Academics and the Public

How should scholars interact with the public? This is a question I am interested in exploring and will think about briefly here. I might post on the subject again down the road.

A broader version of the question might be, how should a public person of authority interact with the public? Scholars are only one example of public people of authority. There are other examples of public people of authority: politicians, celebrities, journalists, community leaders. They are people who make appearances as authorities in public at rallies or conferences or churches or even local charitable golf tournaments. They are authorities who get out amongst the public. But when they do, how should they interact?

It feels to me, and I cannot say exactly why it does, that scholars are the kind of public people of authority who should have less barriers than other kinds of authorities to interact with the public, the exception being pride, which so often walls off any kind of authority figure from the public. Perhaps a reason it seems to me there should be less barriers is it also seems to me the scholar’s source of authority is less removed from the public than other sources of authority. The scholar’s source of authority is learning. And scholars regularly encounter other people more learned than they are, be it in an academic discipline of which they are unfamiliar or else some other kind of knowledge (horticulture, parenting, fashion, auto mechanics, etc.) of which they are dunces. This is not the case for, say, politicians, who almost certainly never meet a member of the public who shares the same source of authority.

Maybe then an answer to the question “How should scholars interact with the public?” is that they should interact with the public as pupils. Or at least, scholars should interact with the public as pupils as often as they interact with the public as instructors.

I will add, this orientation seems especially pertinent to historians. For an historian makes his living by being the public’s student. True, usually the public instructing him is dead. But then, how much more should he be grateful for the chance to interact with the living?