Field Notes

What makes a public intellectual? The answer is hazy. Clearly Henry Louis Gates Jr. is one: He goes on TV and writes for The New Yorker. But Noam Chomsky is one, too, and he does neither. Must the intellectual deal with public issues, as William Julius Wilson does, or may he or she simply take academic subjects to the public, à la Stephen Hawking? Are the fame of Camille Paglia and the influence of Milton Friedman really the same thing?

The problem with the term–and any term that embraces both Umberto Eco and Arianna Huffington can safely be said to have a problem–is that it has so many contradictory connotations. "Public" can refer to the nation or the neighborhood, the illiterate hordes or the readership of The New York Review of Books. One public intellectual may wish to bestow the ideas of the scholars on the masses, another to force the ideas of the masses on the scholars.

And now, to add to the confusion, Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton is turning the public intellectual into an academic degree. Beginning this fall, bright, adventurous men and women with the conviction that the social order would profit from their input may pursue a Ph.D. in FAU’s Public Intellectuals Program–and for only $8,700 a year ($2,500 for Florida residents).

A Ph.D. in being a public intellectual? It sounds strange. After all, the doctorate traditionally signals one’s expertise in a specific field of research. But FAU is up to something different: Its degree is defined in terms of the recipient’s ambitions, not his or her knowledge. Still, the standard features of a graduate program are in place. In the awkward prose of university administration, the course catalog describes an interdisciplinary curriculum "beyond the margins of purely discipline-based research"; it includes areas of concentration such as "Race and Ethnic Conflict," "Media and Popular Culture," "Public Policy and the Concept of the Public," and "Creative Strategies" (which the catalog defines as tactics for "catching the imagination of people, if not the conscience of cultures"). The degree requirements include two written qualifying exams and a dissertation, the latter supervised by a multidisciplinary committee drawn from FAU’s forty-five-member arts and letters faculty (who, truth be told, are hardly household names). Don’t expect to leave Boca Raton in less than four years.

A Ph.D. in being a public intellectual? Florida Atlantic University’s new program may become the breeding ground for future Umberto Ecos and Arianna Huffingtons.

The person in charge of educating public intellectuals is Teresa Brennan, a Cambridge-educated social theorist, whose abstruse-sounding books include History After Lacan and The Interpretation of the Flesh: Freud and Femininity–works, she insists, that actually reflect "a real unfashionable commitment to clarity." Brennan, a spectacularly well-networked (though not publicly famous) scholar, who trained in psychoanalysis and worked in politics before she turned to scholarship, didn’t begin her own graduate studies till she was in her mid-thirties. As she worked on her degree, Brennan says, she met people who were drifting reluctantly into professional academia–one of her fellow students had wanted to work for the United Nations but "ended up as an assistant professor somewhere."

What such people needed, she thought, was a different kind of graduate program. By a lucky coincidence, that was what FAU needed, too, according to Dorothy Stetson, the school’s humanities chair. In 1991, now-deceased local businessman Charles Schmidt had donated $10 million to support a humanities grad school at Florida Atlantic, in honor of his late wife, Dorothy. But as a state institution, Stetson says, FAU had to find something that wouldn’t compete with existing doctoral programs at other state schools. Enter Brennan, who left a visiting post at Cornell to become the first Schmidt Distinguished Professor of Humanities.

Already, Brennan has drawn a raft of name-brand thinkers as visiting faculty or guest lecturers, including Cornell intellectual historian Susan Buck-Morss, Harvard philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, Harvard theologian Cornel West, and historian and well-known critic of the academy Russell Jacoby ("It’s a natural for me," says Jacoby, author of The Last Intellectuals). The curriculum advisory board includes Harvard feminist Alice Jardine and the peripatetic Stanley Fish, who will also pop in and teach. Nonacademic board members include the writer and AIDS activist Jeffrey Escoffier, the labor lawyer Thomas Geoghegan, and the anti-biotech crusader Jeremy Rifkin.

Having a Ph.D. in chemistry may make you a chemist, but does having a Ph.D. in public intellectualism make you a public intellectual? Maybe not. But the goal of the program is not to accredit a new generation of George Will—style pundits; rather, Brennan says, it aims to train intellectually oriented people to go out into public life. The idea, she says, is in part to give students support from people who are already out in the world, through instruction, mentoring, and hands-on practicum courses (a seminar in how to start an environmental recycling business, for example). She envisions graduates becoming journalists, documentary filmmakers, museum directors, clergy, community organizers, and labor organizers, among other things. Fish goes so far as to imagine "a public intellectual working in a brokerage firm."

Beyond elevated notions of service and progress, there is another good reason for sending Ph.D.’s out into public life: It may help get rid of them.

Though the first batch of students–expected to number about twenty–has yet to be chosen, Brennan hopes it will include both people "who have been involved in some public-intellectual profession" and "people fresh from their first degrees, who...want to have an impact outside the academy."

"It’s important to stress here that this is not an anti-intellectual program," Brennan says. Despite its extra-academic aims, the program intends to be heavy on scholarship and theory. "The emphasis, as I read the literature, is on extraordinarily advanced work," boasts Fish. "Teresa has invited people whose work is regarded as the most advanced and difficult."

Which is not to say that the curriculum doesn’t threaten to veer into squidginess here and there. Anti-genital-mutilation activist Nawal El Saadawi, for instance, will offer a course this fall called Creativity and Dissidence, which the catalog promises "will be built on continuous open and free discussion, on our experiences of life, and on how different forces stifle our creative powers."

But beyond elevated notions of service and progress, there is another good reason for sending Ph.D.’s out into public life: It may help get rid of them. With academic employment prospects in the humanities resembling dinner prospects during the great potato famine, even some skeptics are willing to give Florida Atlantic’s plans the benefit of the doubt. At best, FAU might draw doctoral candidates away from glutted disciplinary programs elsewhere; even if it doesn’t, it could provide other schools with a blueprint for workfare for budding scholars. Pointing Ph.D.’s toward the larger world may or may not help the world, but at least it will give them somewhere to go.


Return to Home Page

Copyright © 1999 Lingua Franca, Inc. All rights reserved.