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Reviving the public intellectual.

The academic world has been in agony ever since Russell Jacoby blamed it a dozen years ago for the disappearance of freelance "public intellectuals" in the mold of Lewis Mumford and Edmund Wilson, unaffiliated thinkers who could speak with authority on a variety of public issues. "The missing intellectuals," he wrote in The Last Intellectuals (1987), "are lost in the universities," caught in the tender trap of tenure, overspecialization, and comfortable irrelevance.

So true! So true! wailed many academics. But what to do?

Now a Florida university has come up with the obvious solution: a new Ph.D. program. "The world's first doctoral program for public intellectuals is being launched in the reviving Renaissance atmosphere of South Florida, where Spanish influences are playing a major role in shaping the new artistic and intellectual life of America," says the announcement from Florida Atlantic University, in Boca Raton. The new doctoral program "will combine theoretical and concrete analysis, exploring historical, conceptual and practical relationships among areas such as public policy, mass media, literature, aesthetics, ethics, gender, culture and rhetoric."

But all of the laments about the disappearing public intellectual strike Carlin Romano, literary critic of the Philadelphia Inquirer, as absurd. The country already has plenty of potential members of the breed, able to comment intelligently on everything from the Balkans to the public schools. The problem, he asserts in the Chronicle of Higher Education (Feb. 19, 1999), is that they are ignored: the "'prestige' mass media do an appalling job of reporting and representing the flourishing intellectual culture of the United States." Culture editors simply "don't take the time to delve too deeply into academe."

The media settle for publicity intellectuals, known quantities who have either thrust themselves into the limelight by relentlessly faxing and phoning their views to editors and reporters or have schmoozed their way to prominence on the Upper West Side of Manhattan by forming contacts with writers and editors at the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the New York Review of Books. It is a "back-scratching ... system of favoring friends and neighbors that would draw damning editorials if run by politicians or businessmen," Romano argues. The very people complaining most loudly about the disappearance of public intellectuals are the ones keeping them in the shadows.

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Title Annotation:doctoral course for public intellectuals
Publication:The Wilson Quarterly
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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