Public Intellectuals For What?

on making more efficient the inefficient pursuit of ideas.

X-posted from Hastac blog.

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 Amazon.com 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!).

2 thoughts on “Public Intellectuals For What?

  1. Addendum:

    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.

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