Some of the most influential policy ideas of the modern era - from the social market economy to the Reagan Revolution to the Third Way - were intellectually underwritten by the work of well-known scholars who stood at the nexus between academia and public policy. Public intellectuals have long elevated debate by infusing the political process with fresh and provocative ideas. Although the role of public intellectuals remains crucial, it is in peril in the United States and Europe. The speed of the news cycle is just one factor that undermines deliberative discussion of new ideas and creative policy thinking. This panel discussion brought together two eminent intellectuals to reflect on the public role of intellectuals in the United States and Germany. Benjamin Barber is Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and author of the bestselling book Jihad vs. McWorld
. Paul Nolte is Professor of Modern History at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute, Freie Universität Berlin and author of Generation Reform
. The discussion was moderated by Der Tagesspiegel
's Christoph von Marschall.
Paul Nolte noted that, until quite recently, the postwar history of West Germany and post-unification Germany was dominated by a single generation of public intellectuals, including such figures as Jürgen Habermas and Ralf Dahrendorf. For most of the postwar period, the central issues of public intellectual life were clearly defined: coming to terms with the Nazi past and learning democracy. Since German unification, the major issues of German politics have not been as easy to define: They have become more diverse and more complicated, and the answers are not as clear-cut. This has made it more difficult for a new generation of intellectuals to intervene in public debate. In addition, intellectuals from the humanities and social sciences are finding it difficult to compete with the demand for "experts" from the natural sciences and economics to whom politicians look for empirical data.
Benjamin Barber argued that the primary role of public intellectuals is to criticize, to complexify, and to give historical background. Using the example of the "Arab Spring," he contended that it was the intellectual's duty to point out that the advent of democracy would be a long and difficult process. Reflecting on his own past role as a frequent guest of President Clinton's, Barber noted that intellectuals can find themselves caught between their calling as critics and the allure of advising those in power, which he regarded as highly problematic. Insisting on the key role of deliberation in a democracy, Barber stressed that it was the intellectual's role to foster careful deliberation, something presently lacking in America's highly polarized political culture. He bemoaned the fact that most Americans fail to understand the epistemological difference between scientific statements backed by evidence and mere opinions.
In response to Barber, Nolte argued that intellectuals should not merely serve as critics, but sharpen the debate by proposing concepts, theories, and interpretations. Nolte and Barber also disagreed on the role of the media: Whereas Barber was highly critical of television and the new media because their "sound bite" culture has undermined serious intellectual debate, Nolte argued that intellectuals should endorse new media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter in order to reach a younger audience.
The well-attended panel discussion concluded with lively questions from the audience.RFW
Paul Nolte, Christoph von Marschall, and Benjamin Barber
Paul Nolte (Professor, Friedrich Meinecke Institute, Freie Universität Berlin)
Christoph von Marschall (Der Tagesspiegel)
Benjamin Barber (Distinguished Senior Fellow, Demos)
Annette Heuser (Executive Director, Bertelsmann Foundation, Washington, DC)
Where are the Intellectuals? The Absence of Great Minds from Today's Key Political Debates
June 13, 2011 - 6:00 to 7:30pm
Panel Discussion at the GHI - Directions
Speakers: Benjamin Barber (Demos), Paul Nolte (Freie Universität Berlin), Christoph von Marschall (Der Tagesspiegel
)Co-sponsored by the Bertelsmann Foundation.
Some of the most influential policy ideas of the modern era-from the social market economy to the Reagan Revolution to the Third Way-were intellectually underwritten by the work of well-known scholars who stood at the nexus between academia and public policy. Public intellectuals have long elevated debate by infusing the political process with fresh and provocative ideas.
But even as the role of the public intellectual is more crucial than ever, it is in peril in the US and Europe. The speed of the news cycle is just one factor that undermines deliberative discussion on new ideas and creative policy thinking.
This discussion brings together two eminent public intellectuals to focus on the following questions: Is there a widening rift between the scholar and the practitioner? If so, why? What does that mean for US and European politics? Can we expect changes in the future?
Benjamin Barber is the Distinguished Senior Fellow at Demos and author of the bestselling book Jihad vs. McWorld
. Paul Nolte is a Professor of Modern History at the Friedrich Meinecke Institute, Freie Universität Berlin and author of Generation Reform
. The discusssion will be moderated by Der Tagesspiegel
's Christoph von Marschall.
A reception will follow the event. Please RSVP (acceptances only) by Tel. 202.387.3355, Fax 202.387.6437 or
Click on image to enlarge or print (pdf).