How I became a public intellectual and why you should too

OK, my title is a more than a little tongue in cheek. Blogging for the APA doesn’t make me a public intellectual. Nor does the one article I’ve published for a wider public, a piece on Petronius for Salon.com. But by the same token it seems to me that most professional classical scholars don't pursue publishing in such venues, and I think more of us should attempt it. There are a lot of reasons why we don't. We’re not trained to write for broad audiences, and the tenure and promotion system demands that we devote our energy to peer-reviewed publications. Most of us don't know how we would go about finding a venue (I got published on Salon by pure, naïve luck, a shot in the dark to a culture editor. There must be better ways to do it, and I now know that your college’s office of communications can help, but I would welcome an APA panel with advice from those who have actually done it). But I also wonder whether many of us, self-conscious about the specialization of our expertise, don't think of ourselves as having much to say. So I think it’s useful to deflate the vaunted designation of “public intellectual” a bit, because too much vaunting discourages us from trying to attain it. It’s bad for our field if no one is speaking to the public about what we do.

I heard a talk on this topic by Leonard Cassuto at last month’s meeting of the Classical Association of Atlantic States as part of a panel called “Communicating Ancient Greece and Rome.” His argument was that if we expect the public to support and respect the work we do in higher education, we should do more to make sure the public understands that work. I think he’s right about this, but I want to add that, in an age where our students, at least in part due to pressure from their parents, seem less likely than ever to consider studying topics in the humanities, we need to do everything we can to encourage them to give our classes a try.

Which brings me to writing for Salon. I responded to a blog post by Victor Davis Hanson in the National Review Online, in which he made some provocative parallels between the world portrayed in Petronius’ Satyricon to contemporary American culture. I disagree with Hanson’s politics, but that’s not why I felt I had to respond. I objected to the way his misreading of Petronius’ text authorized attitudes that are extreme for thoughtful liberals and conservatives alike and deeply alienating to our current and future students. I didn’t want Hanson’s version of what we get from a knowledge of antiquity to be the only one anyone hears about. 

Most freshmen at Vassar College, where I teach, arrive with no intention of taking any courses in Classics. This is partly because many of them don’t even know they can study Classics, and partly because of Classics’ reputation for difficulty, but it is also because of the impression that our field is “traditional” (in a bad way), politically unpalatable or, at least, irrelevant. Right or wrong, these impressions come from somewhere, and they are formed long before students ever set foot in on campus. One potent source of such impressions is the way Classics is represented in the media. This has an effect on what our students think about our field, and, perhaps more importantly, it has an effect on what their parents think about it, parents who teach their children which fields of knowledge to value and which to reject, parents who, whether we like it or not, exercise a kind of tribunicia potestas over their children’s course selections. Hanson’s post didn’t irreparably alienate anyone from our field any more than mine attracted anyone, but multiplied over many posts and many years, such impressions add up. And although I believe I can argue that students should study Classics, the reality is that unless students are willing to give my courses a try, I’ll never have the chance to make that argument. We owe it to ourselves to make sure that the public encounters a version of Classics that entices, rather than drives away, and writing about Classics in public venues is one way to accomplish this. And although we can all name scholars who write for the wider public—I think especially of Ian Morris, Mary Beard, Daniel Mendelsohn, Garry Wills, and Joy Connolly—the list is far shorter than it should be. 

Or perhaps I should say, shorter than it could be. You don't have to be a scholar of their stature to make a contribution. Leonard Cassuto, in the talk I heard, recommended that we go to our local public libraries and offer to give a talk on antiquity. This is a great suggestion because it allows us to use a skill we all have—speaking to a group—in a way that promotes our field. But I also think more classicists would write for the wider public if they knew how exhilarating it feels, especially in comparison to the self-doubt and anxiety that so many of us experience around our academic writing. I had no idea, until I tried it, how freeing it would be to write for an audience that is more interested in broad ideas than the latest scholarly finding, for an audience that not only accepts but demands that your work show some bias as a mark of its authenticity. This kind of writing cannot replace the scholarly work we all do, but after doing it I returned to my professional projects with renewed confidence in the importance of my work. So even though we do not receive professional credit for this kind of publishing, trying it is still worthwhile if you ever find yourself reading our culture through a classical lens. Don’t be daunted. You can do it. Classics needs you to do it.

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