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Models for Public Intellectuals Today

March 5, 2018

In light of changes that have occurred in Academe and intellectual culture, many traditional scholars have responded by becoming “public intellectuals”

Some were extremely prolific and influential.

William F. Buckley, Russell Kirk and David McCullough are three traditionalists who come immediately to mind. All three were actively “engaged” in American culture from “outside” the Academy. More “liberal” (with a small “c”) but not ideologically Left public intellectuals are David Remnick and David Halberstam.

All are examples of disciplined minds who focused their research and writing amidst the sounds and fury of daily life, not in the quiet solitude of a faculty lounge. These public intellectuals did not require an academic appointment to publish a serious book nor obtain a reliable income to pursue the life of a public intellectual.

Bill Buckley used his inherited wealth to promote his fortnightly magazine, National Review.

Russell Kirk lived on his family’s farm and walked away from teaching at a major research university in order to devote himself to a life of writing. He was lucky that his first book, The Conservative Mind made his reputation.

David McCullough won two Pulitzers for books about Harry Truman and John Adams and has attracted an enormous following.

David Remnick worked as a journalist and at age 44 won a Pulitzer for Lenin’s Tomb and became editor of The New Yorker. David Halberstam, wrote about Martin Luther King and hit it big with Best and the Brightest, about John F. Kennedy and Vietnam. That earned him a Pulitzer.

These “public intellectuals ” enriched our lives and took risks that most of us avoid. One wonders what would have become of them, if they went on to earn PhDs. and earned academic tenure.

Before the Internet and Web browsers made it possible to disseminate essays and Ideas at little to no cost, college teachers taught courses, usually three per semester, attended professional conferences and published scholarly essays and books.

After the digital revolution, we are beginning to see a new type of scholar who is also a public intellectual. One public intellectual, the late Peter Lawler, published nine books, edited several others, published essays in online journals (First Things, Big Think, Law and Liberty), maintained a blog, a Twitter account (@peteralawler}, gave public presentations and led academic seminars.

Professor Lawler was a model for all traditional scholars who strive to become public intellectuals.

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