Reimagining the Public Intellectual in Education

Making Scholarship Matter

by Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin (Volume editor) Cynthia Reyes (Volume editor)
©2015 Textbook XVI, 170 Pages
Series: Counterpoints, Volume 463


While the term «public intellectual» has been used to describe scholars who seek to share their re-search with the public, little work has been done to examine the role of a public intellectual in the field of education. This book builds upon the notion of the public intellectual in a way that makes the term more accessible, using it to refer to education scholars who seek to share their research outside of academia. Media coverage of educational issues is rife with self-appointed experts on education who have claimed space in public discussions to define educational problems and dominate public dialogues on education. But where are the education researchers in these academic dialogues? This book addresses their absence, sharing the stories of scholars who are seeking to enter public dialogues and reclaim space for reasoned dialogue on education. The stories of public scholars highlighted here acknowledge that the policymaking arena is teeming with value conflicts that can lead to dismissing or ignoring research if it does not fit with political agendas.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the Editors
  • About the Book
  • This Ebook Can Be Cited
  • Contents
  • Preface: A Case for Emphasizing the “Public” In Public Intellectual Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin and Cynthia Reyes
  • Introduction
  • When “Intellectual” Debates Trump Public Concerns
  • Using Stories to Make Writing More Accessible
  • Organization of the Book
  • Section One: Making Academic Language Accessible
  • Section Two: Engaging the Public Through Media and Web 2.0
  • Section Three: Personal Dilemmas
  • Section Four: Implications
  • References
  • Section One: Making Academic Language Accessible
  • Chapter One: Crisscrossing From Classrooms to Cartoons: Social Science Satire
  • Introduction
  • Early Influences: Becoming an Inadvertent Scholar
  • Extending From the Traditional to the Satirical
  • The Creative Process
  • Disseminating Satirical Work
  • Impact of Cartoons
  • References
  • Chapter Two: “Languaging Their Lives,” Places of Engagement, and Collaborations With Urban Youth
  • Introduction
  • Languaging and Places of Engagement
  • Languaging and Collaborations With Urban Youth
  • Languaging and the Work of a Public Scholar
  • Author’s Note
  • References
  • Chapter Three: Reframing: We are not Public Intellectuals; We are Movement Intellectuals
  • Compromiso Y Necesidad De Ver Cambio
  • Movement Intellectuals
  • Recognizing That our Communities are Not Tabula Rasae
  • Reframing Dominant Spheres
  • Creating Alternative Spaces for the Social Construction of Knowledge
  • Inclusivity, Culpability, Doing our Work, Not Justifying It!
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Chapter Four: Scholarly Personal Narrative as a Way to Connect the Academy to the World
  • Introduction
  • What the Term Public Intellectual Means to Me
  • What all of us Have In Common Throughout the World: The Need to Make Meaning of our Lives By Telling our Stories
  • Encouraging My Students to Become Spn Storytellers
  • Advice to an Emailer On How to Become an Spn Public Intellectual
  • Closing Spn Words for Prospective Public Intellectuals
  • References
  • Section Two: Engaging the Public Through Media and Web 2.0
  • Chapter Five: When a Public Intellectual Speaks Out But No One Hears Her, Does She Exist?
  • You Say Potato…
  • Teaching and Thinking at the Same Time
  • Going Public, Who Gets Quoted
  • How to Go From Expert to Ignominy In 24 Hours
  • How to Get Intellectual Fast
  • References
  • Chapter Six: The Naked Seminar: Blogging as Public Education Outside the Classroom
  • Notes
  • Chapter Seven: The Public Intellectual: The Changing Context; Implications for Attributes and Practices
  • Introduction
  • The Changing Policy Context: Some History
  • The Decline of the Ivory Tower In Educational Policymaking
  • The Rise of Partisan Think Tanks
  • The Co-Optation of the Education Organizations
  • Attributes of the Public Intellectual
  • Potential Practices and Strategies
  • The Op-Ed and the Blog
  • Other Venues to Consider
  • Conclusions
  • Notes
  • References
  • Section Three: Personal Dilemmas
  • Chapter Eight: Reflections of a “Stunt Intellectual” : Caught In the Crosshairs of “Public” Controversy
  • References
  • Chapter Nine: Traveling Down a Desire Line: Surviving Where Academia and Community Meet
  • Starting the Journey: The Good, The Bad, The Immediate
  • A Desire Line to Louisiana
  • Desire In Place: Finding a Home In Academia
  • Audience: for Whom am I Publishing?
  • Note
  • References
  • Chapter Ten: Conversations That Matter: Community-Based Practice In Support of the Public Good
  • Introduction
  • Social Justice as a Guiding Principle for our Work
  • Our Efforts to Pursue Action and Impact
  • Our Focus On Community-Based Knowledge and Practice
  • Conclusion: The Role of the Public Intellectual
  • References
  • Chapter Eleven: An Inevitable Dichotomy…Really? Harmonizing Public Intellectual Work With Academic Work
  • Organizing the New Deel
  • Conclusion
  • References
  • Section Four: Implications
  • Chapter Twelve: Reimagining the Public Intellectual In Education: Making Scholarship Matter
  • Introduction
  • What Qualifies as Research? Through the Lens of Minority Voices
  • Making Academic Language Accessible
  • Engaging the News Media and Web 2.0
  • Personal Dilemmas
  • Looking Forward: Making Educational Research Matter In a Digital, Glocal Age
  • References
  • Author Biographies
  • Index


Dr. David Parenti (academic): We get the grant, we study the problem, we propose solutions. If they listen, they listen. If they don’t, it still makes for great research. What we publish on this is gonna get a lot of attention.

Howard “Bunny” Colvin (former police officer): From who?

Dr. David Parenti: From other researchers, academics.

Howard “Bunny” Colvin: Academics?! What, they gonn’ study your study? [chuckles and shakes head] When do this shit change?

—The Wire, Season 4, Final Grades Episode (Simon & Johnson, 2006)

© [2006], Home Box Office, Inc. All Rights Reserved, used with permission

The excerpt above from the television show The Wire laments the shutting down of a successful educ ational program that was helping troubled middle school students. This excerpt is emblematic of the startling lack of connection between academic research and meaningful policy solutions. In academia, academic publication is privileged over community needs. It is this disconnect that the character Bunny Colvin laments and that we seek to explore in this book. While it is the “intellectual” side of the term “public intellectual” that academics have tended to ← ix | x → focus on in debates and scholarship, we believe that it is the public side of the equation that needs more focus and attention from education scholars.

In a world where research must be presented as objective if it is to make an impact on policymaking, there exists a tension between the notions of an academic researcher as a neutral professional and as a policy advocate. Nowhere in the public discussion is it stated that all research is socially constructed, whether it involves naturalistic inquiry or experimental design. Despite the best attempts of the researcher to use objective forms of research such as quantitative methods, including quasi-experimental design, the very research questions we ask are difficult to disentangle from our value systems, training, beliefs, and historical context from which a researcher emerges (Gunzenhauser & Gerstl-Pepin, 2006). While naturalistic inquiry and qualitative forms of inquiry often acknowledge bias, much quantitative research is wrapped in seemingly objective methodologies that claim to control for research bias.

Yet one need only look historically at objective research studies such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiment conducted between 1932 and 1972 (Jones, 1993) or the Nazi “scientific” experiments (Baumslag, 2005) to see how objective methodologies can be shaped by culturally biased researchers. Nazi researchers subscribing to the Nazi ideology of the superiority of the Aryan race conducted numerous inhumane experiments on concentration camp victims who were considered racially inferior. White researchers in the Tuskegee experiment discovered a treatment for syphilis in 1940 but neglected to inform the African American sharecroppers in the study that there was an effective treatment, thus allowing them to suffer and in some cases die from the disease. These studies show that researchers are human after all and not beyond reproach even when utilizing objective research designs. So when qualitative forms of research are presented and acknowledge the bias of the researcher, they can be easily dismissed. Yet the irony is that quantitative approaches can often be shaped by bias but presented as objective.

Media coverage of educational issues is rife with self-appointed experts on education (with little or no research training in education) such as Steven Brill (founder of CourtTV and American Lawyer magazine) or Joel Klein (former New York City schools chancellor whose professional training is in health and constitutional law) who have claimed space in public discussions to define educational problems and solutions. These public speakers dominate public dialogues on education, going so far as to write magazine articles for The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, and the New Yorker and, in Steven Brill’s case, a book targeted to the public, Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools (2012). A variety of self-appointed experts promote solutions to continuing national debates on such polarizing issues as national testing, charter schools and school choice, or higher education costs. In many cases they present data and information as if their opinions are based on objective truths.

← x | xi → At a local level in our own rural northeast state, we witness ongoing public debates on environmental and educational issues, such as the role of wind and solar energy, the nuclear power plant, and racism in one school district in a predominantly White state. We continue to hear a meager response from academic voices at the local university, even as these local issues have critical relevance to the larger national discussion on the economy and the immigration debate in Arizona. There may be isolated conversations, but there is a noticeable absence of more intentional university voices engaging in these debates in the public arena. Molnar (2006) argues that very few scholars are interested in joining in public debate, and many more are too consumed with the “promotion regime” to become interested in joining discussions (p. 64). There may even be fear of retaliation for speaking out on school issues, especially when their programs depend heavily on local schools for pre-service teacher clinical internships. Such relationships are vital for a strong teacher education program. Academics, particularly in education, walk a fine line of partnering with local schools yet bringing into the classroom current local issues, even if the latter are polarizing and foster controversial debate. But where are the researchers in these academic dialogues at all levels? This book seeks to address this issue by sharing the stories of scholars who are seeking to engage in public dialogue and reclaim space for reasoned dialogue on education.


The notion of the public intellectual has many historical connotations and has been written about in broad terms across disciplines (Jacoby, 2000; Posner, 2002; Said, 1994). But what constitutes the “public” in public intellectual? It has been a term that has been used to describe scholars who seek to share their research with the public. Little work has been done, however, to examine the role of a public intellectual in the field of education (Cochran-Smith, 2006a, 2006b). Authors such as Cochran-Smith (2006a) see how the public dialogue on education has evolved over the years and highlight the critical need for public intellectuals (scholars) in the field of education. Given that state and federal policies govern much of education, it is critical that the public and policymakers reclaim the public dialogue on education so that it can be opened up to include scholars who are informed and knowledgeable about educational problems. Cochran-Smith (2006b) defines the role of the public intellectual in education as requiring that “in whatever public realm one has influence and access, one is obliged to offer critique of policies and practices he or she sees as problematic in terms of logic or evidence or that will not serve the best interests of schoolchildren and teachers” (p. 97).

← xi | xii → Few university-based scholars have sought to enter public debates, and when they have, it is often challenging to move away from traditional academic discourse. For example, Ladson-Billings and Tate (2006) offer a collection of essays from scholars who write compellingly on the intersections of race, poverty, power, and education. The editors use Hurricane Katrina as a backdrop for discussing the politics of neoliberalism, the privatization of education, and accountability and the economic market. The arguments are empirically supported, and the scholarly prowess of each of the authors is reflected and legitimized in the discourse and passion they use to describe their topics. Yet the audience for whom this book is intended is other scholars who are interested in informing public conversations, debates, and policy formation around education. The language and discourse of the book is academic and abstract; however, some authors express anger and frustration with education policy decisions driven by political agendas rather than the best interests of students and schools. The anger and frustration is often the result of inhumane educational reform and policies. Ironically, the very public that is most affected by these dangerous policies—the ones most marginalized and disenfranchised in the school system—do not have access to these types of academic texts and research.

Even if such texts are neither appropriate to nor meant for the general public, how might the very crucial and compelling topics that affect the very individuals who need to make the decisions or who need to choose among the educational policies be made more fluid and translatable? How can those individuals become better informed? Which texts do they read? Furthermore, how might the more academic text by Ladson-Billings and Tate (2006) and other academic tomes inspire, encourage, and move education scholars to make research more accessible to the general public? For the purposes of this book, we choose to build upon the notion of a public intellectual but seek to do so in a way that makes the term more accessible. Specifically, we choose to use the term public scholar as opposed to public intellectual to refer to scholars who seek to share their research outside of academia.

The general problem with being a public scholar in the university is the lack of an institutional reward system that encourages scholars to make their work more accessible to the public. Assistant professors must secure tenure, and even associate professors, upon receiving tenure, are kept busy with teaching, advising, and service to the university community. The system provides neither incentive nor inspiration for creatively imagining such a goal. According to Molnar (2006),

a public intellectual in a university setting must inevitably hover uncomfortably between being an outsider with academically sound ideas that challenge the received wisdom of policy and practice and being someone who maintains durable long-term relationships with the policymaking world beyond the boundaries of the academy. (p. 65)

← xii | xiii → This dual role can present many challenges, since most higher education institutions reinforce reward systems that favor academic work over community engagement.


XVI, 170
ISBN (Softcover)
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (January)
Education research Public dialogue Academic framework Political agenda
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2015. XVI, 170 pp., num. ill.

Biographical notes

Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin (Volume editor) Cynthia Reyes (Volume editor)

Cynthia Gerstl-Pepin, Professor of Educational Leadership and Foundations at the University of Vermont, received her PhD from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She served as a Fulbright Scholar to China, co-edited Survival of the Fittest: The Shifting Contours of Higher Education in China and the United States, co-authored Reframing Educational Politics for Social Justice, co-edited Social Justice Leadership for a Global World, and has been published in numerous journals. Cynthia Reyes is Associate Professor of Middle Level Education and Literacy Education at the University of Vermont. She received her doctorate from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has published articles in various research journals including Educational Foundations and Research in the Teaching of English. Her research interests include digital literacy with English language learners, multilingual education and language policy, and narrative research.


Title: Reimagining the Public Intellectual in Education
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