive change on these fronts. …

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