The Public and the Intellectuals
Seeing and speaking beyond the academy

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Should all scholars consider themselves public intellectuals?

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.

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

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

"More guns, less crime."

Elegant in its brevity, this equation thrust University of Chicago economist John Lott into the media spotlight in 1997, when he argued in the Journal of Legal Studies that violent crime falls dramatically in states where people may legally carry concealed handguns. The following year, Lott's book by that compelling title led to appearances on the Today Show, CNN, and MSNBC.

Pro-gun groups seized upon Lott's analysis of violent crime statistics from three thousand US counties: finally, here was proof that gun-control legislation is not only unconstitutional but a public menace, as well. Politicians pushing for "right-to-carry" legislation espoused his findings. In response, some gun-control advocates heralded methodologically different studies that conflict with Lott's findings, while others insinuated that Lott was linked financially to the gun industry.

Then in May 1998, two Emory economists, Associate Professor Hashem Dezhbakhsh and Professor Paul H. Rubin, challenged Lott's research on its own terms. In an American Economic Review article, they argued that Lott's findings are suspect because of a methodological flaw. They reexamined the data with what they considered the proper method. They first corrected for Lott's assumption that the effect of concealed handgun laws would be identical everywhere, from New York City to rural Wyoming. Second, the two corrected the assumption that the number of people arrested does not depend on the number of crimes. "Arrest is a function of crime as well as law enforcement agencies' resources," explains Dezhbakhsh.

Once they had altered the method, Dezhbakhsh says, "We found that there are no significant reductions in crime as you allow concealed handguns. In fact, in some categories--robbery, for example--there was an increase."

Dezhbakhsh and Rubin's paper received praise in academic circles, but it was virtually ignored by the mainstream media. "The media responded to Lott's results because they ran counter to conventional wisdom," Dezhbakhsh says. "Our questioning him may have given the appearance of just another academic squabble."

Frustrated by the attention on Lott's work during the swell of mass shootings nationwide in the last several months, Dezhbakhsh decided to leap into the public fray. "I want to see if we can do some hustling," he says, explaining that he has drafted letters to two national newspapers about his and Rubin's response to Lott's work.

"If people are using this invalid work to push an agenda, we have an obligation."
Dezhbakhsh and Rubin's situation points to one facet of the problematic notion of the public intellectual. Some academics harbor deep ambivalence about the role. "I have not been eager to push this research into the public arena," says Dezhbakhsh, whose work until now has been mostly of interest to other statisticians and econometricians. "Reporters interpret it for themselves, that gets reinterpreted, and before you know it, your findings have changed completely."

The term "public intellectual" itself draws criticism. Some scholars say that all academics are public intellectuals by virtue of being part of the university, itself a massive public sphere. Others dismiss the term altogether. "It may be my small-town roots as a 'dumb country boy,' but I find the term 'public intellectual' pretentious," says Arthur Kellermann, director of the Center for Injury Control in public health and professor and chair of emergency medicine. Kellermann often serves as a scholarly voice in the media, addressing gun violence, injuries, and health care for the poor as public health problems.

"I consider myself an academic who is focused on real-world, policy-relevant issues. Whether due to interest or coincidence, many of the topics I address are in the public eye. Policy is made in public context, both directly by politicians, business leaders, and community groups, and indirectly through public pressure and expectations. Sound decisions can best be made on the basis of sound data."

Other Emory scholars voice more skepticism about the link between research and the public eye. Pulitzer Prize-winner and Presidential Distinguished Professor David Garrow, brought to Emory because of his role in national discussions ranging from education to politics, has written widely on Martin Luther King, Jr., the FBI, abortion politics, the U.S. Supreme Court, and right-to-die issues. He believes the temptations of publicity are "seducing" scholars away from the rigors of expertise.

"Is there such a thing as a public intellectual? Yes. Am I a public intellectual? Yes," says Garrow, whose essays appear frequently in the New York Times and the
Washington Post, among other mainstream publications. "I am not, however, by any means comfortable with the label. I am increasingly uneasy with the extent to which people in academia are becoming so invested in self-promotion. My fear is that we are creating an academic culture in which the commitment to precision and thoroughness is being dismissed or devalued at the expense of op-ed visibility."

Another Presidential Distinguished Professor, however, anthropologist and former Spelman College president Johnnetta Cole, embraces her role as a public intellectual and uses it to push for social change. "I consider it a term of distinction and a daunting responsibility," she says. "To be an anthropologist, to study the similarities and diversity of human nature, and not to advocate against systems of inequality makes no sense to me."

But Kellstadt Professor of Marketing Jagdish Sheth, whose marketing theories are familiar to business people as well as scholars, insists that advocacy is an inappropriate activity for a professor. "I've always believed that a professor should not be a preacher," says Sheth, whose remarks are part of a longer interview in this issue.

"Some of us don't know where those boundaries are. Advocacy is the place where I believe profesors must draw the line to say, the knowledge I've created is valuable to society. While I communicate as a public intellectual, somebody else can be the advocate."
A.O.A.