Blog Post

Public Intellectuals For What?

All men are intellectuals, . . . but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals. - Antonio Gramsci

The publicity around Louis Menand's new book, The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University*, is generating lots of contemplation of public intellectualism.

Horace blogs about re-imagining the teacher as public intellectual. Ferule & Fescue add that part of this intellectual activity involves offering students "ways to be in the world":

But more generally, and maybe more importantly, by being public intellectuals in the classroom, we're modeling for our students what it means to be engaged by literature or history or art, and why those subjects might continue to matter and have relevance for them even once they're out of school. I think often about a comment a reader left on my blog, a couple of years ago, after I'd written about three former students who had collectively asked me out to lunch. I was trying to figure out whether they were looking for me to be a friend, or were thinking about grad school, or what--and my reader remarked that many smart young people are just looking for ways to be in the world, and that we often model that for them in ways we're not aware of.

I have Menand's book on my list to read, as I imagine many others do too, but in the meantime, since all of this conversation is occurring on blogs and websites, I return to questions that have arisen on HASTAC before: what role digital technologies in public intellectual life if we broaden it to include more than just a "marketplace of ideas"? Why does Menand equate public culture with the marketplace -- and how are we both replicating these assumptions, and also offering alternatives to them, in the digital humanities?

The question of the marketplace leads to the vexing issue of "efficiency," an ideal that Menand embraces, but which I argue we should probe more carefully. In excerpts published in Harvard Magazine, Menand borrows from William Bowen and Neil Rudenstine's study,  In Pursuit of the Ph.D., to explain why graduate students in the humanities take so much longer than other graduate or professional students to complete their degrees (often up to 10 years), Menand writes that Bowen and Rudenstine:

suggested that one reason for this might be that the paradigms for scholarship in the humanities have become less clear. People are uncertain just what research in the humanities is supposed to constitute, and graduate students therefore spend an inordinate amount of time trying to come up with a novel theoretical twist on canonical texts or an unusual contextualization. Inquiry in the humanities has become quite eclectic without becoming contentious. This makes it a challenge for entering scholars to know where to make their mark.

Menand righteously criticizes the trick played on graduate students in higher education: the labor systems of universities exploit the old ideals of specialization to earn a Ph.D. in order to maintain a cheap labor pool of instructors; and even those who finish the degree then find themselves in an extremely difficult job market. Perhaps, he asks, if we abandon the dissertation for one peer-reviewed article and shorten the time to degree, this could improve the situation by making graduate school more efficient.

All well and good. But why does Menand obsessively focus on efficiency? Why a "marketplace of ideas" instead of some other form of public culture? Why are ideas -- and the social institutions in which they are created -- necessarily best operated on a market model?

I agree with Menand that, "there should be a lot more Ph.D.s." I would also be willing to entertain the notion that Ph.D.s "should be much easier to get." But I disagree about the rationale for this reform. Menand argues that it would lead to greater "efficiency" (this is a book titled The Marketplace of Ideas, after all). But this does not really address the deeper longings that drive people to seek graduate education.

Perhaps efficiency is the whole problem here. Menand bemoans that, "People are uncertain just what research in the humanities is supposed to constitute." But maybe that's exactly what those students are looking for when they emulate their professors. To return to Ferule & Fescue's post, they are doing more than "just looking for ways to be in the world." For, perhaps what professors as public intellectuals (at least in the humanities) "model" for students is not so much "ways to be in the world" as ways to not be so certain how to be in the world? And maybe the world could use more of that uncertainty.

If we started to imagine models of public culture and public intellectualism (and teaching and graduate education and economic dynamics) that were not equated with a mere marketplace of ideas, could this lostness regain its value, its purpose? Shouldn't markets serve public culture (and private longings) rather than vice-versa?

*I hope the (unintended) irony of linking to the page for Menand's book has become apparent by the end of this post. It makes me think about the potential non-consumer dimensions of Amazon's vast storehouse of book titles and reviews -- non-consumer value from which Amazon, of course, seeks to profit (just turn on 1-click order!).



Hi Michael,

I really enjoyed reading your post. I have stuggled for years to finish my PhD and then got kicked out. My advisor said that I "just wasn't PhD material"... whatever that is. Anyhow, your post got me thinking. Thanks.




I really enjoyed reading this. I like how you resituate Menand's position in relation to Ferule & Fescue's discussion of "ways of being in the world." I'm interested in hearing more about the reframing that you offer — i.e. "ways to not be so certain how to be in the world?" And I'm curious how this uncertainty can be manifested by public intellectuals within the humanities.

I think I have some ambivalence about the performance of uncertainty in public discourse. I really appreciate it in the context of thoughtul analysis within the academy. But outside of this context, I'm uncomfortable with the way that moderators in mainstream media will sometimes overemphasize the complexity of an issue and invoke their own uncertainty as a way of eliding responsibility for more explicit research (or to avoid taking sides when empirical reality clearly favors one position over another). This is a fairly different intellectual arena than the one you're addressing, but I wonder if the stakes of uncertainty are related in some way.


Mechelle - Thanks for your comments. Do you think you would have liked Menand's model for grad school? I think there's a lot to be said for it, save for the weird obsession with efficiency. I would just echo what Horace and Ferule & Fescule are arguing, and much of HASTAC is about--which is that there's a lot more to be public intellectual life than just superstar profs made of 100% pure "PhD material" ("whatever that is" seems like the right response, by the way). Thanks!

Joshua - Hmm, good questions about uncertainty. I didn't think about what you are describing, which is the use of uncertainty and "complexity" by speakers who wish to slip out of difficult or (to the speaker) troubling conclusions, especially politically. I think I know what you are getting at: when someone says something like, "poverty, oh it's a complex issue, so complex that therefore we don't really have to deal with the ethics involved." I was thinking about the opposite tenor of public debate, in which certain theories and hypotheses are simply ruled out as beyond the pale, particularly ideas about market "realities" -- which often seem to be more assertions than verities.

As you suggest, I too think the traditions of the humanities offer a much more wide-open space of thought and discussion, perhaps because there is a willingness to live with a bit of uncertainty about what the driving forces in the world are, and how they really work. At its best, when intellectual life functions well, there's a willingness to engage in deep plurality, consideration, thought, and questioning without giving in utterly to relativism (of course this system is, well, inefficient -- it often breaks down, falls sort, slips into doctrinal screeds and turf wars and all sorts of other failures).

But when it works well, I always think it fosters an attitude of open inquiry -- a kind of pragmatic engagement with the deep mystery of things and the sense that the more we study, the more knowledge we acquire, the deeper the mystery gets. That's what I was getting at my use of uncertainty as a term.

Menand's certainty led me to think about how the humanities spirit needs time, it needs inefficiency to flourish and enrich the world. I wrote a post awhile back about Caroline Walker Bynum's recent article on the academic speedup. Now that I think about it, her take is weirdly in contradiction with Menand's position: he argues there is a slowdown, she argues there is a speedup; she offered all uncertainty and no concrete steps to change the structures of academic life; Menand offers certainty about the goal of efficiency, but in doing so, may be giving short-shrift to the worthiness of lengthy, meandering engagement with a field of thought.

I just wanted to suggest--though I'm not, er, certain about this--that it could be a public good for society if some people who were of a mind to were able to spend time, slow down, do some thinking, engage in "pointless" inefficient, non-goal-oriented conversation, wonder about the world in open, even lost, confusing, ways. And a society that valued taking time instead of efficiency, a world that was not guided solely by universalized certainties about what makes the world work, could be a better place for everyone. We still need lots of efficient systems and modes of governance and markets and the like, of course, but I'm just not sure the logic of the market should dominate *everything,* particularly the life of the mind.

Thanks for your post. Feel free to respond, or pick up this thread on your blog. I'll be reading and responding (probably inefficiently but still with interest!).


Michael, these are fascinating points you're raising. Yes, that's exactly what I was getting at (i.e. when saying something like "poverty is a complex issue" or "health care is too complicated to understand" the speaker abdicates responsibility for critically engaging a topic). And often this is not due to laziness so much as self-preservation.

Menand's description of a slow-down (along with a prescription to speed-up) vs. C. W. Bynum's flipping of this description/prescription opposition is an interesting contrast. Sounds like maybe they're focused on different aspects of the elephant -- caught up in incommensurable fantasies about the direction of 21st century humanities.

I also like how you described the ideal scenario of (inefficient but deep) inquiry in the humanities:

"...But when it works well, I always think it fosters an attitude of open inquiry -- a kind of pragmatic engagement with the deep mystery of things and the sense that the more we study, the more knowledge we acquire, the deeper the mystery gets. That's what I was getting at my use of uncertainty as a term."

This makes a lot of sense to me. It's what I'm hoping to get out of academic experience. As a 1st year PhD student, one of the things I value most is having the time to explore, discover, and wrestle with my own areas of uncertainty (which will paradoxically turn out to be the "efficient" targets of my dissertation writing). But honestly, I can already feel this journey-of-the-mind mentality giving way to something more carnivorous. I feel immense pressure to publish, get grants, and to be building either the seeds of a tenure portfolio or the seeds of some alternative path (or both simultaneously). I don't think I'm alone in having these experiences, though. These pressures make us young scholars less interested in the pleasure of the journey than in honing our zeitgeist-meters (looking around at the field to strategically find our niches). Is it this kind of efficient targeting that underlies Menand's call to arms and Bynum's lament?

Switching gears here... in the realm of the civic minded public intellectual, I have to admit, a part of me really likes passion and unwavering conviction (even when it comes off as a tad self-righteous). I'm thinking of the kinds of intellectuals who demonstrate outrage when there is friction between their own model of reality and that of an ideological opponent. Elizabeth Warren is a figure that might fit this description in today's climate. The argument for this kind of passion, is that sometimes, history demands an outraged response. I'm reminded here of this piece by Jeremy Young (from last summer). Young connects Obama to Philosopher John Rawls in order to criticize the politics of blind consensus formation. While I think there are differences between the Rawlsian stance and the sort of productive uncertainty you're emphasizing, the two orientations may open up similar strategic vulnerabilities.

The deliberative theater of our pundit class, for example, will often pit opposing experts (each certain in their own perspective) against each other with the "uncertain" moderator positioned as the fulcrum of an imagined golden-mean of neutrality. Perhaps one of the reasons that pundits -- as opposed to moderators -- will avoid the admission of uncertainty, then, has to do with not wanting to give ground to their opponent. For the pundit, to act like a moderator (instead of like an expert) is to hand their ideological opponents an advantage (titling the scales and shifting the Overton window away from their own position).

Again, there are probably differences between this notion of a political pundit and the kind of public intellectual work that you're talking about, but in the effort of rethinking "the market place of ideas" (or coming up with better, more democratic, metaphors) I'm not so sure we need more thoughtful public intellectuals so much as different kinds of deliberative rituals and spectacles. I'd like there to be more at stake when pundits get something wrong too. I fantasized about this recently in a blog post called Spectacles, Objects, and Baby Daddies .

... now off to finish my work for the evening and channel some of that contentious efficiency!


Apologies for the LONG comment.... hypergraphia is quite inefficient:) Please don't feel you have to respond in kind.


Marc Bousquet weighs in, as does Historiann. I'm thinking, inefficiently, about their comments right now.



Joshua - Seems like you are on to two things: intellectual styles or self-presentations and intellectual places or processes.

On styles of the public intellectual: Elizabeth Warren is pretty great, yes! Her self-presentation is fascinating: how she cuts through the television or radio signal: there's a sincerity, a drawing on expertise without an expression of exasperation, a willingness to share in the pursuit of solutions. It's remarkable (leading to Jon Stewart's somewhat inappropriate, but very funny and endearing comments).

On the places of intellectual publics: I like the way you are thinking carefully about the "process" in which public debates take place. One question is where does public intellectual (or civic intellectual) lief *really* take place? On tv? In print? In the classroom? In other parts of our everyday lives? Maybe (and HASTAC would be the place to think on this) online? - Michael


Drawing on Rorty and Pippin, Michael S. Roth breaks new ground on this topic in "Beyond Critical Thinking" by arguing that we move beyond critique alone in the humanities to an effort to seek out certainties within a framework of open inquiry and empathy. This reminds me that I'm not writing about skepticism in my post, or endless doubt; rather, I want to use the word uncertainty to suggest that the pursuit of norms needs time and messy confusion to get somewhere worthwhile -- exactly the kind of thing that graduate school should enable ideally -- if we give people time to evade shortcuts.


And one thought about Roth's argument that I've been thinking about much later. Is he making too strong a dichotomy between the critique of norms and the pursuit of norms when it comes to thinking humanistically?