The Case for Academics as Public Intellectuals

Talking only to one another is never enough.
By Nicholas Behm, Sherry Rankins-Robertson, and Duane Roen

College and university faculty routinely communicate ideas to colleagues in their field when they publish articles and present papers at conferences. However, unless they pursue interdisciplinary work, they do not often share ideas with colleagues in other fields. They engage with the general public or policy makers even less frequently, and when they do, they sometimes fail to translate their research into language that is accessible to audiences that lack familiarity with disciplinary discourses.

As science writer Dennis Meredith has noted, academics have been criticized for their inability to make their research on critical topics, such as climate change and evolution, understandable to lay audiences. Harry Boyte, codirector of the Center for Democracy and Citizenship, and Elizabeth Hollander, senior fellow at Tufts University, note in the 1999 Wingspread Declaration on Renewing the Civic Mission of the American Research University that communicating only to disciplinary audiences rather than to the public at large has reinforced “increasingly competitive, individualist” silo cultures. The lack of interaction with academics in other fields and with the public causes important research to be obscured in translation, encourages public skepticism, and intensifies negative perceptions of higher education.

Such views are evident in recent national surveys. Squeeze Play 2010: Continued Public Anxiety on Cost, Harsher Judgments on How Colleges Are Run, the report of a joint survey by Public Agenda and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, stated that 60 percent of survey respondents said that they believe colleges and universities value their financial strength more than the educational experiences of students. In Is College Worth It?, the Pew Research Center notes similar findings: 57 percent of respondents said that they believe higher education does not provide value commensurate with cost; 75 percent said that obtaining a college degree is too expensive. These findings may be affected by lingering public perceptions that higher education is elitist and unresponsive to contemporary social challenges. Renowned educator Ernest Boyer’s lament in “The Scholarship of Engagement” that higher education lacks the public’s confidence and seems detached from the integral work of the nation is just as pertinent today as it was nearly two decades ago.

Engaging with the Public

Although many colleges and universities have developed productive partnerships with local communities and invested considerable resources in what Boyer called the “scholarship of engagement,” these institutions need to place greater emphasis on becoming “more vigorous partner[s] in the search for answers to our most pressing social, civic, economic, and moral problems.” Academics specifically and higher education generally must collaborate with constituencies to make the country more just and equitable.

This necessary work, though, is complicated by pervasive public cynicism about politicians, the political process, and the role and value of government. In a recent Gallup poll, only 10 percent of survey respondents expressed confidence in Congress, which is the “lowest level of confidence Gallup has found, not only for Congress, but for any institution on record.” While many elected officials would rather sloganeer and posture than collaborate, the country languishes in the residual effects of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression: inequalities persist in pay, social advantage, and education; the gap between the few who have and the many who have not grows ever wider; the possible apocalyptic effects of global climate change increasingly appear inevitable. The public pleads for compromise, solutions, and leadership only to witness political theater. However, the leadership vacuum that exists in this era of corrosive cynicism and partisanship creates an opening for the hard work of civic engagement. Academics must seize the moment to assert higher education’s primary role in the democratic work of the country and collaborate with the public to address society’s core challenges. We must lead by assuming roles as public intellectuals. We must fill the leadership vacuum created by political intransigence and obstruction.

Making the Case

Why serve as a public intellectual? The United States and the global community face enormous challenges that can be effectively addressed only if faculty members assume roles as public intellectuals and collaborate with communities. The inaction, carping, and obsession with obstruction exhibited by many elected officials endanger the well-being of ordinary citizens. So long as the political calculus that privileges party interests at all costs remains dominant, we put faith in elected officials at our peril.

Academics no longer possess the privilege of complacency, of choosing to remain cloistered within the walls of the academy, of engaging only with the members of their disciplines. We must assume our roles as agents of democracy and perform service that promotes the public good. Unfortunately, after numerous calls to action, academics have largely failed to make publicly active scholarship and civic engagement defining parts of their mission. Although the civic engagement movement has grown considerably over the past thirty years, energized by the work of organizations such as Campus Compact and the Higher Education Network for Civic Engagement as well as individual scholars, institutional interest in funding and rewarding this movement has waned and faculty members remain entrenched in their disciplines.

The Roles of Public Intellectuals

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey notes, “A democracy is more than a form of government; it is primarily a mode of associated living, of conjoint communicated experience.” Democracy is more than an election cycle, campaign rally, or party platform; it is a way of being in and acting on the world. It is a disposition that emphasizes bridging differences, coalescing around common interests, considering alternative perspectives, nurturing relationships, reflecting critically on values and beliefs, and developing knowledge to address a community’s core challenges. Democracy, as a disposition, is intensely political insofar as it cultivates and models the values of democracy, but it is not partisan. In developing relationships with local communities, public intellectuals are not ideologues or partisan advocates but rather exemplars and facilitators of what education scholars John Saltmarsh and Matthew Hartley, in a 2011 white paper, termed “democratic engagement”: civic engagement that emphasizes democratic values in collaborating with communities to construct knowledge; in generating appropriate, context-specific methodologies to address local challenges; and in considering the interests of all constituents.

A framing of civic participation that emphasizes democratic engagement challenges the traditional assumptions that have reinforced the “expert” model of knowledge generation, which privileges disciplinary specialization, positivistic methodologies, and apolitical scholarship. An expert model frames civic engagement as the unidirectional application of disciplinary expertise and knowledge onto a passive community that is bereft of the necessary credentials, degrees, and training to solve problems for itself. This model uncritically grants academics unassailable legitimacy and devalues experiential, cultural, communal, spiritual, and other types of knowledge. Communities are understood to be dependent on the academy, as passive consumers of a service rendered by academics and institutions. Unfortunately, the dominant framing of civic engagement since Boyer’s plea has only reinforced the expert model of knowledge generation.

In contrast, publicly active scholarship is inherently messy, involving intensive, reciprocal partnerships with communities whose members hold diverse values and beliefs. It requires that research be situated within a local community’s social and power dynamics. It frames society’s core challenges as interrelated with rather than distinct from social and cultural factors like race, gender, sexual orientation, and disability. As Lorilee Sandmann, a professor of education at the University of Georgia, has argued, publicly active scholarship is embedded within and negotiates these social and cultural realities, requiring academics to reconceptualize their traditional roles. Derek Barker, a program officer at the Kettering Foundation, argues in “The Scholarship of Engagement: A Taxonomy of Five Emerging Practices” that engaged scholarship consists of “(1) research, teaching, integration, and application scholarship that (2) incorporate reciprocal practices of civic engagement into the production of knowledge.” As two of the authors of this article, Nicholas Behm and Duane Roen, have noted in “Publicly Engaged Scholarship and Academic Freedom: Rights and Responsibilities,” “The publicly engaged scholar . . . could assume several or all roles—teacher, researcher, officer of an institution, member of a learned profession, citizen—simultaneously with no clear demarcation of where and when these roles end.” It is not possible for academics pursuing publicly engaged scholarship to maintain conventional distinctions between public and private, expert and lay person.

But this situation should not dissuade us from pursuing engagement as a scholarly enterprise. Rather, given our training in intellectual rigor and openness, we should revel in and capitalize on the generative opportunities that result from the blurring of boundaries, exercising our disciplinary knowledge to focus the nation on a politics of problem solving, emphasize intellectual inquiry rather than partisanship, and conceptualize social challenges as dynamically interrelated. We need to mobilize the power of collaborations among academics and communities rather than simply debate the issues. Additionally, we need to model and teach habits of mind for engaged citizenship—creativity, civicmindedness, the ability to mediate among competing viewpoints and interests.

In How We Think, Dewey advocates for “open-mindedness,” “wholeheartedness,” “responsibility,” and “curiosity.” Of course, open-mindedness is essential for anyone who engages with others who may hold differing views on a topic. Whole-heartedness is also helpful because the work of public intellectuals can be demanding, even discouraging at times. A sense of professional responsibility can be a motivating force for public intellectuals who have strong commitments to their fields and to their students.

Recently, three professional organizations— the National Council of Teachers of English, the Council of Writing Program Administrators, and the National Writing Project—collaborated to offer another set of habits of mind in the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing: curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition. As noted in the Framework, these habits represent a response to the Common Core standards, which formalize what K–12 students should learn as they develop their skills in subjects such as mathematics, writing, and reading. The Framework itself can be seen as the work of public intellectuals, and the three aforementioned organizations have worked tirelessly to engage with a wide range of people to offer the Framework as a critique of the Common Core standards.

Notable Role Models

Some faculty members have made a point of addressing the public directly, explaining their research to a variety of audiences, providing political and social commentary, and critiquing pervasive and persistent inequities. Noam Chomsky, who initially established his professional reputation as a world-class linguist, has also become well-known among the general public as a political critic. Similarly, Henry Giroux, a recognized scholar of critical pedagogy, frequently writes for the general public about cultural criticism. Mike Rose, a renowned educator, has written books, blog postings, and articles that speak to the public about the importance of writing and education. The late astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan did much to popularize science, especially with his book and television series Cosmos. The high-profile literary scholar Stanley Fish writes frequently for the New York Times. Robert Reich, Chancellor’s Professor of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, has used a variety of media, including editorials on the National Public Radio show Marketplace, to comment on economic and labor policy issues. Michael M. Crow, president of Arizona State University, routinely speaks about the role of postsecondary institutions in the twenty-first century.

Sometimes faculty members even leave the academy to serve the general public. Elizabeth Warren, formerly a professor in the Harvard Law School, currently represents Massachusetts in the US Senate. Condoleezza Rice was a professor of political science at Stanford University before serving as US secretary of state in the administration of George W. Bush. Although these and other high-profile academics have played vital roles as public intellectuals, those of us who have less visibility should step forward to communicate with the general public and policy makers as well.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Alan Lightman has offered a taxonomy of public intellectuals, anchored in the work of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Edward Said. Lightman notes: “Emerson’s intellectual preserves great ideas of the past, communicates them, and creates new ideas. He is the ‘world’s eye.’ And he communicates his ideas to the world, not just to fellow intellectuals.” Furthermore, he writes: “According to Said, an intellectual’s mission in life is to advance human freedom and knowledge. This mission often means standing outside of society and its institutions and actively disturbing the status quo. At the same time, Said’s intellectual is a part of society and should address his concerns to as wide a public as possible.” Lightman observes in “The Role of the Public Intellectual” that academics can contribute to the public good in many ways, from describing our disciplines to the general public to explaining how they relate to the world. As Peter Mortensen, a rhetorician, observes in his article “Going Public,” “In our journals and at our conferences, one finds repeated again and again the assertion that our work—our teaching, researching, and theorizing—can clarify and even improve the prospects of literacy in a democratic culture. If we really believe this, we must then acknowledge our obligation to air that work in the most expansive, inclusive forums imaginable.”

No matter what their discipline is, academics must assume integral roles in contributing to the public good. As writing professor Linda Adler-Kassner argues in The Activist WPA: Changing Stories about Writing and Writers, by engaging with the public, we can shape public perceptions of our work. If we do not tell the stories of our disciplines, journalists are more than happy to fill that void, and the results can be less than satisfying. Academics need to do more than simply offer a few workshops or write a certain number of articles.

As English professor Christian Weisser puts it in Moving beyond Academic Discourse: Composition Studies and the Public Sphere, academics need to assume the role of “activist intellectual,” which entails packaging one’s intellectual work so that it meets the needs of diverse groups. Public intellectuals communicate their research in ways that are accessible to the public and translatable to the needs of communities. In some fashion, they apply their disciplinary knowledge and expertise to the service of the public good.

Fostering a Healthy Democracy

In “Higher Education under Siege: Implications for Public Intellectuals,” Henry Giroux argues that public intellectuals must consistently and forcefully make the case that higher education is essential for a healthy democracy: “It is imperative that public intellectuals within and outside of the university defend higher education as a democratic public sphere, connect academic work to public life, and advance a notion of pedagogy that provides students with modes of individual and social agency that enable them to be both engaged citizens and active participants in the struggle for global democracy.” Giroux echoes thinkers such as Thomas Jefferson, W. E. B. Du Bois, John Dewey, and Hannah Arendt in making the case that “substantive democracy simply cannot exist without educated citizens.”

The Morrill Act of 1862 served as an early, vivid example of how academics could work with policy makers to shape the future of higher education in the United States. Jonathan Baldwin Turner, a professor at Illinois College, led a movement to establish agricultural colleges. Turner drafted a resolution, passed by the Illinois legislature on February 8, 1853, that directed the Illinois congressional delegation to promote a bill establishing an industrial college in each state. The delegation worked with Vermont representative Justin Smith Morrill, who introduced the legislation in 1857. Although President James Buchanan vetoed the bill that Congress passed in 1859, the bill was resubmitted in 1861 and signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on July 2, 1862. As a result, states established land-grant institutions, with Ames College (now Iowa State University) being the first.

More recently, scholars in the field of rhetoric and composition have launched a public campaign to challenge the effectiveness of machine grading of student writing. Doug Hesse, a rhetorician at the University of Denver, has argued in the Washington Post that machine grading is not capable of measuring how well a piece of writing “fits a given readership or audience; how well it achieves a given purpose; how much ambition it displays; how well it conforms to matters of fact and reasoning; and how well it matches formal conventions expected by its audience.” Others in the field have started an online petition, “Professionals against Machine Scoring of Student Essays in High-Stakes Assessment,” at http:// Les Perelman, research affiliate with MIT’s comparative media studies program and president of the Consortium for Research and Evaluating of Writing, has shared his insights about the weaknesses of machine scoring in interviews that have appeared in such venues as the New York Times and Inside Higher Ed. Perelman stated in a May 5, 2013, interview with the Australian Broadcast Network that artificial-intelligence programs cannot match human raters because computers can count but they cannot understand meaning. He said, “Language is much more complex, and until we can get a computer that can actually understand the meaning of words, it’s not going to be able to analyze argument or the important parts of writing.” These scholars and others have drawn on numerous research findings and a policy statement on machine scoring published by the National Council of Teachers of English.

What would be the combined effect if every faculty member in the United States devoted even a small amount of time and energy to informing the general public about what faculty do? We could arbitrarily define “small amount” this way: for every ten scholarly articles or chapters or conference papers, a faculty member would write one piece or make one talk for the general public or policy makers. Faculty can often begin engaging with local communities through their personal interests and passions.

Duane Roen offers writing workshops for the general public approximately once a month. At the beginning of each workshop, he talks about some public service activities sponsored by his university, and he also describes how writing is taught in colleges and universities in the United States. His goal is to help the public understand what happens in the university and in his field. He also makes a point of noting that conducting evening and weekend writing workshops is part of his faculty commitment to public service.

Stephanie Wade, a faculty member at Unity College, designs place-based education projects that move students into the community to test groundwater, insulate homes, and grow produce for food pantries. Other faculty members publicize their disciplines through students’ work in grant writing and editing for publication. For example, in a grantwriting course at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, taught both online and in person, students have received more than $600,000 in funding for clients working on community change. The use of technology provides an accessible and immediate means for making academic voices public.

Academics can use digital tools such as YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook for academic purposes and to publicize intellectual work. Sherry Rankins- Robertson, one of the authors of this article, teaches family history writing courses that require students to use mediated technologies for research and writing. One aspect of the required coursework is that students keep research blogs. This requirement helped one student locate lost film footage of her grandfather, a civil rights activist, and ultimately resulted in the production of a documentary. Blogs can also be used to publicize the academic and intellectual work of faculty members.

Although the work of public intellectuals may not be easy, it is crucial. By engaging with the public, academics can strengthen democracy and bolster the position of higher education within a democratic society. Through such engagement, we tell stories of our disciplines and our institutions as we want them to be told rather than as people outside the academy would tell them. As public intellectuals, we have the opportunity to help shape the future of higher education and to make an impact in the communities in which we live.

Nicholas Behm, an assistant professor at Elmhurst College, studies composition pedagogy and theory, postmodern rhetorical theory, and critical race theory. His e-mail address is Sherry Rankins-Robertson is director of composition and assistant professor of rhetoric and writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Her e-mail address is Duane Roen is professor of English, head of interdisciplinary and liberal studies, and assistant vice provost at Arizona State University. His e-mail address is  


Disappointed that the article did not mention Michael Eric Dyson, Melissa Harris-Perry, Dr. Cornel West, or Neil deGrasse Tyson, to name a few powerful contemporary public intellectuals of color, but still, well - worth the read.

Two thoughts cross my mind. First, for every bold-faced name you’ve mentioned here, I suspect there are dozens, scores, hundreds of scholars who have tried to disseminate their work more widely, to reach public audiences, etc., but who haven’t found venues open to them. The fact is that places that get popular readership tend to draw from a stable of non-academic writers who are themselves fighting to stay alive. This isn't in any way meant to suggest that scholars avoid popular venues, but it is important to recognize that the processes of making one’s work available to a wider public can be vastly more difficult and demanding than doing the actual research.
Second, the word classroom seems not to appear in this. Personally, I’ve concluded that best way I can disseminate my work to a wider public is to teach it in my general education classes. I've reached a whole lot of people in my career, one intro section at a time. Why isn't teaching in large public institutions looked upon as a valid, productive form of public intellectual life?

Public intellectuals? Have you asked the general public whether they want intellectuals?
Newspapers don’t want local academics to blog on their websites, local TV doesn’t seek us to discuss news topics, NPR and its state affiliates don’t respond to letters or short pieces from academics (“we’ll call you, don’t call us”). Trade publishers will not look at manuscripts unless they come via literary agents, nor will the trade divisions of publishers sell books published by their academic divisions. Op-ed p