The Arc Of The “Public Intellectual”
I’ve long been fascinated by the concept of the “public intellectual.” I view this person as embodying two characteristics: first, an intellectual, as measured by scholarship; second, a public-facing scholar, as measured by media exposure. Generally, the press will not give an opportunity to a scholar unless she has already achieved a threshold level of scholarship. However, a person who achieves “public intellectual” status will invariably see a dip in scholarship, even if the media machine continues to churn.
The arc of a public intellectual’s career can be represented on a graph. On the x-axis is scholarship. On the y-axis is media exposure.
The overwhelming majority of scholars never even make it onto the curve. Their work, while important for the literature, may not have resonance in public discourse. And for good reason. The best scholarship focuses on ideas for the sake of ideas, not based on what gets the most clicks. Moreover, most professors choose not to do media. It is time-consuming, and seldom contributes to a scholarly agenda. Professors can choose many other forms of service.
Some professors will gravitate–by chance or by choice–towards scholarship that touches on the zeitgeist. And if their publications meet some threshold of quality, the media calls will begin. I refer to this area as Zone I. Here, a professor’s greatest contribution is still to the literature, but she is increasingly called upon to speak to the press. Scholars may spend their entire careers in Zone I: publish
Article from Reason.com