THE PUBLIC AND THE INTELLECTUALS


You can't say that everybody should be a public intellectual. People are diversely gifted. That ought to be something we celebrate.
Luke Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins


Join the discussion
Should all scholars consider themselves public intellectuals?

The Public and the Intellectuals
Seeing and speaking beyond the academy

The intellectual and the bureaucracy
Is the intellectual necessarily an exile, marginal to the processes of culture and society? Excerpts from an Emory conference on Critical Conjunctions: Institutional Critique, Cultural Brokerage, and Cultural Display.

The inventors or discoverers of knowledge should be in the business of disseminating that knowledge.
Jagdish Sheth, Kellstadt Professor of Marketing

Rebuilding the "infostructure"
Technology transfer and the future of the university

Does your research concern Atlanta?

Further Reading
A University Decides That Its Ph.D.'s Should Be Able to Talk to Average Joes
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, October 8, 1999

The Uncertain Value of Training Public Intellectuals
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 1999

Do Academic Giants Still Walk the Earth?
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 10, 1999


Academic Exchange October/November 1999 Contents Page

Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian Origins Luke Johnson's 1996 book The Real Jesus led to features in the New York Times and on ABC, CBS, and CNN. Johnson also writes regularly for Commonweal, a Catholic intellectual journal, and other popular publications.

The Academic Exchange Do you consider yourself a public intellectual?

Professor Luke Johnson Only in the sense that I address matters of concern not distinct from, but beyond my academic specialization. I don't think a public intellectual is somebody who meddles, who has an opinion about everything. It ought to be someone speaking out of a particular area of deep and long study. I don't think one could be a public intellectual as a fresh Ph.D. One has to establish a certain round of work and then be willing to take on difficult and controverted issues.

I wrote The Real Jesus out of the worry that a group of scholars were doing bad history and bad theology in their attempts to document the literal existence of Jesus. I talked to university publicists about how to get media attention, because that had to be done. The Real Jesus had a public dimension which the media could serve up to a certain point, alerting people to the fact that there was another side to the issue.

I find it tremendously energizing and stimulating to write in this fashion, and it's important as part of the academic's social responsibility. It is the sort of intellectual discourse that can work to help society, whether it's the political world or economics, the church, medicine, or whatever.

AE What have you found to be the drawbacks of the role?

LJ How do you use the media without becoming a creature of the media? In the academy, there's a shared commitment to rules of discourse having to do with evidence, logic, having work subjected to scrutiny and critique by one's peers. In contrast, the media enables a kind of voyeuristic participation in such discussions, disconnected from any commitments. It is incapable of going into any depth or any sustained conversation. In the realm of humanities and especially in religion and theology, where ideas are connected to existential commitments, participating in talking-heads programs and publications is problematic because of the
very nature of the medium. It is ephemeral by definition. Nothing lasts more than a day. It consists almost entirely of sound-bites.

AE How can a public intellectual avoid those downfalls?

LJ First, by writing on subjects that have a genuine degree of importance and interest to an audience larger than one's own guild. Second, by writing plainly, using ordinary English. When academics tend to be understood only by a
few other academics, this condemns even the best insights to a kind of hermetic existence. Third, by using venues that are genuinely public. Academics sometimes tend to frown on public display, but I think it's important to contribute to the realm of public persuasion.

I have also spent many years laying down a track of highly technical work that is credible as scholarship. From the start I wrote both "technical" and "popular" works. It's an extremely difficult point, though, because it pertains to things like tenure. We need to look carefully at the difference between the mediafication of ideas, a form of pandering and demagoguery, and real public scholarship.

AE Do you think all scholars ought to be public intellectuals?

LJ You can't say that everybody should be a public intellectual. People are diversely gifted. That ought to be something we celebrate. I like to put it in terms of the university. The university, I think, clearly has a public responsibility not simply to create knowledge through research, but to contribute to the growth and knowledge of the populace. We do this primarily through teaching. To me, the classroom is the most powerful place on earth. Who could imagine this is not being a public intellectual if you're genuinely a great teacher? Especially in a professional school, in which people are taking your words from the classroom and using them next year or even next week.

Society's demands should not totally control the development
of the university, however. At one extreme, for example, you have
scientists in their own ideal world, where they just pursue knowledge that becomes ever more esoteric and unavailable. The other extreme is that they do whatever society wants, and the university loses its critical edge and basically creates weapons or pesticides or Pepsodent. How to find the healthy tension in which the sharing of knowledge is also part of the creating of knowledge? Then the conversation is not simply a matter of enriching the public but also eliciting from the public insights that the academy itself needs.