The Next Intellectuals

Should there be a Ph.D. program for public intellectuals? The response to the news that one has been created has been knee-jerk and mocking. Playboy called it a “Hot Air Doctorate”; Camille Paglia declared in last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, “They’re going to groom people–what? To be me? That’s not the way to do it.” It’s true that the Public Intellectuals Program–didn’t anyone notice that the acronym is PIP?–offers its own butt up for the kicking. The courses for its 23 students could have been ripped out of a Modern Language Association catalog, circa 1995: There are classes on feminism, “new spiritualities,” environmentalism, postcolonialism, gender, race, media, dissidence, and, of course, pop culture. The host institution is Florida Atlantic University, an undistinguished university in Boca Raton evidently looking for an excuse to lure name-brand talent to its campus–and who would refuse a Florida gig, especially if they make it in, say, February?

The talent is name-brand–among the stars scheduled to shine there briefly at some point in the future are Harvard theologian Cornel West, Harvard philosopher Anthony Appiah, Parisian semiotician Julia Kristeva, feminist psychoanalytic critic Juliet Mitchell, and even, interestingly, that elegist of public intellectualism lost, Russell Jacoby, author of The Last Intellectuals–but all of them are of a political inclination (leftish) that has been losing the culture wars on campus of late. You can’t help wondering whether its graduates, trained in such ephemera as “Rhetoric and Principle,” as one of the core courses is called, will be able to hold their own in the substantially more conservative–and possibly more substantive–public arena. “If we roll our eyes,” wrote the Philadelphia Inquirer’s book critic Carlin Romano in an essay in the Chronicle,

it’s because we suspect that [F.A.U.’s] freshly minted public intellectuals will find themselves cerebrally all dressed up with no place to go. Can you imagine ‘the Boca Raton intellectuals’ exercising cultural clout in the national media, with profiles about them to follow in the Times? Don’t hold your breath.

But it’s not as if there’s anything wrong per se with a doctoral training program for public intellectuals. At its best, it would be an interesting graduate program of general studies.

The main problem with the F.A.U. program, it strikes Culturebox, is the name. It’s pretty presumptuous for any professor to declare his students “public intellectuals”; you would much rather they got their certification as such from someone else. Otherwise, the whole thing sounds harmless. For one thing, contrary to the popular wisdom, F.A.U. does not intend to turn out baby Paglias. The program director, Max Kirsch, claims, at least, that its students aren’t looking for fame: “They are looking for some engagement with the public.” Kirsch is using code, but what he means is that what he’s training his students to be are behind-the-scenes activists and organizers–what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called organic intellectuals. Gramsci believed that everybody, no matter what he does, participates in some kind of intellectual activity–is a philosopher or artist or person of taste, has a unique conception of the world and line of moral conduct, and therefore generates new ways of thinking. The job of people who actually call themselves intellectuals is to articulate such situational thought and put it to use for change. As Edward Said put it in some 1994 lectures on the subject:

Today’s advertising or public relations expert … would be considered an organic intellectual according to Gramsci, someone who in a democratic society tries to gain the consent of potential customers, win approval, marshal consumer or voter opinion. Gramsci believed that organic intellectuals are actively involved in society, that is, they constantly struggle to change minds and expand markets … are always on the move, on the make.

In short, you could view the Florida Atlantic program as a version of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, except it’s for left-wing activists rather than centrist politicians.

Moreover, the ideal of the public intellectual is no newfangled fad. “Organic intellectual” is not strictly identical with “public intellectual,” of course, and one wonders whether Russell Jacoby understands who exactly he’s signed up to teach, given his understanding of the term “public intellectual” (in The Last Intellectuals he defines it as one who writes with “vigor and clarity,” not as an activist or left-wing scholar). But the notion of the public intellectual is much older than that of, say, the gentlemen-scholar, whom no one sneers at, except perhaps organic intellectuals. Almost every philosophy or political tendency worth mentioning, from Plato on, has held in special esteem its version of the active thinker who puts his principles across well and thereby commands a wider public. We might think the idea is newer because of the phrase, which gained currency in recent years mainly because of Jacoby. In his book, Jacoby deplores what he characterizes as a sort of fall, from the Edenic condition of what he calls “classical American intellectuals” born at the turn of the century–Lewis Mumford, Dwight Macdonald, and, inevitably, Edmund Wilson–to the generation born after World War II, whose intellectuals, he claims, have all retreated into academia, where they have lost themselves in a thicket of specialized professional jargon.

Culturebox doesn’t exactly buy Jacoby’s argument that there are no public intellectuals left. If anything, there are too many–every bright young thing graduating from college these days feels compelled to publish his or her particular social critique, whether readable or not, and there is a small platoon of quasi-subsidized publishing companies (Free Press, Basic Books, Public Affairs Press, etc.) ready to print them. On the other hand, why should there be any limit to the number of baby public intellectuals out there? And why shouldn’t they be left-wing? Quite a few of the aforementioned junior pundits get money and support from right-wing think tanks, which are the moral and intellectual equivalent of the Florida Atlantic Public Intellectuals Program, if that. So, Culturebox says: Let a thousand flowers bloom.