Beyond the Ivory Tower: The Need for Public Intellectuals in American Society

It is a well-established fact that American academia is a much-renowned and much sought-after institution, that millions of people around the world respect the colleges and universities in the United States. This is not to disregard all the prestigious institutions of higher learning elsewhere in the world, who have much longer histories and traditions and sometimes more scholarly resources than we do here in the United States. To name a few: Oxford, Cambridge, Salamanca, Bologna, etc., not to mention ancient universities or centers of higher learning such as Nalanda in India. Numerous cultures and countries have customs of fostering scholars that are linked to their religions, or artistic and scholarly traditions that are embedded in the culture–think of poetry and song in Ireland, or the intricately woven cloths of Western Africa that bear great social significance. America has, fortunately, been able to draw upon the best scholars and scholarship from around the world, either by sending her own citizens overseas, or by providing a refuge/safe haven/chance for international scholars to pursue their work here. Consider a classics scholar from Korea who studies Greco-Roman religions but who has so little resources at her disposal in her home country. Or figures like Russian poet Joseph Brodsky or writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who were exiles living in the U.S.

This is all fine and well, and remarkable. But it does leave us with one problem–how do we get a transmission of brilliant minds OUTSIDE of academia? Naturally, this is not just pertinent to America, for the same dilemma between town and gown exists everywhere. Here, however, it is extremely pronounced, given our short history as a country and our excessive dependence on media and pop culture. Who are the people who can bridge the yawning gap? Where are they?

The institution of the personage of the Public Intellectual was something I only encountered in my new 20s while in graduate school. I read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about this that sparked my curiosity deeply. I began to wonder why I felt frustrated with the highly research- and citation-oriented writing I had to do, and yet I knew I wanted to write at a high level. The opinion papers I did during my master’s program in Higher Education Administration at Columbia were the beginning of my practice of writing on social issues, something which eventually led to the creation of this blog. I discovered writers like Camille Paglia who were academics, but able to appeal to the public and discuss things in an appealing, intelligent way. Before I knew about all of his horrible transgressions, I was a huge fan of Charlie Rose, and how he brought the best minds in all fields, be it politics or rock music, to his program. Living in New York showed me that a conversation between Noam Chomsky and Edward Said could elicit crowds usually seen at giant venues for pop singers, and that intelligent dialogue in public was highly valued.

This is hard to find through much of the US, though it does exist, in some cities more than others, and in other pockets. Usually this can be found in college towns, unsurprisingly, and many public libraries have excellent programming. There are cultural centers of all sorts, for all ethnicities. But sadly, we still have a dichotomy between popular media that tends to be more entertainment-oriented in a very lowest common denominator manner, or academia, which tends to be very arcane and esoteric (a lecture on ancient burial sites in South India, anyone?) One can only ask why we have an aversion to intelligent discussion in public.

Part of it is our highly-partisan culture, where anything intelligent automatically is associated with anyone or anything liberal. Though I am very much a liberal, I do feel that the right wing has devolved and needs to show itself in its best light with intelligent proponents, and therefore we can hold discussions between the right and the left. By ethos, we are a middle-class culture; there is nothing wrong with that, and a majority of the Americans fall within the socioeconomic bracket. However, sadly, this translates to a lack of intellectualism or appreciation for culture. Anything middlebrow is the norm. Also, Hollywood and the entertainment media focus on what has mass appeal, and an intelligent film is not going to bring in the dollars in the same way a franchise superhero movie would. We are also monolingual, so we cannot appreciate film and literature from other countries, or even from the non-English linguistic groups within our own. And one cannot help ignore the huge impact social media has had on our society: I would argue this has largely dumbed down our culture, when it could potentially have had a positive effect on making the arts more prominent. It’s easier to click on a website then it is to pick up a book and spend time with it.

There are still many more factors than what I have listed here, and this is not to knock pop-culture or enjoying a dumb sitcom or a rom-com when we need it. Rather, it is to ask why intellectualism has to be limited to the sphere of academia and New York City, and why this is not more appreciated in American society.

The Culture of Enabling and the Bystander Effect

As we have recently seen in our political charade how one corrupt politician has covered for another crony, we must ask ourselves why this happens. This raises the issue of enabling, and of not speaking up when we see injustice or unethical behavior.

Politically, there is a lot at stake for those who choose to whistleblow. Elected officials may lose constituent support and not be reelected. Appointed individuals may be asked to resign or simply dismissed. Individuals in either category may be aware of the wrongdoings, (innocent) bystanders, but may simply not speak up for whatever reason, assuming that others will do so or that justice will be served, that somehow correct activity will be spotted and punished. In our political situation, we can blame the Republicans for having put Trump up as a candidate in the first place. That was origin of the chain of disastrous events that have been going on in Washington for the past few years.

Also plaguing American (and even global) society in recent times is the whole #MeToo movement, which has taken place on both high level (think Harvey Weinstein or Charlie Rose) as well as ordinary day-to-day level interactions between men and women. One of the perpetrators cited in the Charlie Rose case was his Executive Producer, Yvette Vega, who knew of Rose’s lewd behavior, but told Rose’s targets that that was the way he was.

So that raises another interesting point–women are sometimes complicit in men’s bad behavior. Women perpetuate negative cycles, as can be seen in many patriarchal cultures where mothers may blame their daughters for being raped or harassed or for the way men treat them badly. This was a topic that a professor had raised in graduate school in an international education class, and it is sadly true through not only the developing world, but also in the industrialized West.

Ordinary good people are sometimes complicit in enabling bad behavior. I recently experienced a situation in which I was completely blindsided by the leader of a group despite having done nothing wrong. And yet others in the group did not speak up for me. The bystanders allowed the group leader to have too much power.

What do we do, then, if we are in such a position where we see bad behavior, and it could potentially have negative consequences for us if we report it? Or if we like the person who has been behaving badly toward others, for they have not behaved badly toward us and have been our supporters, mentors, advocates?

These are not easy questions to answer, but I think we have to speak up as much as possible. Is it not more noble to do the right thing even if we have to face the consequences? Or, if we are not able to take action, because of direct to ourselves or even our livelihood, we need to be very aware of that and admit our hypocrisy in the situation in which we are engaged. This has to be a case-by-case basis, and sometimes there are overt situations which require speaking up and even taking legal action if necessary, but there other situations which may require more subtle action.

At the bottom of this discussion is the issue of character. We need to be educating students about the importance of good character, and our educational institutions, even higher education ones, need to place an emphasis on this. My alma mater, Stanford University, seems to be busy admitting the future twentysomething billionaire entrepreneurs who often show moral depravity and even sociopathic tendencies–think Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. Granted, 99% of the students are not this extreme and we have to take into account developmental stages of young people.

But our society really needs to think more about valuing ethics over fame, power, and money. Why don’t we make America ethical again?!