Universities should not swat the public intellectual gadfly


I have been in the academic equivalent of the Priory detox clinic for some time now.

The turning point came when I came across The Last Intellectuals by American historian Russell Jacoby. Published in 1987, this sharp, sometimes ironic and often scornful paean to the disappearing public intellectual not only changed my scholarly interests but also began a stuttering reappraisal of my entire professional aspiration.

Jacoby is pessimistic about the extent to which universities are conducive environments for public intellectuals. In the 20th century, he writes, newly established and expanding universities induced thinkers to swap the cafe for the common room in their droves. But this has led to what Jacoby calls “a withdrawal of intellectual energy from a larger domain to a narrower discipline”, namely the sacrifice of readable, general-audience polemics for papers written for fellow specialists.

Those intellectuals who haven’t been sucked into the academy have been professionalised in other ways, principally by joining the media. Indeed, in the UK, several academics have themselves become major media figures; the higher brow end of BBC television programming, for instance, is replete with academic presenters better acquainted with TV crews and agents than with undergraduates and research students. Take Alice Roberts, who was pursuing a research career in anatomy until television and medieval burial sites beckoned. Her media role was recognised in 2012 with a professorship in the public engagement in science at the University of Birmingham.

However, figures like Roberts – as well as Cambridge classicist Mary Beard, Columbia historian Simon Schama or Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy – are more than mere presenters, according to Jonty Claypole, the BBC’s outgoing director of arts. They are genuine public intellectuals, in the sense that they offer a public service, opening up obscure worlds of learning to the public.

Such figures rarely confine themselves to popularising their own disciplines, of course. Once you are a celebrity edutainer, you have licence to speak on any subject that takes your fancy – and the offers just keep coming. Schama writes recipes for men’s magazine GQ. Beard does fashion shoots. What next? Rockstar physicist Brian Cox doing horoscopes? The rise of the latter-day media don debunks Stanley Fish’s aphorism about academics’ tendency towards self-abasement: “Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch, they don’t care whose shit they eat.” That should now be rephrased as: “Academics like to serve up shit, and in a pinch, they don’t care whose shit they serve.”

Still, these figures remain primarily known for their home disciplines, and it is on these that they are taken most seriously. And as the political theorist Jeremy Jennings notes, the romantic figure of the universal intellectual has been eclipsed more widely by “experts” in specific fields.

France – whose public sphere was once dominated by true polymaths like Sartre and Camus – is a good example. While Bernard-Henri Levy, the nouveaux philosopher with the matinée-idol looks, continues to offer his provocative views on anything and everything, he believes that the French public intellectual, who “emerged at Paris during the Dreyfus Affair, died at Paris at the end of the twentieth century”.

France’s best known “intellectual” today is the economist Thomas Piketty, whose 2013 book on inequality, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, was a global non-fiction bestseller. But his relatively high name recognition is the exception rather than the rule; most experts are not household names even in their own households. Still, if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that – contrary to what UK politician Michael Gove claimed during the Brexit campaign – the public has not had enough of experts. The likes of Anthony Fauci, chief medical adviser to the US president, and Chris Whitty, the UK’s chief medical officer, have come across as the sensible adults in a room full of cosplay characters.

Experts can use their know-how to speak technocratic truths to power – see Stanford economist Erik Brynjolfsson’s clinical shredding of billionaire Michael Dell over taxation at the World Economic Forum in 2019. But academics who become policy power brokers themselves frequently have to bite their tongues – rather than biting their masters, in the tradition of the Socratic gadfly. It also turns out that the master can bite the gadfly; just ask Imperial College London epidemiologist Neil Ferguson, who was forced to resign from the UK government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) after infringing lockdown rules in circumstances that earned the front pages of tabloid newspapers.

It’s worth recalling the late Edward Said’s Reith Lectures on the representation of the intellectual. For Said, the stamp of the public intellectual is an absence of friends in high places or official honours. Nor, of course, should such figures prioritise specialist publications over public-facing ones. But in the careerist milieu of modern academe, such an approach is likely to be as costly as it was in 18th-century France, when Voltaire warned the “isolated scholar”: “Compose odes in praise of Lord Superbus Fatus…and you will be well received. Enlighten men, and you will be crushed.”

Of course, Socrates himself knew that, too, executed as he was for corrupting the minds of Athenian youth. But must we really require his modern descendants to drink professional hemlock? Among today’s publicly facing academics, can we not make room for the outsider – the independent voice from the wilderness – to exist alongside the edutainer and the policy expert?

If universities’ purpose is to educate, doesn’t the free-thinking devil’s advocate have a role to play in that?

Author Bio: Michael Marinetto is a Senior Lecturer in Management at Cardiff Business School.