Public Intellectuals

The death of Arthur Schlesinger Jr. led Ezra Klein to ask where the next generation of public intellectuals will be found. Mark Schmitt laments that there are few incentives these days for intellectuals -- particularly for intellectuals on the left -- to forgo the academic route.

Having done the academic route for a while, I can attest that there is at least something to that complaint. I found it pretty tough to keep up with the demands of scholarship and teaching while still producing work for the general public, and I taught at an institution with relatively low demands for scholarship. At the Harvards and Chicagos of the world, the scholarship demands are huge, and, as Dan Drezner can probably attest, many older academics don't particularly appreciate contributions aimed at nonspecialists.

Still, it seems to me that there's no real reason for particular alarm on the public intellectual front. Last I checked, the folks at Crooked Timber were busy presenting arguments for public consumption while still keeping up with their academic careers. Glenn Reynolds seems to be doing okay, too. Andrew Sullivan and Eric Alterman both have PhDs. There's Judge Posner. And Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok.

There is, of course, a crucial difference here. Schlesinger went beyond punditry, moving easily between academics, government and punditry. That's pretty rare these days. The problem here, though, is not on the academic end. I think that there are probably plenty of academics who would be thrilled to take a stab at speechwriting for presidential candidates. The problem is more on the other end: a public that sees academics as head-in-the-clouds, useless-for-anything-outside-the-ivory-tower types. (Random personal anecdote: after I recently moved the PhD part to the very bottom of my resume, recruiters started returning my phone calls right away. Could be just a coincidence, of course.)

In the meantime, there's something of a vicious cycle going on. Academics, who are seen as undesirable outside the academy, have little incentive to stray outside the confines of the university. Meanwhile, the more academics stay in the ivory tower, the more they are seen as out of touch and hence undesirable. I'm not really sure how to break the feedback loop. I'm not even entirely sure that it needs to be broken. After all, anyone can start a blog. If you're an academic and want a wider audience, well, click over here and get started. If you're any good at it, someone will start to notice. Eventually.

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