Academics as Public Intellectuals

I consider myself very lucky to be working alongside academics on a college campus, and not for the reasons one might think. True, I am grateful for a fulfilling job in a difficult economy, but I’m lucky because I frequently find myself in rich conversations with critical thinkers about important topics of the day. I am not a scholar, but I can attest that scholars have a lot to offer the general public.

In the past, we could rely on professional mainstream journalists to analyze and disseminate accurate, authoritative information. Those journalists are now few and far between, and certainly not in the mainstream anymore. I realize it is not the responsibility of scholars to fill this particular void, but I’ll make a case for it anyway. Anti-intellectuals in the general public view academics as ivory tower elitists, out of touch with the average Joe. I don’t think that is a fair assessment, but I do understand why that sentiment exists. Scholars typically prefer the company of other scholars and are skeptical of the democratic mediums (i.e. blogs or other sites) that invite participation from anyone. Peer review is the preferred method of communication and collaboration. I would not argue against the scholarly peer review process, but is there any reason we shouldn’t also encourage more academic participation in public discourse?

Australia has found a way to do both. Take a look at The Conversation and its tag lines, like: Academic rigor, journalistic flair and From the curious to the serious. Below is their charter (from the website):

We will:

  • Give experts a greater voice in shaping scientific, cultural and intellectual agendas by providing a trusted platform that values and promotes new thinking and evidence-based research.
  • Unlock the knowledge and expertise of researchers and academics to provide the public with clarity and insight into society’s biggest problems.
  • Create an open site for people around the world to share best practices and collaborate on developing smart, sustainable solutions.
  • Provide a fact-based and editorially-independent forum, free of commercial or political bias.
  • Ensure the site’s integrity by only obtaining non-partisan sponsorship from education, government and private partners. Any advertising will be relevant and non-obtrusive.
  • Ensure quality, diverse and intelligible content reaches the widest possible audience by employing experienced editors to curate the site.
  • Support and foster academic freedom to conduct research, teach, write and publish.
  • Work with our academic, business and government partners and our advisory board to ensure we are operating for the public good.”

I’ve heard arguments against this kind of participation as “cheapening” scholarly work. I don’t believe the life of the mind and public intellectualism are mutually exclusive. On the contrary, I think they can be mutually beneficial. Increasingly, higher education institutions are being asked to justify their place in society. Participation in public discourse seems to me a great way for educators to convince the general public of the importance of scholarship. I am convinced we need them now more than ever. If everyone else could join in these great campus conversations, I have no doubt the rationale for academia would be obvious to all.



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