An Intellectual in Public

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Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Ages: Adult. Resource Types: Books.

Review & Commentary

One thought on “An Intellectual in Public

  1. Review

    Considering the heavy weight of the subject matter, reading this volume has provided a surprising amount of pleasure. The construction of the book is the reason. It consists of a series of reviews of other books, volumes that Wolfe is confident have influenced current intellectual debate. These reviews are divided into discrete sections, with overall subjects such as “Country,” “God,” “Race,” etc. There is development within each section, but the sections can be read in any order.

    For this reviewer, being able to choose the order of subjects saved the day. I turned immediately to my special interests—sections on religion and education—and found them highly stimulating. For the progressive Christian, interested in the intersection of faith and learning, these two parts of the book are worth the price of admission.

    If I had chosen the traditional route of moving through the pages in order, I would have been discouraged in the early going. The first section deals with matters of country. The meaning of citizenship, the search for justice, and the ambiguity of assimilation are important topics, but I found their treatment plodding.

    It was distressing to discover that the section on sex was the least interesting of all. A lengthy discussion of Friedan and Kinsey seemed like commentary on another world. This was especially true of the several pages spent trashing Kinsey. The entire intellectual community long ago accepted that Kinsey’s methods were flawed, and that Kinsey himself was a flake. I did not need several pages of tedious detail to make those points.

    Wolfe has a sharp (and helpful) eye for identifying the flaws in the arguments of others. It is jarring, then, to come across bloopers of his own. One of the worst was in the chapter on school curriculum. After a probing discussion of the faults of the American educational establishment, he adds, “Their poor performance made Sputnik possible.” Sputnik, of course, had nothing to do with the American educational system. It was the product of the Soviet educational system, a system Wolfe had just been severely criticizing. There are others.

    The volume’s overall purpose is revealed only at the end. Wolfe discloses in the final pages that he had been placed by Richard Posner on a list of the one hundred most influential public intellectuals. This gives Wolfe an opportunity to compare himself to others on that list. His contribution, he insists, has been to be his own person, speaking with his own voice. He has not been beholden to wealthy contributors, powerful foundations, university department biases, or any political party. He makes this claim in a quiet, non-egotistical, manner.

    His book, apart from his claim at the end, makes his point. An Intellectual in Public  is an insightful, balanced discussion of some of the most important issues before western societies. Wolfe’s is one of the moderately conservative, secular voices that progressive Christians can ignore only at great expense to themselves.

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