Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Public Thinkers Beyond The University?

Last week a BBC Radio 3 scheme looking for “a new generation of public intellectuals” closed. Initiated in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), the scheme aimed to unearth a new wave of public thinkers with an expressed “interest in broader cultural debate”. The competition was open to all – as long as you worked inside a university and in a discipline that the AHRC supports (so economists, political scientists, sociologists, etc, were all excluded as well as Joe public).

Social innovator (and co-creator of the excellent Dark Mountain project) Dougald Hine has blogged about the Radio 3/AHRC scheme and the need to recognise and encourage public thinkers beyond the academy.

Now, call me self-interested, but by this criterion, the likes of John Berger or a young Karl Polanyi would fall through their net. I’m not comparing myself to those remarkable men. But as someone whose work gets cited by academics in a range of disciplines and is, I hope, beginning to make some impression in the public sphere, I’m disappointed to be excluded from consideration.

This isn’t just about me, though – there’s a whole network of people I’m aware of in the UK and beyond who are doing substantial new thinking from outside of academia – often in close and constructive dialogue with those operating from inside university departments. The way Radio 3 and the AHRC are approaching this project is going to miss out on a huge amount of the emerging intellectual culture of our generation – many of whose brightest minds saw what was happening to academia and chose to do our thinking elsewhere.

It certainly seems odd that, as one commentator noted, the very terms of Radio 3’s scheme would rule out Antonio Gramsci, inventor of the term “public intellectual”. Lots of excellent thinking goes on in our universities but, as almost any academic will concur, academic departments – and research councils – do not always encourage broad, cross-disciplinary thought that challenges the way we live. And with the pressures that seem certain to heap upon social sciences and humanities in light of last week’s events in Westminster it would be naive to expect positive changes in this situation anytime soon.

As well as writing to Radio 3 controller, Roger Wright, asking him to broader the terms of the “new thinkers” scheme, Hine has also called for nominations for innovative public thinkers outside the academy. I’ll put forward a couple of names, Pat Kane, whose sui generis writing on social life, and particularly play, has long been a source of inspiration, and Jenny Diski, who has spent a career unswervingly seeing the world differently without slipped into tired contrariness.

Who would you choose? What kind of public thinkers should we (and institutions such as the BBC and the AHRC) be recognising and encouraging?

Public Thinkers Beyond The University?

3 thoughts on “Public Thinkers Beyond The University?

  1. An interesting theme Peter.
    Increased academic specialisation is certainly a factor.
    was thinking of this when watching this excellent programme on Jacob Bronowski:

    Are there many people like Bronowski -able to make interesting comments on virtually any subject-around today?
    Perhaps such a character could only exist in his more deferential age when the pronouncements of 'intellectuals' were probably accepted more unquestioningly -see Stefan Collini's Absent Minds where he critiques some of the public interventions made by the likes of AJP Taylor, Bertrand Russell etc).

    Today Brownowski might find it difficult to pronounce publicly on matters outside of his area of academic expertise.

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