Essay

Public Intellectualism and LMU’s Mission

By Rubén Martínez
Illustration by Simon Pemberton

As a young poet in Los Angeles, I was part of a motley cohort of Salvadoran exiles and Chicana/o activists that often railed against the “ivory tower” of academe, insisting that in times of crisis, the intellectual’s place is not on a college campus but on the “street.” Certainly, many scholars joined our causes. But my generation — we came of age in the 1980s — sensed that a parting of the waters had occurred. We arrived as echoes of the college radicalism of the generation before us faded and the ideological reaction of the Reagan-Bush years set in. The “culture wars” of our era seemed an argument about an argument, disembodied discourse, theory without praxis.

I have spent much of my adult life crossing the border between the United States and Latin America, and I have always been struck that the argument about public discourse is an “American thing.” There is no question in Mexico about the role of the academic or the writer: The world is an extension of the classroom, and the world belongs in the classroom.

This stance has not always been looked upon kindly by governments. Indeed, the Jesuit martyrs who taught at San Salvador’s Universidad Centroamericana stand for the terrible price sometimes paid for that stance. Throughout history, states have targeted intellectuals and academics because they know that ideas can be power. We are witnessing that power spread throughout the Arab world now.

I was mentored in El Salvador by poets who organically negotiated between the classroom and history, between text and embodied experience. I returned to Los Angeles as the wars ended in Central America only to find refugees swept up in gang violence and, ultimately, by the Rodney King riots of 1992. In that crisis moment, the parameters of public discourse were fundamentally altered for the first time since the 1960s. The ideal of civic or public journalism gained currency, positing that reporters and editors should see communities from within rather than objectively.

Simultaneously, a new generation of academics loosely united by the cultural studies movement — Western feminists, labor historians of the Global South, scholars of indigeneity, and critics of race and ethnicity — sought to break down borders between academe and embodied politics and history. Political-intellectual communities formed — from Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. at Harvard to Mike Davis, Edward Soja and Leo Estrada in Los Angeles — and some found circuits to vet their ideas in newspapers and magazines or at least influence discourse.

The aftermath of 9/11 brought us a singular moment in public intellectual history. A global conversation arose among academics and activists aided by the digital revolution, which allowed spontaneous essays to go public and “viral.” As the decade and the “wars without end” wore on, much of that energy dissipated, but it found its voice again in the foment of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.

Thus, in the span of two generations we see that American public intellectualism has ebbed and flowed. It takes more than intellectuals willing to “go public”; a “pop” market that gives space to such voices also is needed. Today is not 1968; no corollary exists to the spectacle of Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. debating in primetime, though perhaps “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” comes close. To find a bona fide intellectual voice in a mainstream outlet, such as Slavoj Zizek on the op-ed page of the New York Times, is still an exception.

At LMU, we struggle with “life on the bluff,” with separation from the city, a border that we both acknowledge and try to undo, as evidenced by the LMU/LA logo. Ours is, again, a time of crisis at home and abroad. Today’s students are tomorrow’s public intellectuals, and at LMU, they can find programs to point them in that direction. The Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles directly engages the politics of the city. In the Department of English, we offer programs such as Road Read and Street Write, where the city is the classroom and vice-versa.

Public intellectualism may never be as organic in the United States as it is elsewhere. We have a strong anti-intellectual tendency, partly a legacy of our colonial history. But at LMU, our mission, steeped in Jesuit ideals, is clear: Knowledge of the world can only occur in the classroom if the door to it is opened.

Rubén Martínez is Fletcher Jones Chair in Literature and Writing in the Department of English in the Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts.