Public Intellectual

A name evoking notions of informed opinions, criticisms, and intelligence, a public intellectual, dubbed by either their own accord or by others within their circles, holds the duty to share and inform the chapters of their minds work with society. A public intellectual’s work and responsibility to society can best be described through Rollo May’s work with creativity; He says, “But if you do not express your own original ideas, if you do not listen to your own being, you will have betrayed yourself. Also you will have betrayed our community in failing to make your contribution to the whole.” Essentially, a person with creative capabilities has the obligation to share their creativity with the world, or else they are letting the world down. In relation to the public intellectual, this text proposes that the intellectual has the burden of letting their informed ideas and opinions out into public, whether it be for the betterment of society or for criticism on someone else’s thoughts.

Many critics of public intellectuals today suffer the misunderstanding that a public intellectual is disconnected with and holds him or herself above society. As the Stephen Mack, a professor of writing at USC states against this idea, “it is wrong-headed in the sense that it undermines the value of citizen responsibility by subordinating it unnecessarily to the most elitist argument for the public intellectual, the one grounded in the myth of an aristocracy of experts”. Just because a public intellectual may be educated in analyzing the aspects of our society that are taken for granted by most, does not mean that they hold themselves above everyone else, and are inaccessible to the public. As Stephen Mack so accurately points out, “public intellectuals perform an important social function”, and the intellectual I write about today shows just how functional and accessible they can be.

Jane Goodall has earned countless honors, awards, and recognition from multiple countries. She was named a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2004, a United Nations Messenger of Peace in 2002, is a member of the advisory board of BBC Wildlife magazine, a recipient of the Life Time Achievement Award, has received the French Legion of Honor, has honorary degrees from multiple international and national universities, and is a Distinguished Emeritus Professor in Anthropology at USC’s Jane Goodall Research Center. Her influence over the world goes to show what a prominent public intellectual she is, because people from different backgrounds, origins, languages, countries, and people have recognized her efforts and achievements as beneficial to the world. These are just a miniscule assembly of her awards and accomplishments, but they serve to credit Jane as a perfect example of what a public intellectual is.

Jane Goodall has devoted her life’s work to breaking stereotypes about one of the closest relatives in the evolutionary tree, Apes. While most modern day members of society would discount this study as an anthropological niche just not practical and relatable to common people, Jane has shown how relatable the chimps are to modern day people, and how important they are in society’s understandings of human nature. Because she published her scientific discoveries, she fulfilled May’s understanding of the public intellectual; Goodall put her findings and research out into the public’s reach, so as to inform and add to the betterment of society, and as Stephen Mack states, she is serving her function.

In her book ‘Through a Window’, Jane Goodall writes about her thirty years with the chimpanzees of Gombe, a novel that both reads as a heart wrenching story about the lives of chimpanzees, but also as a scientific work. One of her key findings in her research at Gombe, located on the shores of Africa’s Lake Tanganyika, was that chimps develop social hierarchies. She spent fifteen years of her life observing the rise to power of one of the most relentless chimps, Figan. And what a remarkable discovery it was, to people who first read her book and thought of chimps as mindless monkeys, that each chimp has a different personality, and that some resemble those of politicians today. If it were not for Jane’s vivacious spirit for learning about these animals, and for sharing her findings with the world, we would still see chimpanzees as just brainless animals, subject to the nature of their genes, never experiencing any sort of higher thought. Because of Jane, we as a society have come to understand that they are highly intelligent animals, who can experience the emotions we see in leaders, stripped down to their most simple and primary states.

Another interesting discovery Jane had while observing the chimps of Gombe, where the ways in which alpha males stemmed from alpha female mothers. In a cross comparison of the different chimp families and leaders over the thirty years she was at Gombe, Jane made a discovery that sounds startling similar to our society today. She found out that, “Figan and Goblin, who rose to be top-ranked males and who never accepted defeat for long, had mothers who were not only dominant, but also highly social”(Goodall183). The intriguing parallels between the chimps of Gombe, and the society we are apart of today are so uncannily similar, one can only give in to the reality that we are descended from apes (if you were in any doubts before). The idea that a young chimp who was raised by a weak mother would in turn become a weak adult resonates so strongly with the dynamics of how our childhoods effect our future. We have citizens who, having come from unstable families, simply do not mature into society in the same way that citizens who grow up in stable families do. That being said, there are a multitude of factors that go into a statement like that, and I’m not saying that a person from an unstable home can not succeed, I am simply stating that there are cases where we see a person not coping well in society who, as it turns out, grew up in an unstable home. Jane witnesses these behaviors, and showcases them in the hope that people will better understand where the nature of human beings comes from.

Another finding of Jane is one that pulls deep at our heartstrings as humans. She writes of the chimp’s experience of loss, and how they can feel depression, and are greatly affected by loss. As a public intellectual, her findings and writings there after, are to inform the public on information they had not previously known, or inform them on something in order to enlighten their perspective on a topic, and change their opinion. Most people really do not care about apes, maybe we descended from them, maybe we didn’t, but who cares? They’re climbing and swinging around the forest in Africa somewhere, and how do they effect us?

Well, Jane really brings their importance full circle when she relays the story of Flint. He was eight years old when his mother Flo died. Where normally this is an age where the young chimp should be bale to start venturing off into society on his own and be okay with out the support of his mother, Flint was not ready for independency. Following the day he found his mother dead, Jane reflects, “he had no will to survive without her. His whole word had revolved around Flo, and with her gone life was hollow and meaningless…After about two minutes he turned away and, with the movements of an old man, climbed down, walked a few steps, then lay, wide eyes staring ahead….Flint became increasingly lethargic…The last time I saw him alive, he was hollow-eyed, gaunt and utterly depressed, huddled in the vegetation close to where Floe had died”(224). Jane connects the human feeling of depression, something so innately human, that before Jane’s discovery we thought was unique to humans, to the ape, and shows just how profoundly similar we are to chimps. Flint died a few days later, out of grief for not having his mother, and Jane shares this knowledge with the world in her book, pressing the harrowing truth that even our deepest darkest emotions stem from primates, and that we are not the only beings on earth who experience them.

When Secretary General Kofi Annan named Jane Goodall a UN Messenger of Peace in 2002, he remarked on her “dedication to what is best in mankind”. His recognition of her honest and meaningful research and discoveries both at Gombe, and throughout her life, solidifies Jane as a public intellectual, because she has provided us with the tools and information we need to draw similarities between ourselves, and our primate ancestors. She is dedicated to what is best for mankind, and through her research and publishing, has provided insight into our world. United Nation’s Global Messengers of Peace devote two years of their lives as global citizens raising awareness about the UN’s efforts to improve the lives of people everywhere. While she is known for her work with chimps, her work linking humans with chimps is why she is so profound in bettering mankind, and why she really is a shining example of a public intellectual. Goodall’s thirty years of research into the lives of chimps has given the world amazing knowledge, and due to Jane, we can continue to know humans better, and care for our similarities, not our differences, with the animals on this Earth.

Going back to Professor Mack’s article on the declining Public Intellectual, we saw the criticism of the intellectual aristocracy. However, Jane breaks down the barriers that some think exist between public intellectuals and citizens, by offering her knowledge to everyone in accessible, amiable ways, taking on leaderships roles like the UN Messenger of Peace, and using her intellect to do good and provide knowledge, not just critiques. As well as her role in the UN, Jane also is an honorary speaker, giving informative and educated speeches at universities, in order to imprint her understanding of mankind on the minds of young intellectuals. Her work with younger generations may just raise up a generation of public intellectuals that will shut down completely any critique of public intellectuals being intellectual aristocrats. Jane Goodall shows that a public intellectual really is less of an aristocrat, and more of a representative.


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