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CAUT Bulletin Archives

September 2005

Consolations of a Semi-Private Intellectual

Jay Newman
Gilles Paquet, the affable president of the Royal Society of Canada, turned up a short while ago in Guelph for a rare regional meeting of the society, and in his hortatory comments stressed the immense cultural good the learned fellows of this venerable body could accomplish if they helped fill Canada’s need for "public intellectuals." Some senior fellows in attendance, several long retired, seemed more than a trifle jaded, but others were prepared to take Paquet’s challenge seriously.

Canadian scholars may well be under some obligation to make their voices heard in the mass media and not only in classrooms and at professional conferences, and may be all the more obliged if they find themselves being persistently critical of the low level of intellectual discourse in the public forum. Perhaps, as Paquet suggested, most of this country’s more learned and accomplished academics have not so much been disregarded and marginalized by those who control the public forum as they have been timid and half-hearted in their endeavours to be heard in the public forum.

Paquet is himself one of Canada’s foremost public intellectuals. Urbane, lively, fluent in both official languages, and knowledgeable about all sorts of practical matters that mass media executives consider of paramount social importance, Paquet is well suited for the role. The fact is, though, that few academics — or at least few of the more cerebral and erudite types in the ivory tower — have Paquet’s skills as a commentator.

On television and radio, and even when being quoted in the print media, university scholars far more often than not seem to be somewhat out of their depth, which after all should not be surprising when one considers that most scholars may indeed be too deep for the shallow waters of the mass media.

There was a time when I responded wholeheartedly to my university’s efforts to put my name before its media contacts as an "expert" on various ethical and cultural issues of the day. Though an effective classroom teacher and an animated and amusing conversationalist, I was not much of a success as a public intellectual, and I soon enough reflected that it would be wise for me to follow Socrates in avoiding public life and going instead "where I could do the greatest good privately" to those I aspire to serve.

Yet a professor cannot be a "private intellectual" even while declining to be a "public" one. A professor is not a private scholar but a teacher, and a dedicated and effective teacher not only enriches the lives of individual students but also the cultural life of several communities. A professor also devotes considerable time to the publication of ideas, that is, making public of ideas from which any number of people stand to benefit, even people in future generations who will not remember anything said by the celebrities paraded before us on popular talk shows.

I grant that I derived satisfaction from being seen and heard in the broadcast media by family and friends, and I acknowledge that my neighbours and local shopkeepers would never have realized I really am a somebody had it not been for my very brief career as a public intellectual. Still, I do not much miss dealing with media people. The last time I spoke on a CBC call-in show, a producer or technician informed me through my headphones that I was "doing fine but need to keep the answers shorter."

This pretty well summed up all my previous experiences in the mass media: to succeed in the mass media, one must do what broadcasters and journalists want and expect one to do. When serving politicians and business leaders in the public forum, one has to be prepared to be treated even more directly as an instrument in a project that is far from being essentially educational. But can one then be faithful to one’s vocation as a professor? Some undoubtedly can, but for me it was a struggle.

Perhaps my unease among media types and kindred figures in politics and business can be traced in part to my suspicion that José Ortega y Gasset was on to something when he proposed in Mission of the University that to the extent that the public forum is dominated by media people, it is ultimately controlled by those whose agenda is diametrically opposed to that of the authentic intellectual. I certainly took Marshall McLuhan seriously when in Understanding Media he posed the question, "Is not the essence of education civil defence against media fall-out"?

It is hard for me to believe journalists, broadcasters, and others involved in what they take to be the ameliorative shaping of public opinion are simply being dishonest with me when they insist they and their colleagues "rely" on the professoriate for information and insights. Moreover, Ortega y Gasset and McLuhan, two enormously influential public intellectuals, represent imposing examples of the academic intellectual who achieves extraordinary influence partly through the ability to use media people and the corresponding willingness to be used by them.

Lacking both their ability and their willingness, I cannot be very optimistic that some future scholar will take note of my own admonition that if academics are to be liberators in Plato’s cave, they must be wary not to be corrupted by the puppeteers in Plato’s cave. Plato himself, believing that intellectuals alone are suited to be guardians of the state, acknowledged that intellectuals need to learn to speak patiently and gently to the general public.

We see, however, from his sharp portrait of the Sophists that he had a keen understanding of how the intellectual’s commitment to public service can become contaminated by an unwholesome fascination with publicity and promotional public relations.

Jay Newman teaches philosophy at the University of Guelph and is author of such obscure scholarly works as The Journalist in Plato’s Cave and Inauthentic Culture and its Philosophical Critics.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of CAUT.