Sunday, June 02, 2013

Never been a better time to be a public intellectual

Eleven years ago, when about this time of the year I had started planning for the migration northward to Oregon, I was scanning the local, downtown, community newsletter of sorts--I think it was called the Village News, perhaps modeled after the Village Voice.

In that, and unexpectedly, I received one of the best compliments that I have ever received.  The editor had noted my departure from the university and the town with a comment that the area was losing a public intellectual. It was all the more wonderful because it came from a person whom I had never met. This meant that she had based her comment strictly on my op-eds in the local newspaper, the Bakersfield Californian.

I knew even back in my teenage years that my life would be in the intellectual arena.  Further, I knew that I wanted my intellectual activities to be in the public, and not in some obscure office, not because of a need to be in the spotlight but because of an obsession of sorts to understand social issues and to discuss and debate with others my understanding.

But, of course, I had no idea then of a phrase "public intellectual."  It was one of the many new ideas that came to understand over the course of six graduate school years.

A couple of years ago, a student told me that he wanted to engage in the kind of public discussion of ideas like how I do, and asked me for suggestions on how he could go about it.  That stumped me.  I had no idea what the formula is.  I was reminded of the wicket keeper, Alan Knott, from my younger cricket-watching days.  One of the greatest keepers ever, if not the greatest, Knott remarked that wicket keepers were not made but born.  But, of course, I couldn't crush the student's goal by remarking that you are either a public intellectual or you are not. I gave a vague response that probably didn't say much.  If a student were to ask me that question now, I can at least point them to this short piece, in which the author takes a strong stance on the issue:
It isn’t a smart person; it is someone, precisely, who speaks of public issues to a public audience. Wilson et al. were not called “public” intellectuals, because the public part was taken for granted. The longer term was introduced by Russell Jacoby (in 1987—only 25 years ago) to differentiate the older type from those who had displaced it: professors. The problem is that professors have taken it over. The phrase has come to mean an academic who occasionally addresses a general audience, as if all academics were intellectuals, and some of them were also public ones. In fact, academics and intellectuals are antithetical types. An intellectual is not an expert, and a public intellectual is not an expert who condescends to speak to a wider audience about her area of expertise. An intellectual is a generalist, an autodidact, a thinker who wanders and speculates. As Jack Miles puts it in a stellar essay on the question, “It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual.”
I love that description of "years of undisciplined preparation."  I might never have come up with that phrasing, but that has exactly been my life until now.  Undisciplined preparation.  Well, it is that same approach in my cooking too!
The intellectual’s job is to think past the culture: to question the myths, metaphors, and assumptions that limit our collective imagination. The founder of the breed was Socrates. As Kazin also said, an intellectual is someone for whom ideas are “instruments of salvation.” Becoming one requires a little more than setting up a blog.

Engaging the public has been far more productive in terms of creating and sharing knowledge, than my formal scholarship can ever be.  I was cautioned against it a long time ago by one of my graduate school professors.  Jim Moore applauded my passion for this approach, but warned me that academia would care only about my formal academic inquiries, though they would certainly get jealous about any notoriety that I gained from my approach.  Jim was, and is, correct.  But, it would not be me, and not my life, if I did anything other than what I wanted to do.

The internet and the web have been a public intellectual's heaven.  I would think that there has never, ever, been a better time to be a public intellectual.  A few days ago, I came across a blog post, of course, on a conference at Notre Dame: Public intellectualism in a comparative context.  I am sure it had some wonderful discussions.

Every time I visit India, either explicitly or within me, I end up making that kind of a comparison.  For instance, the op-eds in the newspapers there are not the kind of the public intellectual discussions that I favor.  Often they are filled with jargon, written by experts and not by intellectuals.  The writings often seem to have an undertone of the specialist having decided that the ignorant public needs to be educated with his/her expert opinion.  As if the public policy issue would be solved, and solved easily, if and only if the public listened to that expert.  That does not strike me as the role of the intellectual at all.  Thus, when my father remarks that I should write pieces for the newspapers in India, I sing the same tune over and over again that my idea of opinion pieces is very different and that it does not work in India, it seems.

There is so much to talk about ... never has there been a better time.  Who cares if nobody is listening to me!


Ramesh said...

A "public intellectual" seems to be a rather forbidding person :)

Talk away. We're all listening. Only that if you become a public intellectual, we'll be scared of you. That is not going to stop me from ranting occasionally at you though :)

Sriram Khé said...

darn it, ramesh ... i thought you would be impressed with my quoting alan knott!!!
that's it--you are off my christmas card list :)

Ramesh said...

Indeed. So impressed that I was left speechless :)

Without a doubt he was one of the greatest wicket keepers of all time. Purists say Godfrey Evans was better, but I suspect that's just the oldies pining for their era.

Now, can I get back into your Diwali card list :)

Sriram Khé said...

You are back on every list I have ;)

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