The Call for Public Intellectuals
I had the privilege of speaking last week to a gathering of the entire faculty and staff at Colorado Christian University (a terrific school with an on-target new president) on the importance of developing a mind for God.
I ended with what might seem like a surprising challenge: don’t be academics! Or, more to the point, don’t just be academics.
In his seminal book The Last Intellectuals, Russell Jacoby coined the term “public intellectual.” He used the term to lament the lack of such individuals—how younger intellectuals had given themselves over to professionalization and academization. Unlike earlier intellectuals who tended to write for the educated public, Jacoby observed that thinkers in his day flocked to the universities where “the politics of tenure loom larger than the politics of culture.” Jacoby contended that younger intellectuals became professors who geared their work toward their colleagues and specialized journals.
In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, reflecting on the heart of his original thesis on its 20th anniversary, Jacoby wrote that, “The new thinkers became academic – not public – intellectuals, with little purchase outside professional circles.” Or, as he wrote in his original work, “Campuses are their homes; colleagues their audience; monographs and specialized journals their media.”
“Big brains, small impact.”
Now, Jacoby had then – as now – his fair share of critics, mostly coming from academia (not surprising). He has been accused of prizing an anti-intellectual simplicity.
But as I told my fellow academics, I think he has a very important point to make. We need public intellectuals! Men and women who are neither anti-academic nor purely commercial. Scholars who engage the rigors of the academy, but refuse to bow down before its altar and become academics alone.
My concern is that evangelicals are increasingly polarizing between a populist camp or a purely academic camp. The populist camp is atheological and devoid of any semblance of a Christian mind, often led by charismatic speakers who enter their pulpits armed with a few out-of-context verses slapped on to a manuscript that could have been copied from the musings of Oprah.
This has been widely condemned, and rightly so.
But less critiqued are those in the purely academic camp. I remember attending an annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, and writing down the names of some of the papers that were presented, such as:
“The 16th Century Basel City Council”
“Isaiah’s Leviathan in His Near Eastern Context”
“The Story of the Bulgarian Bible”
“Aristotelian Anthropology and Melanchthon’s Shift on Free Will”
“The Sixth Century Debate over the Shape of the Earth”
“Jesus and Jewish Menstruation Traditions.”
Yes, there were many good and noteworthy addresses. But let the point at least be entertained: academization can be as vacuous as commodification. We need the middle-ground of the public intellectual.
Consider the greatest apologist for the Christian faith of the 20th century and its most influential intellectual. He was an academic, but it wasn’t the academy that gave him influence. In fact, C.S. Lewis was discounted by his fellow academicians first for his less than serious focus of study. As Alan Jacobs has noted, when Lewis began his career as an English literature don he was entering a field that was quite popular among students but highly suspect among other dons, almost like pop culture programs in today’s universities. Not to mention his effort to write popularly for mass consumption.
It didn’t help that what he was attempting to popularize was Christianity.
Jacobs writes that it began to be “said regularly that Lewis was wasting his time on cheap popular sermonizing and science fiction, time that would have been better spent on scholarship.” It is not that Lewis was not an able academic—just read his book Poetry and Prose in the Sixteenth Century. But in many ways, that is the point. How many people know that this work, considered by many the greatest of all of Lewis’ academic writings, even exists?
Lewis’ brilliance lay in the popular communication of ideas, which can be argued is the work of the academy at its most impactful. And this was very intentional on his part. In one of his letters, this one to a priest who wanted Lewis to write a book commending Christianity to the “workers,” Lewis offers the following:
“People praise me as a ‘translator,’ but what I want is to be the founder of a school of ‘translation.’ I am nearly forty-seven. Where are my successors? Anyone can learn to do it if they wish... I feel I’m talking rather like a tutor—forgive me. But it is just a technique and I’m desperately anxious to see it widely learned.”
We need more translators, which means we need more public intellectuals. This doesn’t mean fewer academics,
… but it might mean fewer who are academics alone.
James Emery White
Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals.
Alan Jacobs, The Narnian.
About the Author
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.