Join the discussion
all scholars consider themselves public intellectuals?
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.
can't say that everybody should be a public intellectual. People
are diversely gifted. That ought to be something we celebrate.
Johnson, Robert W. Woodruff Professor of New Testament and Christian
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
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
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
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
"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.