Where Are Our Public Intellectuals?


Martha Nussbam delivered the 2017 National Endowment for the Humanities Jefferson Lecture.  She is often listed as one of our leading public intellectuals

Elizabeth Mitchell asks this question in the July 2017 issue of Smithsonian.  Her piece includes a very helpful graphic that divides today’s public intellectuals into feminists, leftists, specialists, “rising stars,” science experts, “explainers,” and right-wingers. Her list of public intellectuals include Judith Butler, Katha Pollitt, Al Gore, Frank Rich, Martha Nussbaum, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Malcom Gladwell, Andrew Sullivan, Sean Wilentz, Bill McKibben, Krista Tippett, Paul Krugman, Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Melissa Harris_Perry, Ross Douthat, Neil de Grasse Tyson, Bill Nye, George Will, William Bennett, David Brooks, and Robert George.

Here is a taste:

Sure enough, in 2017, we are not uninformed; we are over-informed. Scanning our packed feeds, we seek out the trigger topics and views that bolster our perspective.

That’s why we might take a different view of all the fierce arguing online and elsewhere. It is indeed a kind of tribalism, which is marked by a belligerent insistence on cohesion. According to sociologists, humans typically resort to bullying and moral castigation to keep the social unit whole. Maybe our cable-news wars and Facebook scuffles aren’t the death throes of intelligent discourse after all but, rather, signs that this national tribe is furiously attempting to knit itself together.

The potential market for intelligent discussion is greater than ever. Over a third of the adult U.S. population holds four-year degrees—an all-time high. And because the number of graduates who are women or African-American or Hispanic has increased dramatically, today’s public intellectuals look different from the old days. It’s no accident that some of our fastest-rising intellectual powerhouses are people of color, such as Ta-Nehisi Coates and Roxane Gay.

If we look back at our history, public intellectuals always emerged when the country was sharply divided: during the Civil War, the Vietnam War, the fights for civil rights and women’s rights. This moment of deep ideological division will likely see the return, right when we need them, of the thinkers and talkers who can bridge the emotional divide. But this time they will likely be holding online forums and stirring up podcasts.

Read the entire piece here.