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The Return of the Public Intellectual by Matt Qvortrup

With a number of referendums having taken place, and due to take place, in countries across the world, Matt Qvortrup, the author of Referendums Around the World, talks about the role of the academic as a public intellectual.

A few years ago a prominent department at the London School of Economics – which shall remain nameless - received a mediocre rating in the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE). The head of department had gone to great lengths to recruit writers, commentators and thinking politicians. The mandarins and bureaucrats at the Department of Trade and Industry – who were in charge of the RAE – were less than impressed. “We run a university department, not a salon for public intellectuals”, was the reported response for the Head of Department who soon found himself out of a job. O tempore o mores – what times what morals, Cicero – himself a public intellectual would have uttered?

To cite this example one is likely to incur the wrath of those for whom academic learning is but a vocational training course that will leave the younger generations in bottomless debt.
Spare a thought for the public intellectual.

Once upon a time British and American universities – and perhaps academia in general –was full of writers who joined in the public debate; who saw it as their duty as scholars to make a contribution to the broader discussions. Think back to the likes of the historian A.J.P. Taylor, the philosophers Hannah Arendt and Isaiah Berlin and the palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould. And before them, think of giants like the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the economist John Maynard Keynes. These were individuals who held academic appoints and who combined theoretical prowess with the role of public intellectual.

Until recently – and perhaps even more so today – academics are expected to write learned and indecipherable articles in so-called four-stared journals. The onus is on writing for the select few rather than for the interested many. A colleague of mine – who was rumoured to be in contention for the Nobel-prize of Economics- , once excitedly told me that his mathematical models of markets “only were understood by six to eight people in the world”.

Not surprisingly, my colleague was miffed when the Paul Krugman –a Princeton economist and columnist in the New York Times was awarded the prestigious award in 2008. “What is he but a public intellectual”, he asked using -once again - the dreaded term.

There can be no doubt that theoretical learning – including complex mathematical models – are essential parts of academic research. The ‘public intellectuals’ cited above would not disagree. Indeed, a prominent theoretician like philosopher and economist Amartya Sen (another Nobel Laureate!) is as well-versed in abstract game theory as he is active in the efforts to eradicate poverty and hunger. And, half a century ago, the physicist Niels Bohr was able to devote his time to both theoretical quantum physics and public engagement against nuclear weapons.

The public intellectual does not abandon scholarship to engage in public debate.

But for earlier generations of public intellectuals scholarship was an important part of their role as public educators.

It is a bit of a paradox that we have fewer public intellectuals at a time when more people are going to university. It is also an enigma that universities and the higher education authorities– especially in Britain – relentlessly focus on pure research and positively discourage public intellectuals at a time when book-sales reveal that people are interested in the thoughts of public intellectuals like the economist Thomas Piketty (the author of Capital in the 21st Century), the biologist Richard Dawkins and the philosopher like Jürgen Habermas.

We live at a time when more and more people – judged by sales-figures – are interested in the writings and the opinions of intellectuals. Surely, then the best way to attact students to increasingly expensive university courses would be to encourage academics to write for the public at large. And isn’t it also more democratic if the largest number of people can learn from the educated few? Is it not preferable that the deeper insights and the concerns of the scientists and scholars are communicated outside the ivory tower? Were we not in a better position to make informed decisions if we encouraged academics to be public intellectuals who – like Albert Einstein – reflected on the consequences of their discoveries?

These rhetorical questions are almost too banal to answer.

The world needs public intellectuals. The German philosopher Johann Gottlob Fichte (1762-1814) – who is responsible for the university reforms that created higher education – once wrote, “I do not wish to think. I wish to act”. We can learn a lot from this sentiment – and even more from his present-day colleagues.

© SpringerMatt Qvortrup is Associate Professor at Cranfield University. Described by the BBC as 'the world's leading expert on referendums', Matt Qvortrup has published several books on referendums. The winner of the PSA Prize for best article in 2012, he is a former advisor to the US State Department.