After listening to Henry Jenkins and a few others speaking about public intellectualism lately, I have felt a sense of civic duty coming over me, something that links participating in democracy with the participatory media of Web 2.0. How obvious, how appropriate, that we share our best thinking with the world at large; how simple it is to do this, now, through blogs and online media.
Here's the problem: I'm a scholar. A scholar is not a public intellectual; a scholar is a private intellectual. We who are trained in a discipline speak to our peers in that discipline, and the response of that extremely small brotherhood determines tenure, promotion, and the various perquisites of academia. We are conditioned through all our training that what we have to say only matters if it matters only to very small, very private audiences.
When a scholar does choose to address the public, as when a colleague of mine once chose to write a column for the local newspaper, that scholar is considered not to be doing his or her job. This is why "academic blogger" is still an oxymoron, sadly. College faculty are to direct their best energies to developing disciplinary knowledge. As my colleague stated previously, "you have been given your place in the university for a purpose: it is to engage in the academic process of making and validating disciplinary knowledge." We scholars are not to be diverting ourselves or dissipating our attention by placing our pearls before swine.
The disciplines within academia train professors to withdraw from public life and to aim their most thoughtful attention to narrowly specialized audiences. Those special audiences will reward the scholar for advancing knowledge in that field, but implicit in this approbation is the agreement to promulgate the system of private knowledge and peer approvals through which the priesthood of academia sustains its authority. The primary tenet of that brotherhood, the article of faith to which the scholar must swear obeisance in order to be considered a scholar, is "No knowledge is knowledge that falls outside of the system of private peer approbation."
This is how a scholar is doomed to a life of private intellectual inquiry and expression. In the epistemology of academia, no knowledge truly is knowledge if it is not vetted and approved through the channels it has established over time. Those channels are esoteric, made up of the "few, though worthy" who are the elect in the kingdom of knowledge. The epistemology of academia proceeds on the basis that the public has nothing to do with real knowledge. It doesn't make any sense intellectually, of course, but it makes perfect sense if the primary goal is not really the development of knowledge but the preservation of a well-designed, internally self-confirming authority economy.
I don't want to be a private intellectual. Too much is real, too much at stake, in the public sphere. The interaction between the scholar and the world should not be solely within the classroom or the lab or through the occasional snippet quoted by a journalist. All the tools are at hand for scholars to be public intellectuals. It truly does not require a rocket scientist to communicate with the entire world online. But it may require someone who is not a scientist or scholar to believe he or she has the right and privilege to express and develop ideas without first seeking peer permission to publish those ideas.
I don't want to be complicit in sustaining a knowledge economy that rewards its participants when they invest in burying and restricting knowledge. This is why Open Access is more than a new model for scholarly publishing, it is the only ethical move available to scholars who take their own work seriously enough to believe its value lies in how well it engages many publics and not just a few peers.
What stands in the way of scholars respecting the public enough to address it and to contribute their best thinking to the broader world? Well, scholars do. So long as institutions of higher education sustain the system that punishes those who aim their work to broader audiences and rewards intellectuals only when they speak in the private code of a subdiscipline, then what are you going to get? You get scholars who speak in code to the brotherhood, instead of public intellectuals.
I'd rather be a public intellectual. It seems more honest, more ethical, more true to the life of the mind than does adding another line to my CV for an article that will only be distributed to a few hundred places and read by even fewer.
Our values are upside in academia when the whole trajectory of establishing scholars and scholarship is aimed at hiding and restricting knowledge, when the business model that accompanies traditional scholarship attaches a monetary motive to keeping ideas out of circulation. I think it will soon become hard to call someone "published" if they agree to having their work hidden, delayed, and restricted (the primary traits of restricted-access scholarship) when this is not a necessary condition to the circulation of knowledge.
I think that universities that claim they are serving humankind are disingenuous when they continue to invest in a system that disenfranchises the best work of their faculty. The public good is not served when the public intellectual is not a role welcomed or encouraged on a university campus.
As I teach my students to take their ideas online, early, and to develop their ideas and their identity in the back and forth of online discourse, I know that I am teaching them to be the very opposite of a scholar. They won't all become public intellectuals in some grand sense, but cumulatively, I hold more hope for my blogging students who are growing their thinking in the fertile electrons of digital exchange than I do for those more interested in counting peer reviewed publications. If an idea can't circulate as freely as the untrammeled prose of a blog post, in time it really won't count for much anyway.