Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower

About this Episode

Guests
Stanley Fish, Thomas Sugrue, Peter Mansoor, Jessica Adler

Given all the furor about the role of academics in public life—a debate taking place in The Atlantic, Politico, and The New York Times among other places—History Talk naturally wanted to dive headfirst into the topic. We tracked four well-regarded academics who might be labeled “public intellectuals” to get their thoughts on the issue. This episode of History Talk features Professors Stanley Fish, Thomas Sugrue, Peter Mansoor, and Jessica Adler. Each interview segment provides an important piece of the larger puzzle to understanding the public intellectual in today’s world. (And don’t forgot to pop over to our Connecting History blog to read four responses from the next generation of historians from Ohio State.)

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Cite this Site

Leticia R. Wiggins, Patrick R. Potyondy , "Reaching Beyond the Ivory Tower" , Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective
March, 2014
https://origins.osu.edu/historytalk/reaching-beyond-ivory-tower?language_content_entity=en.
March, 2014

Transcript

Patrick Potyondy 

Welcome to History Talk, the history podcast for everyone, produced by Origins: Current Events in Historical Perspective. This is your cohost, Patrick Potyondy. And our topic today is what does it mean to be a public intellectual? For those who read the Atlantic, The New York Times or Politico recently, this has been the topic du jour of late.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Hello, and this is your other cohost Leticia Wiggins. So first, I read a piece by Nicholas Kristof when he took up the topic in the New York Times writing, Professors We Need You." So he claimed academics were not doing enough to engage and shape the public sphere. The Facebook pages of graduate students here at Ohio State's history department blew up in response. In the week afterward The Times printed a string of letters from prominent academics who took issue with Kristof. So I thought this was a great topic to explore for today's show.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so then in January, Ta-Nehisi Coats, a writer for The Atlantic, called Melissa Harris Perry quote, "America's foremost public intellectual." Almost immediately Dylan Byers, the political, responded via Twitter and then his blog by question Coates' quote quote, "intellectual cred."

 

Leticia Wiggins 

So our show today takes on this tangled topic. We're asking academics, public intellectuals and a few who straddle both worlds just what is a public intellectual anyway. We'll also explore the ways academics engage with the public from teaching, to writing for a popular audience. We'll even question the value of public intellectual ideal itself. So stay tuned. Patrick spoke to our first guest via phone about academics and the label of the public intellectual.

 

Stanley Fish 

Hi, my name is Stanley Fish, and I am a professor of law, both at Cardozo Law School in New York, and at Florida International University Law School in Miami.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

All right, Professor Fish. Thank you for joining us today on History Talk. Let's jump right to it. How do you define a public intellectual?

 

Stanley Fish 

Well, I think that my definition of a public intellectual would be largely negative because there is no school which you might go in order to become one. There are no certificates of validation that identify you as one. There are no courses of becoming a public intellectual. So I guess I'd give a definition like this. Someone is a public intellectual if he or she, somehow by any number of routes, comes to the notice of the public in a way that makes him or her the possible repository of wisdom, or at least of insight on many topics.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Do you see that wisdom, as you call it? Do you see that is kind of different from something along the lines of expertise?

 

Stanley Fish 

Well, I think that public intellectuals, insofar as they constitute a population, are regarded as having expertise. Insofar as those who are identified as public intellectuals come from the academy, it's impossible for them to have the range of expertise that is implied by the number of topics they're willing to talk about. Because one of the things that marks a public intellectual is someone who is not simply an expert in a narrow area of let's say, academic studying, but someone who has the authority somehow. And that, of course, is the question. Where does this authority come from, to pronounce on many matters, not only across a range of academic disciplines, but across a range of problems that are facing the world in general.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so building on that idea what made you pursue a professional path that included work as a public intellectual?

 

Stanley Fish 

Oh, of course, I did not. Public intellectualism, if I may commit a barbarism. Public intellectualism is an accidental occupation. You don't aspire to it because there are no steps by which you could succeed and be recognized in some official way. It just happens to you, or it doesn't.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

I see. And so, the debate, given the debate that's been going on about public intellectuals and the New York Times and the Atlantic, among other places, do you believe that academics do enough to engage the broader public?

 

Stanley Fish 

Depending on whether you're asking the question from the point of view of the Academy, but from the point of view of the general good of the public. From the point of view of the general good of the public, it would probably be useful if more academics, paid attention to current affairs and made themselves available for commentary. But if in fact, you are an academic whose interest largely in pursuing your disciplinary subject, then I believe you have no obligation whatsoever to become someone who comments on matters in public forum.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Have you found your work with, with engaging the broader public rewarding?

 

Stanley Fish 

Yes, I have. That is, it moves me to a kind of writing that is not the kind of writing I usually engage in. It puts me in touch with a number of, a large number of persons who respond instantly to what I'm writing. When I write, for example, in the New York Times, whereas as you know, when you publish an academic book, it will be year after you have submitted the book before it is published. It'll be another year or a year and a half, before you begin to see any reviews. Whereas when I wrote a column for the New York Times, and it came out on Tuesday morning, by late Tuesday afternoon, I could have anywhere from 200 to 400 comments, and many more, as the Times calls them hits on its website.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

And so just to wrap up, do you have anything else you'd like to add before we end?

 

Stanley Fish 

If I could be autobiographical for a moment.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Of course.

 

Stanley Fish 

 What I became what some people call a public intellectual, it's never an identification that I would name for mine. I became a public intellectual in some people's eyes, because of the culture wars, because I spoke out at a certain moment when I was at Duke University, and made some remarks relative to the culture wars that were picked up by the media. That then led me to be invited to appear on some radio and TV programs, where those culture war issues were then being debated. And once you get into the Rolodex, of course, there are no more Rolodexes, but once you get into what used to be the Rolodex of media outlets, news programs, you are there forever. And you can be confident that someone will be calling you up to solicit your opinion. But again, it was all accidental. That's the point that I really want to emphasize. It was all accidental. It just happened to me and it could have just as easily not happened to me. And it could have just as easily happened to 1000 other people.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Once again, Professor Fish, thank you for coming on the show.

 

Stanley Fish 

Thank you.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Leticia caught up with our second guest, again by phone, for a lively conversation.

 

Thomas Sugrue 

My name is Thomas Sugrue. I'm Professor of History and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania where I also direct the Pen Social Science and Policy Forum. I'm a historian of 20th century United States. I work on Urban history, public policy, political history, the history of civil rights.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

We're going to start straight off the bat with a question. How do you define a public intellectual?

 

Thomas Sugrue 

A publicly intellectual is a term that I think need to be defined fairly broadly. But I would include under that rubric, academics or writers, folks who are involved in the life of the mind, who make it a high commitment to engage the general public with the work that they're doing, to reach out through any variety of different media through the press by doing interviews, by writing for a general audience, for speaking to the general public, for working for organizations that present scholarship to an accessible way to wider audiences, whether that be to museums or to community organizations. I would also put under that rubric, intellectuals who use their skills or expertise to assist social movements or organizations working for social or political change or engaging in the political process.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Do you believe that academics do enough to engage the broader public? And you note this in your letter to the editor, I think was written in response to the Nicholas Kristof piece in The New York Times. But why do you think others aren't necessarily seeing these scholarly contributions that you were able to so clearly define?

 

Thomas Sugrue 

Well, I think Nicholas Kristof has a very narrow definition of public intellectual that is, he's looking to a handful of mostly well-connected white male intellectuals who were serving like Arthur Schlesinger as a, you know, a kind of a court historian to the Kennedy administration, or intellectuals like say Irving Howe, who reached a wide audience and was involved in the creation and expansion of descent magazine. I mean, they're the quintessential public intellectuals. There are lots of ways of being a public intellectual and running a little magazine, or whispering into the ear of the president are small subset of the dozens and dozens of academics. I mean, I could give you a long list of folks who are involved in working with prisoners, giving TED Talks, speaking to community organizations, testifying before Congress, serving as expert witnesses in court cases, working for museums. Those are just a few, you know, the really the tip of the iceberg.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Looking online when we were trying to formulate this show, to see who considers who the top public intellectuals, there is this piece, I think, from foreign policy listing about 20, public intellectuals and hardly any were listed as women, and to have an evenness of perspective and voice on the show, it's really been difficult to contact women and some of those who have contacted cited ambition gap in a way and I didn't know if you had any comment on this. Or if you'd say with your broader definition, we can encapsulate more women or minorities or different activists under this public intellectual category?

 

Thomas Sugrue 

Oh, I think there are a lot of women who are working as public intellectuals in the way that I defined. I mean, I can just I can think of a few. Heather Thompson, who works on prison and incarceration and its history is writing a book on Attica right now, but she speaks all the time to community organizations, to public groups, to general audiences. Or I think of Lisa Levenstein, at the University of North Carolina Greensboro, who's been very active in providing intellectual support for the folks who are challenging the North Carolina's laws regarding welfare and work and I can think of Eileen Boris and Jennifer Kline, Eileen, is at Santa Barbara, Jennifer is at Yale, both of whom have written for general audiences about care work and about women working in the insecure private sector. They're all stepping into some of the most important debates in the country.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

So looking at those who kind of reach out to the community, and then also those who do write for other scholars, that knowledge advances when scholars write for other scholars. So I'm trying to think if there's a way to write for other scholars, but also the broader public or if that's necessary, if it's okay to say that an intellectual can be an intellectual for the intellectual sake?

 

Thomas Sugrue 

Well, I think it's important to present detailed research, specialized scholarship to audiences of specialists, because  a lot of what professors do, even in fields that seem to have direct application to current problems like medicine or biological sciences, you know, are still highly technical and aren't necessarily in the first case going to be accessible to the general public. But there are all sorts of ways that we can present our work to a wider audience. Many of us who teach, for example, are presenting a distillation of our scholarships to our students. Many folks, especially in my subfield of 20th century US history, write op eds, or many of us speak to church groups, neighborhood organizations, and present our findings in a much more accessible way, almost like we're teaching to a general public rather than simply talking to each other at our disciplines, conferences. So I think there are all sorts of ways that you can be faithful to the rigor, the detail, the specificity and the specialization of your scholarship, but also make it accessible.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Before we end is there anything else you'd like to add or advice for those who want to do their best and are looking to be a public intellectual?

 

Thomas Sugrue 

I think if you're a young academic and you're looking to get tenure institution, you do have to balance the demands of your department and your scholarly production with your reaching out to a wider audience. But I don't see any reason why you can't begin even at an early stage in your career to do both. So long as you don't cross over and spend too much time writing for a general public and lose sight of what your university requires. I think more and more of us, especially mid-career and younger scholars, are sympathetic to folks coming up through the tenure pipeline who want their scholarship to be relevant and want to engage the world beyond the academy and speaking for myself. If you do first rate scholarship and you engage the world, that would be a plus factor, if I were on your tenure committee,

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Leticia was all over this episode. So she traveled to the office of well-known military historian, an academic at Ohio State, who regularly engages the public via several platforms.

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

I'm Professor Peter Mansoor, the General Raymond E Mason, Jr Chair of military history at The Ohio State University.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Thank you for joining us today, Dr. Mansoor. And if I just made kind of start right off the bat with a question that really started us looking at this show or thinking about this show is how would you define a public intellectual?

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

I think a public intellectual is someone who engages people in a manner that can be readily understood by a generally informed audience, but not necessarily specialists in any given field.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

With this definition, would you consider yourself to be then, a public intellectual?

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

Yes, actually, I engage the American people in a variety of ways in print, on radio. And so I have obviously, specialty areas and military history and the military affairs given my army background, but I try to do so when I speak to the public or write for the public in ways that the American people can understand,

 

Leticia Wiggins 

is there a special thing you keep in mind when you're going through and writing for this general public?

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

Well, you have to put yourself in, in the, in the shoes of the reader or the listener. I love the scene from the movie Armageddon, for instance, this is an old movie, but you know their saving the world. They're on this, this asteroid is heading for the planet and the NASA scientists are meeting with the President. And the President asked a question, he goes, well, how, how large is it? And the NASA scientist starts talking about how many square kilometers and how much weight and this and that is clearly not getting through the director of NASA and interrupts he goes, Mr. President, it's the size of Texas. That's, that's the difference between an academic specialist and a public intellectual.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And kind of moving back into this, this engagement with the public. So you were recently on Reddit AMA, would you mind telling a little bit about what that is and then your experience doing that?

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

Well, Reddit is a website that is very popular especially with young people and they call themselves the front page of the internet. Anyone can post things on Reddit, and then they get up and down voted but they have this special arrangement called Ask Me Anything or AMA. You can do one just on your own but it's best to arrange one ahead of time if you have some sort of appeal to the audience and I wrote in and at my kids urging and they said dad you need to do an AMA so I said what's that? And I learned about, I read some of them they're archived you know, Bill Gates has done one in the past and Barrack Obama, various other people. So I arranged one and it basically started off I'm Colonel retired Peter R. Mansoor, formerly executive officer to General David Petraeus, in Iraq during the surge of 2007-2008. And now a professor of military history at The Ohio State University. Ask me anything. People started posting questions and I started typing in answers. Now normally AMAs  go for about two hours. But I went ahead and did it for about eight hours. So I had a very thorough interchange of ideas with the people who wrote in there were far more questions than I could answer. I mean, it's amazing the number of people who write in. People up and down vote these questions. And the more popular ones then go higher on the website. And those are the ones that you want to address and they range, they ranged everywhere from what I think about the Iraq war to you know, what do I think about Edward Snowden and the NSA revelations, to what's my best life advice to to young people and, you know, it was it was it was pretty entertaining, actually.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

With those exchanges, you said you had this range of questions. Did you kind of learn also from these different dialogues that were going on?

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

I learned what interests many young people today just by the questions they asked and on some of them, they were terribly ill-informed, on others they were as well-informed or better than me.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Do you think your military background blends in different aspect to your role, I guess as a public intellectual?

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

It does. The various media outlets that have me on say, how do you want to be identified? And my standard answer is Colonel retired Peter Mansoor, formerly executive officer to General David Petraeus during the Iraq war, and now a professor of military history at The Ohio State University. So I have this sort of unique double identity as a professor and as a long serving military officer with experience at the various high highest levels of making military policy and strategy and, and that has allowed me to talk about not just military history, which is my academic field, but to talk about current events. And what I've been told by the media is they like having me on because not only do I have the expertise, but I can put things into terms that the American people can understand rather than speaking in army EES or military jargon.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Public intellectual, very few people, I think, use that title when saying, well, what do you do? I'm a public intellectual. And I wonder if it's kind of a dead term or?

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

I think, well, very few people use it, because very few people are public intellectuals. Most university professors cannot identify themselves as a public intellectual, just because they don't play in that arena.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And should they?

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

 Well, that was the whole purpose of the piece.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

That's the whole purpose of the piece, right?

 

Dr. Peter Mansoor 

That America needs the voices of its most educated and talented people speaking up on public issues and for a variety of reasons, they often don't. You know, one it's work and, and two sometimes, even if they put work into an op ed or something like that, it doesn't get published, because they don't have the gravitas in the American mainstream press to get noticed. But on the other hand, you know, you got to try. You can't win unless you try. And, you know, you can't play unless you're in the arena. You know, that's what I would just say that I kind of agreed with his piece, that we do need more voices from academia speaking out on issues of the present day.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

And then our final segment, Patrick interviewed a historian who recently earned her PhD and has already been engaging the public sphere left and right.

 

Jessica Adler 

 I'm Jessica Adler, currently a visiting researcher at Tufts University and I'll be starting work in August at Florida International University in Miami as an assistant professor in the Department of History and the Department of Health Policy and Management. And my current book project is about the beginning of the US Veterans Health System in the interwar years and generally interested in the history of U.S. health policy.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Thanks for joining us today. And so you recently earned your PhD. And you've already been engaging the public via writing and interviews. Tell us a little bit about that.

 

Jessica Adler 

To be clear, my experience with this sort of work is so far, you know, it's in its very early stages.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Definitely.

 

Jessica Adler 

But I do think that early career historians and academics in general, in this age of kind of information, inundation are really in a position to be pretty much as public as they want to be. So I decided to pursue the study of history, like, like many other people who do the same because I wanted to understand complicated and pervasive contemporary problems. And I think our discipline from that respect really lends itself to public intellectual work. So 10 years ago, I was a reporter for a daily newspaper in Paterson, New Jersey, and I was lucky enough to be assigned to the health beat. And one issue that really interested me was exactly this idea of health care access in the United States. And I hoped to understand it better by looking at the backstory of how and why some populations like soldiers and veterans, won the privilege of government sponsored medical care. And really, I think that the most challenging thing that historians do is to use evidence that we've searched out that we've rescued from oblivion in order to draw big and detailed pictures basically, to use this study and this discussion of history to understand and explain power dynamics, human relations, political and economic systems, and big societal questions and problems. And I think if we can draw from our research some connections with issues of common concern to lots of people, then we can pretty readily engage with the public and sometimes, nowadays, the trick is finding a public or a media outlet like History Talk or like Origins that actually cares to listen, or to just really have, I guess, the guts to put your thoughts out there on your own via a blog. Or by pursuing writing and speaking engagements that are kind of you know outside the academic comfort zone.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

That's really well said. I love the story of how you came to study history and how you're engaging the public. So some argue that academics are under no professional obligation to engage the public. So why do you?

 

Jessica Adler 

Well, the work that I've done in the interviews I've had in the more public realm, like, for example, talking about the closing of Walter Reed Hospital a few years ago, talking about the Affordable Care Act in relation to the history of Veterans Health-

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right

 

Jessica Adler 

Those experiences have really helped me to think, to think more clearly about my historical questions and to think more broadly about their potential larger implications. So, for example, instead of just thinking about what was going on in political, social and public health world, in the World War One era, I'm really trying to draw links to other time periods, other issues that may be familiar, and that may matter to a lot of people. That for me, is a really challenging intellectual exercise. I think but it's a challenging thing to make links and connections to contemporary problems without being, you know, what we all call presentists without reading current perspective back onto the past, is the past in order instead to enrich the view of the present. But I do want to say that I think it's interesting that all of these conversations that are happening about public intellectuals and the responsibility of academics don't focus very much on the art of teaching and what is going on in classrooms. You know, in my opinion, anyone who teaches history has to do what we're talking about here, has to do what publicly engaged academics do for the general public, make it clear that they're disciplined that their topic of study is relevant, that it can help people understand, you know, very important questions. And so, you know, I really think that every time a history professor teaches a survey class and make broad and, in my opinion, rightful claims about the usefulness of the craft of history to a large group of students who are probably going to go on to study business or biology. That Professor is really acting as a public intellectual with a lot of creative energy goes into making the classroom a place where students can use history in order to debate and exchange ideas about, about current concerns and what could be more publicly engaging than that.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

That's a really excellent point about teaching that you're making. And I want to build on what you're saying here and ask you have there been any difficulties seen or unforeseen about engaging the public that you want to highlight?

 

Jessica Adler 

Um, yeah, I mean, I think that some of the arguments that Nicholas Kristof brought up in his time piece are valid, that people who live in the academic world are sort of barricaded off and sometimes unwittingly, because universities have very distinct requirements for professors who are seeking tenure-

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Right.

 

Jessica Adler 

-and that those requirements don't necessarily jive with publishing in the popular press. I do think that some of that is changing and that a lot of universities do value and do reward, some faculty members who attempt to engage with the public. But I also think that the challenge goes the other way, that you know, when I first went back to school, I promised myself that I would always write like a journalist, that I would never use that language. And I wouldn't couch my historical accounts in a bunch of, you know, fancy jargon, right? In some ways, academic training and graduate school, where we are exposed to a seemingly infinite array of beautiful and intricate ideas and knowledge, that training makes it very difficult to just sit down and you know, write a 600-word piece and tell a simple story. So I think the challenge really becomes how to concisely convey ideas that a lot of people can understand when there is so much compelling knowledge out there.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

So a final question for you. Has the work been rewarding?

 

Jessica Adler 

Yeah, I'll say that, you know, beyond writing for different sorts of outlets. And beyond doing interviews, one thing that I've really tried to do over the last few months is to meet with veterans of more recent wars, to go into organizations like the American Legion and tell people about my project and try to meet with them and do oral histories with people and really discuss with them their experiences with the Veterans Health System. And for me, it's enormously illuminating to hear about, you know, personal impressions of the system that I'm trying to trade and to get people's feedback on some of the big ideas that I'm trying to convey in my book. So public engagement in this way, in my view, can be a way to kind of think through arguments beyond again, beyond that academic field and try to sound off in an approachable way. So yeah, in that way, to me, I very much look forward to talking with people who have nothing to do but academia and that's a very rewarding experience. Yeah.

 

Patrick Potyondy 

Well, Jessica Adler, thank you for joining us today on History Talk.

 

Jessica Adler 

Okay, thanks, Patrick.

 

Leticia Wiggins 

Finally, we'd like to direct you to our Origins web page, where we've posted some reactions from Ohio State graduate students to the public intellectual debate. You'll also find links to the articles referenced today. You can find all that at our connecting history blog @Origins.osu.edu. Thanks for joining us today. This edition of the Origins podcast History Talk was brought to you by the Public History Initiative and the Goldberg Center and the history department at The Ohio State University. Our main editors are Steve Conn and Nicholas Breyfogle. Our executive producer is David Staley. Our audio and technical advisor is Paul Kotheimer. Our audio editors and cohosts are Patrick Potyondy and Leticia Wiggins. Find our podcasts and more at our website Origins.osu.edu and you can find us on Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr. Thank you for listening.

 

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