It’s clear that the artificial distinction between “intellectual” and “public intellectual” needs to die a quick death, if it ever really existed beyond the superficial discourse between the popular and academic cognoscenti. The advent and proliferation of quality blog aggregators and long-form journalism websites means that audiences orders of magnitude larger (than what exists in the university) can be reached through extra-professional activities.
The existence of these communities alone stipulates to the presence of a public readership that seeks a more critical, evidence-based discussion of the events of the past, present, and future. While affording the opportunity to test ideas and receive feedback on writing in an immediate way (from which all of us who claim and aspire to be academics would benefit), blogging also addresses the issue of creating a more knowledgeable, critically engaged citizenry able to deal with the increasingly complex issues of today and those which are sure to arrive in coming years. Getting the public excited about history is too often forgotten by inward-looking academics; certainly to a degree through no fault of their own, as they deal with issues of tenure, departmental and university politics, and writing, speaking, meeting, and teaching which take up more time than we’d all like. But neglecting to nurture in a new generation the love of history which put us here in the first place is unacceptable, and a betrayal of the larger spirit of history.
Engaging the public through these extra-professional channels, many of which offer powerful tools that didn’t exist a decade ago, should be the project of all academic historians–in no small part because it will ensure the discipline of history remains relevant going into the future. Isaac Asimov wrote a half-century ago that the “saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” History, and particularly history of science, is in a unique position to redress this imbalance.
You can find other writings over at slowlorisblog.wordpress.com, where you’ll find me discussing with less structure history, science, the humanities, and Sasquatch.
I tweet @slowlorisblog, and you can reach me at slowlorisblog[dot]gmail[dot]com.