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Jakarta globe

by Jennie S. Bev

Contrary to popular belief, academics are intellectuals but not all intellectuals are academics. Additionally, not all intellectuals are known to the public, and not all public intellectuals are radical.

Radical intellectuals can be found somewhere between university classes and writing and research gigs. They might even be unemployed and possess no Harvard or University of Indonesia PhDs. They are usually those who possess strong opinions but stay on the sidelines. They are iconoclasts, critics and polemicists.

But where are they today? Why are they important to society? Are they going extinct? Can their kind be saved?

First, let’s examine just who we’re talking about. Richard A. Posner, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, wrote in Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline that the definition of a public intellectual involves demarcating an area of social life. In general, the term “intellectual” refers to someone seriously interested in matters of the mind.

One’s mind-set, therefore, is what differentiates an intellectual from others. However, the term must never be considered synonymous with “intelligent,” as many intelligent people aren’t intellectuals. In short, an intellectual supplies ideas on public matters, mostly in general notions, by forming theories through reflection and analysis.

Russell Jacoby, a UCLA professor who wrote The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe, said an intellectual is usually considered the conscience of society, the upholders of values and ideals. He cautioned that the politics of being an academic in a university setting, though, oftentimes can lead them away from their social function.

Many of today’s intellectuals are indeed academics, but there was a time when nonacademic intellectuals formed the majority, an age when higher education was considered largely unnecessary. There was Machiavelli, Milton, Locke, Burke, Jefferson, Voltaire, Kant and Montesquieu, none of whom were professors that wrote specifically for the insular academic community.

In the 19th century, there were Bentham, Tocqueville, Marx, Emerson, Thoreau, Dickens, John Stuart Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche and Henry Adams. But by the end of 20th century, the number of nonacademic public intellectuals had dwindled considerably. Among them were Orwell, Koestler, Camus, Holmes, Brandeis, Freud, HG Wells, TS Eliot and George Bernard Shaw.

John Maynard Keynes, with his 1920 The Economic Consequences of the Peace, is another example of a nonacademic intellectual whose works are considered a pillar of today’s knowledge. During his time, economics was not yet a specialized discipline and he wrote for the general audience. Keynes is the epitome of the modern-day public intellectual who is radical at the same time.

Thus, it is shortsighted to say that only within the walls of brick-and-mortar, ivy-covered universities can works of serious learning be produced. The tendency of “purist” academics is to spread their teachings within a small circle of peers, hence they are known as knowledge workers who simply write for fellow knowledge workers.

This exclusivity kills their ability to communicate with the public, as they emphasize substance over style and charismatic voice. One might be famous among his or her peers, but isn’t likely known at all by the public.

Orwell and Camus are examples of charismatic, radical public intellectuals who worked from the sidelines. They stirred society in ways that distinguished them from Sartre, who grounded his perspectives in dogma.

Radical public intellectuals are on the brink of extinction, especially as modern attention spans grow shorter. Producing knowledge now means real-time deliverance of information through the Internet, and intellectuals might be tempted to reduce their output to such simplification.

However, if society is to be enriched from the inside out, it is the job of all intellectuals — both public and the more private — to produce knowledge with both substance and style. All with a tinge of charisma.[]

The Jakarta Globe, April 9, 2009

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