At the beginning of January 2010, I received an email prompting me to watch a video of Diane Ravitch making a speech. My knee-jerk reaction was to delete the email because I had long rejected Ravitch’s work, associating her with the standards/testing movement and a traditional view of literacy that I firmly refuted.

Instead I clicked the link and was quickly puzzled, wondering who this Diane Ravitch was and what had happened to the Ravitch I had walked out on at a National Council of Teachers of English session several years before. Ravitch’s talk was so compelling I sought out her email, sent her an apology, and within the hour received a reply.

Diane and I exchanged a few emails; she was gracious and open about her recent change in stances related to public education reform (all detailed in her popular and influential book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education). This event has since grown into a virtual friendship and collegiality that I would have never predicted, but the intervening years have also revealed more than Ravitch’s new positions on accountability and preserving the promise of public education. Those months and years have also highlighted the role of the new media (Twitter, Facebook, blogging, google+, and the ever-growing virtual world of social media and communication) in the rise of the new public intellectual.

By most any definition of public intellectual (see Possner, Jacoby, and Fish, among many careful looks at public intellectuals), Ravitch had established herself as a respected academic, a popular public intellectual, and even a public servant, having held political appointments in the U.S. Department of Education. When Ravitch was closely associated with conservative and traditional ideology and policy, her scholarly books sold well, and she also garnered invitations to speak widely on issues related to education.

What is particularly interesting about Ravitch 2.0, however, is that once she expressed considerable and distinct changes in her stances on education reform and policy—again, all presented in traditional format, a book—Ravicth also embraced the new media by establishing herself on Twitter (where she is approaching 60,000 followers) and eventually committing to regular (often multiple times a day) blogging on her own site.

While Ravitch’s recent journey from traditional and conservative scholar and public intellectual to Ravitch 2.0 is itself interesting, and even inspiring, I believe it warrants some consideration as a harbinger of the new public intellectual.

Primarily motivated by Ravitch’s use of Twitter, I joined Twitter more than a year ago, and fairly recently shifted my public work away from blogging at The Daily Kos and The Daily Censored and toward original blogging at my own WordPress site. While my impact and influence are dwarfed by Ravitch’s, I believe I have joined a new frontier for educators, academics, and scholars—a door opening to the life of the public intellectual that was often closed or at least hard to open in the recent past.

Before the new media exploded, public intellectuals depended on the traditional media—newspapers, magazines, and TV—for access to the public. Educators and academics had to find time to submit Op-Eds or public writing (and then that work had to be accepted and published) or had to wait for invitations to participate in that traditional media. As scholars have shown (see above), public intellectuals thrived in the twentieth century, but many were “rock star” public intellectuals, creating a narrow avenue for educators, academics, and scholars to form public voices.

As Ravitch has shown, however, Twitter and blogging can be powerful mechanisms for creating a public presence, mechanisms that circumvent traditional barriers to becoming a public intellectual.

The new public intellectual thriving in the new media, however, still faces tremendous hurdles and daunting negative consequences.

Professors with tenure and emeriti professors (such as Ravitch, Stephen Krashen, and me) are notably emboldened by the new media since those barriers and consequences are greatly subdued. Certainly academic and scholarly public intellectuals must navigate challenges to their credibility and traditional biases against public work, but in general, those threats are minor for tenured and emeriti professors.

More problematic are K-12 teachers (some unionized and many not) and junior tenure-track professors. For these educators and academics, public work itself poses great dangers, some of which jeopardize their jobs and routes to tenure.

For both K-12 education and universities, I think, a challenge now stands before administrative and academic leaders in charge of retention, evaluation, and promotion. Some of the changes that need to occur include the following:

  • Recognizing and honoring public intellectual work in ways that do not marginalize that work and that do not subordinate that work to more traditional forms of scholarship (peer-reviewed print publications, for example).
  • Recognizing and honoring the new media presentation of that public work.
  • Incorporating public work and new media formats into hiring, retaining, evaluating, and promoting processes.
  • Creating and insuring professional cultures that recognize and honor public and new media work by educators, academics, and scholars.

These transformations, then, will not only address the rise of new public intellectuals and the new media but also help reconcile the lingering disjuncture between most mission statements of schools and universities (nearly all expressing some social function of the school or university) and policies that remain somewhat or strongly hostile to educators and academics who are actively engaged with the public or with activism.

Despite the enduring arguments for the dispassionate and neutral educator/professor, the school and its educators are ultimately important only in the ways in which they engage with and change the world.

At least in the world we now inhabit, that may be happening one Tweet at a time, and we need to embrace this new frontier before that too is a relic of the past and the public intellectual 3.0 is upon us.