When I returned to academic life a decade ago, two personalities seemed to dominate public debate over the role of the scholar: David Horowitz and Michael Bérubé. The former wanted to push us back into ivory towers, teaching nothing but defined contents within our disciplines. The latter encouraged us to engage instead of retreating. The former would reduce us to resources for consumers. The latter would have us become a dynamic part of public debate.
At the same time, I began rereading Walter Lippmann and John Dewey and their early twentieth-century debates on the decision-making ability of the public. Lippmann never had much faith in common folk. Their choices, to his mind, should be created for them by the informed elite. Dewey had little faith in the elite. He felt that the people, if provided full education and information, could make their own choices.
Today, we’re seeing a resurgence of the public intellectual. In debates over K–12 education, for example, educational historian Diane Ravitch now leads a movement to improve our schools through parent and teacher development rather than through disruption from outside. Princeton economist Paul Krugman has become an important force in public debate over economic policies, as has Harvard’s Lawrence Lessig in relation to intellectual property and other issues. The spirit of John Dewey is alive in all of them. there is room for much more, however, especially within local communities, where the professoriate can engage as a positive force within the public debate—and, in the spirit of Dewey, can even serve the ongoing purpose of continuing public education.
Over the past generation, motion has been in the opposite direction. Our academic criteria for tenure and promotion have made us more and more inward looking, seeing our value only within the narrow confines of our specialties. This is beginning to change, with the scholar’s public impact beginning to bear on decision making within the academy (though not yet to the extent it should). I hope that colleges and universities will eventually look at a candidate’s public engagement as an aspect of scholarship. That will happen, though, only if we on the faculty make it so.
In “the Case for Academics as Public Intellectuals,” Nicholas Behm, Sherry Rankins-Robertson, and Duane Roen present public engagement as a critical component of academic life, seeing any retreat from it as a retreat from professional responsibility. Rebecca Gould, in “Aaron Swartz’s Legacy,” finds lessons for all of us in the life—and death—of a young intellectual who worked, to a great extent, outside traditional academic frameworks. “Objects of the Inquisition, or the trials of religion Scholars at Catholic Institutions Who engage with Sexuality Studies” is Richard McCarty’s attempt to show the importance of challenge to all hierarchies, even religious ones, in the pursuit of both academic freedom and public debate. Following that article, Ellen Schrecker, a past editor of Academe, puts the discussion in the context of AAUP history. From there we move to two articles that deal with the place of contingent faculty within the academy and, by extension, within the greater public sphere: Leemon McHenry and Paul Sharkey’s “Of Brahmins and Dalits in the Academic Caste System” and Chris Nagel’s “the ethics of tenuous Faculty.” The final feature in this issue, Patricia Evridge Hill’s, “Making a Case for Academic Values,” shows a direct application of classroom processes within the world of civic responsibility.
Together, these essays illustrate a new movement that, if successful, will change the place of academia within American society—though it is a movement with a long, long way to go.