The fact that you have a Ph.D. — let alone that you teach at a good university — doesn’t make you an intellectual. Being an intellectual means, at the very least, that you can convey ideas in multiple media, thereby testifying to the very existence of ‘ideas’ as entities that transcend a particular medium of expression. In its backhanded way, the phrase ‘public intellectual’ concedes the point, as it desperately tries to reserve the term ‘intellectual’ for well-credentialed academics who talk about big issues but to audiences no larger than their classrooms.
Nevertheless, academics, as their degrees signal, are in the first instance experts in particular fields of knowledge, which means that they can say things that other like-credentialed people find sound and interesting, even when they don’t agree. This matters to the larger society only because the particular field of knowledge matters to the larger society. The media – which is the natural home for intellectual life – grasps this point perfectly. This is why when they’re putting together a story of any depth, they’ll ask, say, ‘Where can we find a sociologist?’ It doesn’t matter who the sociologist is, as long as they are reputable in the field. This is just the right way to think about the default position of academics vis-à-vis intellectual life.
Now, of course, some academics function in a more expansive and personal capacity in intellectual life. But can you name one who has not been censured for having done so, especially when their academic expertise gets dragged into public debates? An Einstein or Chomsky figure is quite rare, namely, someone whose prominence in their own fields is such that they are allowed to talk about things quite unrelated to their expertise. Usually academics who become intellectuals are, in some sense, leveraging their expertise without having received collegial approval. Richard Dawkins is an obvious case in point. What this shows is that academic disciplines are mainly in the business preserving the integrity of their knowledge base, and public enlightenment is something to be tried only in a low risk environment. Thus, the day that ‘peer review’ becomes totally demystified – be it by metrics-based replacement or some larger democratization process – the value of holding a degree in a particular academic field will disappear altogether. However, the value of holding an academic degree as such – say, in something quite generic like ‘liberal arts’ – will not disappear.
In light of the above, academics who are reluctant to become ‘public intellectuals’ (to use their preferred phrase) are prone to two complementary modes of fallacious reasoning, which together constitute misplaced modesty:
- I’m afraid of the impact that my words, even if correctly understood, might have on policy: Despite its surface modesty, this concern presupposes, rather arrogantly, that academic experts are given so much credit in a democratic society that the lives of millions hang on their every word. Of course, their words will be taken seriously, but only alongside other words uttered by experts and non-experts. So no excuse not to argue your case, given the opportunity!
- I’m afraid that my words will be misunderstood and spun in the wrong way: This is the flipside of the first fear. But really, if you want to exert such proprietary control over how your words are used, then you need to see your intervention as an opening move in a public conversation, in which you continue to participate by clarifying your position. Otherwise, you should be psychologically prepared to let others do what they will with what you say – in the spirit of a vendor who doesn’t fret over how the client uses his wares.
If I were a psychoanalyst, I would say that the fallacy of misplaced modesty reflects the passive-aggressive attitude that contemporary academics have towards democracy: They claim to love it but they are repulsed by the prospect of entering into it. Moreover, I think this neurosis is endemic to the postmodern condition, since as Allan Bloom notoriously alleged in The Closing of the American Mind, academics from the 1960s to his own day (the mid-1980s) were more than happy to promote quite specific anti-establishment agendas both inside and outside the classroom. Ah, the good old days!