January 2, 2005

Public intellectuals

In Favor of Thinking's commentary on Susan Sontag points out her role as a public intellectual. Is Sontag's death the end of an era? I suspect not, for several reasons?

First, there are already well-known public intellectuals who are as interesting as Sontag, more palatable than Mailer, less trite than Noam Chomsky, and who will outsurvive all of them. Second, there are others, waiting in the wings—perhaps among the many academic bloggers—who are public intellectuals but just not well-read. They will become so in the next few years. (No, not me—I suspect I'm destined to be recognized as a solid public mensch but no academic star. That's okay. I'll take well-earned local gravitas in the long run any day.)

But perhaps the most important reason for the survival of public intellectual life is that there will always be a demand for well-articulated, interesting writing on events and culture of the day. The reason why two of Michael Berube's books are in the top 100,000 sellers on Amazon.com this morning (as opposed to 400,000 and below) is partly because of his writing, but moreover because there are plenty of readers who are in search of good writing about interesting things. Not all academics will match those interests—and researchers should not in general worry about selling loads of books—but enough of them will always match the interests of voracious readers to provide a ground for public intellectuals.

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Posted in Academic freedom on January 2, 2005 2:02 AM |