A Public Intellectual

On April 6, Hoover ( Hoover Institution , Stanford University) fellow Peter Berkowitz was awarded the 2017 Bradley Prize. Below are the remarks he delivered upon accepting the prize.

Without quite intending, I have come to be regarded as a public intellectual. Sometimes even family and friends call me a public intellectual—to my face no less!

A whiff of disapproval hovers about the title. As if a public intellectual performs acts in public—intellectualizes—that a decent person would do only in private. And then, only under the severest compulsion.

Public intellectual is not a recognized profession, though it somehow seems to combine scholarship and journalism. To become a professor, you obtain an advanced degree. Schools of journalism have proliferated. But where can you acquire credentials that confirm competence in the science of publically intellectualizing?

Scholars and journalists, moreover, have dicey reputations. Nietzsche once defined a scholar as one who thinks the thoughts of another—and turns them into dust. Thomas Jefferson remarked, “the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors.”

The merging of scholar and journalist is liable to produce a monster. Imagine the scholar’s pomposity, pedantry, and obscurantism intertwined with the journalist’s flippancy, brazenness, and sensationalism.

A proper public intellectual minimizes the vices of each by cultivating the virtues of both.

Like a master scholar—whose mission Nietzsche cherished—a public intellectual ought to go to school with the accumulated wisdom of the ages, drawing on serious study of the whole range of human affairs.

And like the best journalist—whose role Jefferson thought was indispensable to liberty—a public intellectual should distill from complex matters succinct and vivid formulations that command fellow citizens’ attention.

It is the public intellectual’s privilege, amid democratic hustle and bustle and free market churn, to illuminate the public interest.

The public intellectual must not allow the ambition to influence to corrupt the pursuit of understanding. The public intellectual ought to influence by enhancing understanding.

I have sought to do this in three broad areas: American constitutional government, Israel and Middle East politics, and liberal education.

What, if anything, unites these apparently disparate topics?

One answer is that they—and the stances I have taken—could not be better calculated to offend our dogmatic, politicized, and easily-offended academic establishment. That has not been my purpose. At least, not mainly.

My chief preoccupations, I believe, are closely connected to the task of conserving freedom.

American constitutional government is the most diverse, prosperous, and powerful experiment in freedom and democracy the world has ever seen.

Israel, the nation-state of the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland, is the most diverse, prosperous, and powerful experiment in freedom and democracy the Middle East has ever seen.

Liberal education sustains freedom and democracy wherever the experiment is run.

Undergraduate study ought to provide a capstone to liberal education. Instead, in the United States, college increasingly operates as the final stage of indoctrination.

Liberal education well understood educates for freedom. It transcends the distinction between left and right. It furnishes the mind with humanities and sciences. It refines the mind, teaching it to question boldly, explore patiently the variety of answers, and strike reasonable balances.

Liberal education emancipates—from ignorance, prejudice, and smugness. It makes a second nature of John Stuart Mill’s dictum: “He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that.” And of Seymour Martin Lipset’s wise corollary: “A person who knows only one country knows no countries.”

Liberal education neither seeks nor yields unanimity. Rooted in freedom, it authorizes dissent.

And yet, the restoration of liberal education would enable many more Americans to grasp America’s exceptional achievements; appreciate the justice of Israel’s struggles on freedom’s front lines; and recognize freedom’s dependence on education for freedom.

Two thousand years ago, the Mishnaic-era sage Rabbi Tarfon taught

.לא עליך המאלכה לגמור ולא אתה בן חורין להיבטל ממנה

This means, “You are not obliged to finish the task, and you are not free to desist from it.”

I thank the Bradley Foundation for this celebration of past accomplishments. I thank the Bradley Foundation still more for this encouragement to persist in the task.

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