I’m interviewed in the latest issue of a journal called Higher Education Exchange. Actually, David Brown conducted simultaneous email interviews of me and of Bob Kingston, a senior associate of the Kettering Foundation, and edited our comments together (with our help). I’m not sure how coherent the whole document is. I would summarize it as follows:
Bob admires “public intellectuals” who have broad interests, address crucial and current public issues, and reach large audiences. I admire those people too, although I think they are already well supplied and rewarded. Besides, Learned Hand had a point when he warned: “You cannot raise the standard against oppression, or leap into the breach to relieve injustice, and still keep an open mind to every disconcerting fact, or an open ear to the cold voice of doubt.” In other words, there’s a tradeoff between impact and intellectual rigor.
Therefore, I especially admire a different kind of “public intellectual,” one who gets deeply enmeshed in the work of institutions or communities, contributing his or her skills and knowledge but also constanrly learning from experience and feedback. Such scholars may never talk to large audiences about broad issues. On the contrary, my favorite “public intellectuals” are self-effacing, listeners rather than talkers; and they focus on relatively narrow or local issues because those are what concern people. Because they take the time to understand the complex details of local problems, they risk losing the chance for fame and influence.
By the way, these lists of famous “public intellectuals” are interesting. They do not include the kind I admire. (Thanks to Hellmut Lotz for the reference.)