Monday, May 18, 2009

public intellectuals

Today's Inside Higher Ed newsletter published a story about Boyce Watkins, a finance prof at Syracuse who has had a feud with Bill O'Reilly, over some fairly stupid comments by O'Reilly. Apparently, Watkins is a bit of a firebrand. He's also a self-styled "public intellectual."

I believe randomly, this phrase has crossed my path a few times recently, which is a few more times than it usually does. During the last three weeks of sessions, the Cow State Santa Claus academic senate heard a resolution in support of Tom Ammiano's bill legalizing marijuana in California. During the debate over the resolution a couple faculty argued that the senate had no business considering the issue, but they were countered by an unchallenged claim that such matters are the business of the senate, because faculty are public intellectuals with the privilege and duty to speak on matters of public concern.

I don't seriously doubt faculty have the right, as individuals, to speak publicly, in any forum they like, about any issue they like, expressing any view they like. I also agree with the implicit premise that faculty have expertise and ability to think rationally and clarify and articulate issues in ways that could be a boon to the level of public discourse. I do wonder about this public intellectual business, though.

For one thing, there isn't much of a tradition in the US of public intellectualism. The fact that one of Watkins' credentials as a public intellectual is that he has appeared on O'Reilly's show suggests something about how much weight we give to public intellectuals. Their cultural currency doesn't have a high exchange rate.

Watkins' tenure battle might also indicate that those who stake a claim to being public intellectuals aren't terribly well regarded by their colleagues or their institutions. This is dicier, because it isn't so much his being a public figure that's at stake here, as the tone of the nonsense with O'Reilly, and, apparently, his use of the phrase "magic Negro." In the article, Watkins says, "The rules of academia change when you are part of a powerless group." True, and no one knows this better than the 70%+ of college faculty in the US who are not on the tenure track. It's hard to imagine a large number of my part-time and job-security-less colleagues experiencing the privilege and duty to speak publicly about anything. They probably wouldn't be recognized as intellectuals in the first place.

I'm not saying this is the fault of tenured faculty whose privilege it is to determine who has this privilege, what it means, and what legitimately can be done with it. It is largely their fault, but that's not my point. My point is that this ideological self-conception grossly overestimates faculty's political authority, where it doesn't misconstrue public intellectualism as speaking as an expert in a particular, narrow field of specialization. Other than the alleged effect on his candidacy for tenure at Syracuse (and other than the firing of Ward Churchill, to cite another example), it profoundly doesn't matter what the public intellectual says.

(The academic senate passed the resolution in support of the marijuana bill. No word yet on whether, as one faculty senator put it, the local community now regards us as a bunch of pot-heads.)

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