I grew up watching quite a bit of PBS. Shows like NOVA and Bill Nye the Science Guy were captivating not just because of their flashy visuals, but because they made science seem cool. I remember my role models being prominent academics and scholars — at least until I found out that was considered weird. It was more acceptable to look up to a businessman or athlete; almost nobody else around me cared about figures like Carl Sagan or Michio Kaku.
America hasn’t always been this way. There was a time when the nation praised intellectuals. We were in awe of Einstein. Richard Feynman and Carl Sagan were revered by generations of schoolchildren. Scores of writers and thinkers drew inspiration from Derrida and the rest of the Yale School. And the grand debate between Keynes and Hayek piqued the interest of budding economists everywhere.
But what is an intellectual? MIT professor Alan Lightman defines an intellectual as someone who “speak[s] and writ[es] about [a] discipline and how it relates to the social, cultural and political world around it.” An academic learns for the sake of learning, but an intellectual seeks to use that learning to impact the human experience. Today, we’re light-years away from the culture that celebrated such thinkers. The age of the public intellectual is long gone.
These figures simply don’t exist anymore. Why? Because the purpose of gaining knowledge has fundamentally changed. Being smart is now a means to an end: getting rich. This is why you’re far more likely to hear high school students idolize Mark Zuckerberg than Slavoj Zizek. We most value intellect when it lines our pockets — not when it contributes to social change and the intellectual capital of the world.
There’s far more money to be made in the private sector than in academia. But this has always been true. What’s changed since the early 20th century is the level of respect that we give to such people, which is reflected in the salaries we pay them. Even at most universities, the bastions of knowledge most likely to respect deep thought, professors are woefully underpaid compared to athletics coaches.
But at least there’s fame, right? Well, not quite. During the 20th century, professors and thinkers were often household names: Einstein, Feynman, Sagan, Freud, Jung. You could be famous for being smart; you could even influence the actions of world leaders. Now, it seems the best way to get the world’s attention is to make a great product — not to dedicate oneself to learning.
When we do pursue social change, our discourse is stunted without intellectuals. Social activists come in two varieties: “slacktivists,” who are content with sound bites small enough to fit into a BuzzFeed article, or lifelong activists who spend their entire careers fighting for one issue. We’re missing the perspectives of individuals outside of the social justice bubble — particularly those who can provide lessons from other fields. More importantly, however, I can’t help but feel that the world of social justice advocacy largely consists of activists who have spent so much time shouting at the public that, when they do bring up important issues, few pay much attention. Is it really so surprising when the NRA comes out with yet another statement highlighting the merits of gun ownership? Does anybody really notice when NARAL decries laws limiting abortions as oppressive anymore?
It is the role of the public intellectual to spur discussion about these issues. There was a time when Americans were so fascinated by Einstein that they’d pick his brain on everything from religion to public policy. A culture of intellectualism encourages meaningful discussion, preventing us from substituting talking heads for real policy analysis.
We do not have enough public intellectuals. And without them, we’re left with sensationalism. Our airwaves are populated by demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Bill Maher, both of whom are more concerned about ratings than reason. It’s also quite sad that we trust entertainers like John Oliver and Steven Colbert to teach us about the world more than we trust scholars.
Now to be fair, we do have some intellectuals out there who are giving it a good effort. Neil deGrasse Tyson certainly comes to mind. In an ideal world, however, when I ask a five-year-old whom he or she looks up to, I’d hear more diverse responses than Bill Gates or Kobe Bryant; I’d hear about a scholar too.
Shreyas Tirumala is a sophomore in Trumbull College. His column runs on alternate Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .