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Introduction: Closing the gap between the philosophical and the practical

BySusan Mello, Rocío Núñez

The ever-changing and critical role of the intellectual in the public sphere – an endeavor at times thwarted by the meagerness of active models within the university – presents an enduring challenge to members of the academy. Thoughts on the issue revolve around two central questions. First, how do those intellectuals looking to “go public” balance what they may see as a responsibility to give back with existing internal roles? And second, are there alternative archetypes that can be used for inspiration given the dearth of viable examples within the academy? Among progressive academics, there seems to be a widespread hope that abandoning

intellectual traditions of autotrophic isolation in favor of nourishing public thought will not only increase the relevance of the university, but ultimately save it from selfdestruction. Over the years, this hope has been dampened by a latent fear that public engagement may degrade the introspective integrity of the university’s labor. The true challenge emerges in trying to reconcile these hopes and reservations as we move forward. As evolving social, ethical, and cultural forces compel academics to reach beyond the utopian confines of the university into the surrounding waters of society, we find ourselves plagued by competing notions of how modern-day intellectualism should operate. What can intellectuals in the academy learn from historic public intellectuals and private institutions that have not necessarily been linked to institutions of learning, but nevertheless have made a substantial impression on the global conversation? How could past “near-death experiences” faced by liberal arts ideals serve future attempts to legitimize such efforts? The following chapters explore these dilemmas, highlighting why thinking and

acting outside the confines of the university constitute a worthwhile endeavor. Offering useful guidance to contemporary intellectuals attempting to close the gap between the philosophical and the practical, they argue that the unique position of the intellectual as an intermediary between the foreign and largely inaccessible territory of the university and the public offers tremendous potential for an otherwise unlikely

and mutually altruistic partnership. What remains to be seen is how society will receive the de-monopolization of knowledge production and sharing. Even more, the consequences of the traditional university’s self-sacrifice, after having optimistically woven its intellectual thread into the public fabric, are admittedly unpredictable.