Public intellectuals topic of Feb. 12 “Conversation”

Public intellectuals — a class of specialists or all-purpose thinkers — will gather from 10-11:30 a.m. Feb. 12 in Graham Chapel at Washington University in St. Louis to have a “Conversation” about, well, public intellectuals.

As part of the university’s yearlong 150th anniversary celebration, Arts & Sciences is sponsoring “Conversations,” a four-part series bringing some of the nation’s top scholars together to discuss key issues that will affect the future of the university, the community and the world. The Conversations are free and open to the public.

Gerald L. Early, Ph.D., the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, will moderate the discussion on “Public Intellectuals,” the third topic in the series.

Joining Early will be Michael Bérubé, the Paterno Family Professor in Literature at Pennsylvania State University; Howard Brick, Ph.D., professor of history in Arts & Sciences at Washington University; Stanley Crouch, a columnist for the New York Daily News; Marjorie Garber, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and director of the Humanities Center at Harvard University; and Washington University’s Ursula Goodenough, Ph.D., professor of biology in Arts & Sciences, who holds a joint appointment as associate professor of anatomy in the School of Medicine.

A noted essayist and American culture critic, Early also is a professor of English, of African and Afro-American Studies (AFAS), and of American Culture Studies, and director of the The Center for the Humanities and interim co-director of AFAS, all in Arts & Sciences at Washington University.

In the January-February 2004 issue of the center’s literary review, Belles Lettres, Early, who has written commentary pieces for numerous publications, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Nation and The New Republic, writes about public intellectuals and “reluctantly” accepts the title of one.

In Belles Lettres, Early notes that taking on writing assignments “has made some people, more than a few, think me to be, quite a bit against my own inclination, a public intellectual. I would certainly fit the current description of such a person: I am a university professor; I have an advanced degree and a recognized area of academic expertise, I write for publications that enjoy a general, albeit, at times, highly partisan, readership.”

Early continues: “I find the term ‘intellectual’ pretentious, though at times useful for me, at least, in talking about certain people. … I wish, to be plain-spoken about it, to call a thing by its right name, as old folk might say, and my right name is simply ‘writer.'”

Yet he concedes that “sometimes, one must accept what other people think you are, sometimes even with gratitude that they wish to think about you at all. Sometimes you owe the people who read you the kindness of trying to understand why they thought they should read you, and how they decided to do so. Besides, this class of people called public intellectuals fascinates me.”

Among “this class” are the five who will participate in the Feb. 12 Conversation.

Bérubé teaches literature and cultural studies at Penn State and is the author of four books, including Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child, a New York Times Notable Book of the Year for 1996 and a leading contribution to the interdisciplinary field of disability studies.

Crouch is an outspoken columnist, novelist, essayist, critic and television commentator. He has served since 1987 as an artistic consultant at Lincoln Center and is a co-founder of the Jazz department there. He is the author of among others, The All-American Skin Game, or, The Decoy of Race, Always in Pursuit: Fresh American Perspectives and Don’t the Moon Look Lonesome: A Novel in Blues and Swing.

Garber, a renowned Shakespeare scholar, is director of Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and an influential cultural critic and commentator. She writes frequently about gender, eroticism, bisexuality and a wide range of cultural issues. Among her many books are Academic Instincts and Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety.

Brick is an expert on the social, cultural and ideological impact of intellectuals on America’s history and institutions. He has written extensively about the relationship of capitalism to social development in American society and how American intellectuals have regarded this issue. He is the author of Age of Contradiction: American Thought and Culture in the 1960s and Daniel Bell and the Decline of Intellectual Radicalism: Social Theory and Political Reconciliation in the 1940s.

Goodenough, a leading cell biologist, is the author of a best-selling textbook, Genetics, and a popular discourse on religion and science, The Sacred Depths of Nature, which was named Outstanding Academic Book of 1999 by Choice.

Early refers to her in Belles Lettres as “a member of an important cadre of public intellectuals: scientists and scientific writers who write about science for a general audience, tremendously important because science is the most powerful and influential subject in our society today.”

The last Conversation, also from 10-11:30 a.m. in Graham Chapel, will address “Modern Human Origins” on March 26. For more information, call (314) 935-7304.