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all scholars consider themselves public intellectuals?
Public and the Intellectuals
and speaking beyond the academy
intellectual and the bureaucracy
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.
inventors or discoverers of knowledge should be in the business
of disseminating that knowledge.
Sheth, Kellstadt Professor of Marketing
transfer and the future of the university
your research concern Atlanta?
University Decides That Its Ph.D.'s Should Be Able to Talk to
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, October 8, 1999
The Uncertain Value of Training
From the Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24,
Do Academic Giants Still Walk
From the Chronicle of
Higher Education, September 10, 1999
Academic Exchange October/November
1999 Contents Page
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.
Exchange Do you consider yourself
a public intellectual?
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.
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
very nature of the medium. It is ephemeral by definition. Nothing
lasts more than a day. It consists almost entirely of sound-bites.
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.
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
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