Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The "Public" Intellectual

Many of you probably read Daniel Drezner's recent Chronicle of Higher Education article about the decline of public intellectuals ("Public Intellectual 2.0"), in which Drezner wants to contest the presumed Götterdämmerung that many--like Francis Fukuyama, Russell Jacoby and Daniel Bell--- believe began in the 1950's and has yet to abate. Specifically, Drezner takes to task what Jacoby called the "professionalization and academization" of public intellectuals, which Jacoby contends has erected a wall between intellectuals and the hoi polloi.

What is Drezner's evidence to the contrary? Why, blogs, of course.

Drezner writes:
For academics aspiring to be public intellectuals, blogs allow networks to develop that cross the disciplinary and hierarchical strictures of academe. Provided one can write jargon-free prose, a blog can attract readers from all walks of life — including, most importantly, people beyond the ivory tower. (The distribution of traffic and links in the blogosphere is highly skewed, and academics and magazine writers make up a fair number of the most popular bloggers.) Indeed, because of the informal and accessible nature of the blog format, citizens will tend to view academic bloggers that they encounter online as more accessible than would be the case in a face-to-face interaction, increasing the likelihood of a fruitful exchange of views about culture, criticism, and politics with individuals whom academics might not otherwise meet. Furthermore, as a longtime blogger, I can attest that such interactions permit one to play with ideas in a way that is ill suited for more-academic publishing venues. A blog functions like an intellectual fishing net, catching and preserving the embryonic ideas that merit further time and effort.

I think Drezner's onto something here. Thanks to the almost ubiquitous internet-access these days, blogs have certainly torn down many of the walls that the Academy has traditionally erected. Drawing an equivalence between "blogging intellectuals" and "public intellectuals" may require some serious massaging of our traditional sense of the "public" realm... but perhaps less massaging than we think. In fact, I would contend that the blogosphere--because it allows contact and exchange with individuals one would not otherwise encounter--greatly expands the "public" realm of ideas. What's more, the blogosphere has become the new garden of critique, in which sometimes-vitriolic-but-often-astute criticism can reach across disciplinary (and sometimes language) barriers. Drezner continues:

Perhaps the most-useful function of bloggers, however, is when they engage in the quality control of other public intellectuals. Posner believes that public intellectuals are in decline because there is no market discipline for poor quality. Even if public intellectuals royally screw up, he argues, the mass public is sufficiently uninterested and disengaged for it not to matter. Bloggers are changing that dynamic, however. If Michael Ignatieff, Paul Krugman, or William Kristol pen substandard essays, blogs have and will provide a wide spectrum of critical feedback.

For all the moaning and gnashing of teeth we hear about the declining quality of published material, one wonders whether or not the no-holds-barred "quality control" enacted in the blogosphere serves as a harsher, but possibly more effective, model of "peer reviewing" these days. I've employed blogging in each of my classes this semester, and I've been tremendously impressed with the way that students "check" each other's ideas and the presentation of those ideas, which is one particularly effective way to hone critical thinking skills. Sometimes bad ideas are like porn-- hard to define, but you know it when you see it.


Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

I didn't read the article, but now I'll have to. This helps me justify my sad discovery that I enjoy writing on my blog more than writing papers --- to say nothing of commenting on other people's blogs.

In addition to my friends' blogs, I've learned a TON about fascinating debates in contemporary classical music that I would have never encountered outside of the blogosphere and that I think are more than a little germane to the things I do with philosophy and poetry. Who woulda known?

Ideas Man, Ph.D. said...

Oh one other thing (and I mean this in all seriousness) --- even though it's the case that the rules of academic discourse screen out lots of bad arguments and bad ideas that shouldn't be made, I think it's also equally clearly the case that it would screen out lots of things that got us excited about academic inquiry in the first place...

Chet said...

Great post, as usual, Dr. J.

Is there any chance I could see how you've used blogs in the classroom? Is there a URL I can visit? I might do something like this.

DOCTOR J said...

Chet, if you go to the September archive of this blog and click on the "Blogging in the Classroom" post, there is a link to the blogs for my three classes this semester in that post.

And, thanks.