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Alumni News

Spring 2002

Larry Sabato, whose story is told in these pages, may well be the best example on the national stage of what one might call the new American public intellectual. As a scholar and teacher, he reaches people both inside and outside the academy. Discussing matters of public policy in public, Mr. Sabato draws on 25 years of study, work in the field, and teaching. Engagement of the general public reached by way of interviews, speeches, and books accessible to audiences far larger than the historic scholarly audience represents a noteworthy change in civic education.

In the first half of the last century, public intellectuals, many from outside of the academy, contributed to something an earlier generation understood as the general enlightenment. The literary critic and political essayist Edmund Wilson, the journalist and political theorist Walter Lippmann, and others, persons deeply and widely read, public intellectuals par excellence, were brilliant social critics, but not academic specialists. From inside the academy, those sought out for public comment tended to be college presidents. James Conant of Harvard and Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, for example, were famously outspoken on educational and other social issues of their time.

Not primarily known for the disciplines in which they were trained, but instead seen as intellectual and moral authority by virtue of their positions, these academics had the rhetorical latitude to speak about many subjects. Perhaps to our loss, today's public intellectuals speak about subjects within the boundaries of their formal training. Few claim the range or the right to be heard that somehow belonged to Lippmann, Hutchins, and others who worked as they did.

Why are public intellectuals nowadays so often academic specialists rather than generalists? Perhaps an increasingly well-educated public with a high degree of formal education simply demands specialized information in the place of edifying and experiential wisdom. In this information age, citizens may expect that persons who take positions on contentious issues must have credentialed expertise and the presumed deep knowledge and intellectual authority that come from scholarly research conducted within a specialty.

Here at the University, we expect specialty-based scholarly exchange to engage faculty and students and faculty and academic colleagues, but we also value conversations across and outside the disciplines, especially those that extend beyond the community of the professorate to other occupations. We keep long lists of faculty whose advice is sought by news media. We ask professors to list in their yearly accounts of professional activities their service in the form of advising government, addressing their ideas to the media, and speaking to or participating in deliberations within citizens groups. To apply one's knowledge in the public sphere, to use what one knows to advance public understanding of serious matters is a fundamental obligation of scholarship in a society that treasures free inquiry and unfettered discourse.

We have formalized this practice in several ways. The Faculty Senate now teams up with the Alumni Association and vice president for research and public service sponsor a faculty speakers bureau. This organization connects faculty speakers/participants with citizen and educational groups throughout Virginia and (through links with alumni clubs throughout the country and abroad) with broader audiences. The goal is to extend our intellectual reach well beyond the Grounds.

Our Commonwealth 2020 Lecture Series, entitled "Engaging the Mind," this year sponsors free faculty lectures throughout the state in communities as diverse as Fairfax County, Abingdon, and the Tidewater. Faculty members including Will Thomas, who directs the Virginia Center for Digital History, Steve Majewski of the Department of Astronomy, Larry Sabato, pediatrician Kimberly Dunsmore, and A. E. Dick Howard, who has literally written modern constitutions in a dozen places, including Virginia, are addressing such topics as Civil War digital historiography, The Milky Way, the 2000 and 2001 elections, childhood leukemia, and the Supreme Court. And their audiences are women and men whose daily occupations involve insurance or farming or running a family business, and scores of other non-University activities.

Other faculty, sought out by news media, governmental agencies, and citizens' groups, remain busily engaged in responding to the questions that the nation, unsettled by the attacks of September 11 and by financial decline, needs addressed. As I write at the close of the year, the Commonwealth of Virginia, suffering from a $1.2 billion budget shortfall, must decide how to provide various essential services in a fiscally responsible way. It is probably true to say that no subject matters more just now to Virginia's people and leaders and University itself than how to deal strategically with the recession that began last spring. John Knapp, the economics research director of the University's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, has stepped up to the plate. His advice to a non-partisan business-sponsored Conference on Virginia's Future has generated an interregnum and non-partisan public debate about how to modernize the state and local tax system. No political leader could have had this impact because all carry some partisan coloration. Mr. Knapp's independence and (in the best sense) disinterest make him an essential figure in what all of us see as a deeply serious discussion.

Once upon a time, professors may have remained within the boundaries of cloistered intellectual ground, within disciplines or departments. The research university may once have only pure knowledge, untainted by the rough and tumble of daily life. If so (and I doubt it), no more. Faculty have come out of their studies emphatically. In the expansion of their role in civic education, the public discourse itself has changed for the better. Academic research has deepened civic conversation about vital social issues, indeed (as I explained in my annual year's end letter to alumni) about our republic's survival and hope for the future.

In this new exchange of ideas and forums, the discourse itself has been enriched. As public intellectual, a professor like Larry Sabato speaks with a voice heard in the marketplace of ideas and comes to shape and provide the knowledge that Mr. Jefferson saw as essential to the well-being of citizens charged with upholding democratic institutions. Our resources could not be put to better use.

John T. Casteen III