Intellectuals  |  Politics  |  Education
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After receiving an honorary degree from Yale in 1962, President John F. Kennedy speaks with Yale President A. Whitney Griswold. In the foreground, New Haven Mayor Richard Lee is seen wearing his academic robe, while Pierre Salinger, Kennedy’s Press Secretary, stands in the center of the photo, to the right of the two presidents. Richard C. Lee Papers. Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University.
According to the late Edward Shils, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, intellectuals are those members of society “with an unusual sensitivity to the sacred, an uncommon reflectiveness about the nature of the universe and the rules which govern their society.” In this position, intellectuals occupy a position apart from society, working as scholars, writers, philosophers, and social critics. Given their role studying and criticizing society, intellectuals need to balance the need to maintain a critical distance from politics with their desire to influence political life. Some intellectuals attempt to have an impact on society through their writings. Others work as educators in institutions of higher education. Others choose to enter public service. In addition to the value that intellectual engagement might offer to the political world, the decision to enter politics encourages intellectuals to consider their responsibility to society, scholarship, and the intellectual class itself.

The students who curated this exhibit chose topics that reveal the tensions that confront intellectuals in their engagement with society. Students used the holdings of the Department of Manuscripts and Archives at the Yale University Library to illustrate the forms of engagement that intellectuals have attempted, as well as the responses to such engagement from both the intellectual and political worlds. The richness of the collection allowed students to explore a wide array of topics relating to political expertise, higher education, and the role of science and philosophy in society.In each case, the students reveal what lies at the intersection of intellectual life and political action—conflict, risk, and the potential for creative flourishing.

This exhibit is the final project for “The Intellectual in Politics,” a political science and humanities seminar taught by Justin Zaremby. In the course, students discussed authors ranging from Plato and Martin Heidegger to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walter Lippmann in an attempt to understand the relationship between intellectual life and political life. Students attempted to define the needs and goals of the intellectual class, whether intellectuals serve as advisors, teachers, or social critics.

This project was made possible through the generosity and enthusiasm of the Yale University Library. In particular, thanks are due to Diane Kaplan, Carolyn Caizzi, Rebecca Hatcher, Rebekah Irwin, Geoffrey Little, and Barbara Rockenbach. John Stuart Gordon of the Yale University Art Gallery introduced students to the idea of curating. Pam Patterson provided technical support to make this project possible.