“How to be a public intellectual”? How a t-shirt totally changed my mind. Really.

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It makes a kind of intuitive sense.

When I heard that Stanford was offering a course called “How to Be a Public Intellectual,” I was skeptical, to put it mildly. What presumption!  It reminded me of  all those leadership courses, which conceal the eternal quest for followers. Besides, how do you even begin to train people to be Susan Sontag or Michel Serres?

The t-shirt at right totally changed my mind.  Although I usually don’t go for the wittily self-ironic, this time I fell hard. I saw it and I had to have one. That brought me to the figurative doorstep of Prof. Dan Edelstein and lecturer Ruth Starkman, the powerhouses behind the course.

Dan explained to me the title of the course is meant to be “aspirational” only: “At heart, the goal of the class is to explore ways in which a liberal education can be used not only to pursue scholarly goals, but also to contribute in a knowledgeable fashion to public debates. We read a series of programmatic texts, starting with Montaigne, about what a liberal education should consist of; we also considered institutional factors – how can the University be designed to best deliver said education?” The course includes “reading some examples of public interventions by very well educated writers.”

Like?  Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s Emile, W.E.B. Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk, Julien Benda‘s Treason of the Intellectuals,  Allan Bloom‘s Closing of the American Mind, Clark Kerr‘s The Uses of the University, with Emerson and Adam Gopnik somewhere in the mix, too.

Here’s what the syllabus says: “Can education impart more than bookish learning? This is the question that critics have posed since the Renaissance. Through their reflections, these critics posited an alternative ideal of education that prepared the student for life outside the academy. Over the centuries, this ideal would evolve into what we would today call an ‘intellectual’ – but this modern concept only captures a part of what earlier writers thought learning could achieve. In this course, we will focus on how education can prepare students to engage in public debates, and the role that the university can play in public learning.”

Class over. Ruth seems pleased with the students: “They were a very interesting group, many first-generation Americans, all of whom want to pursue public policy and write for a larger public on a variety of issues like middle east politics, healthcare, the environment, education, minority outreach,” she said.

You are my inspiration.

You are my inspiration.

Oh, and the inspiration for the t-shirt image?  Dan told me it is the family dog, Teddy; the tiara belonged to his young daughter. “I didn’t had any role in designing the t-shirts, so I’m not sure how a tiara-ed keeshond came to stand for public intellectuals,” he confessed. I dunno. I think it makes an intuitive sort of sense. In any case, he brought Teddy to class a few times, so she’s part of the program. Kind of.

Ruth explained that the course was part of a program called “Education as Self-Fashioning” (I have issues with that title, too…), but what better way to “self-fashion” than, well, fashion. Naturally the students wanted a t-shirt, “so I made them one, but no one could agree which quote from Dan to include or if we should have one from the reading, so they left it a blank white slate. I gave a shirt to my student Rob Fischer, who’s at the New Yorker. We talked a lot about journalists as public intellectuals, which is why it’s an honor to give a literary journalist like you one, too.” I got the very last t-shirt. Size medium.

If Teddy makes the cut, who knows? I already have the t-shirt. Maybe someday I’ll be a public intellectual, too. Sontag, move over.


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