Social workers as public intellectuals.

Author:Howard, Matthew O.

Since the publication of Jacoby's (1987) The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in an Age of Academe and, more recently, Posner s (2002) Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, scholars have bemoaned a purportedly general decline in the numbers and influence of public intellectuals. Writing specifically about a perceived paucity of public intellectuals in social work, Karger and Hernandez (2004) concluded that "social workers have little influence on the pressing social issues of the day" (p. 51) and that

there is little or no social work presence in public venues such as speaking tours, radio talk shows, television news shows, popular magazines, newspaper editorials, op-ed pages, or other mechanisms that inform the public about welfare and public policy issues. (pp. 51-52) Descriptions of the public intellectual are varied (Hitchens, 2008), and there is less than a consensus as to the apparent decline of the public intellectual generally (Drezner, 2008). Nonetheless, we may ask whether it is true, as Karger and Hernandez (2004) aver, that social workers are largely absent from the contemporary public marketplace of ideas--especially those social policy debates of core importance to the profession. Regrettably, I believe Karger and Hernandez have concluded correctly, although the pertinent evidence is largely impressionistic at this point. For example, a recent joint effort by the periodicals Foreign Policy and Prospect ("The Prospect/FP Top 100" 2007) to identify the world's top 100 public intellectuals included nine economists, 10 philosophers, 14 political scientists/politicians, four psychologists, four sociologists, five biologists, and assorted novelists, playwrights, linguists, journalists, and representatives of other professional groups, but no social workers. Other lists of leading public intellectuals compiled using a variety of selection criteria include scant mention of social workers (for example, Posner, 2002).

One can, of course, cite countervailing examples. In late April 2010, Michael Sherraden, a social work professor at Washington University in St. Louis, was named one of Time magazine's 100 most influential persons for 2010 (Wales, 2010). That same week, Boston University School of Social Work Dean and Professor GaB Steketee's new book (with Randy O. Frost), Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things, was prominently featured in the New York Times Books Review (Kramer, 2010). These extraordinary intellectual achievements reflect well on the individuals involved and on our profession, but paradoxically, in a case of the exception proves the rule, they also underscore how rarely social workers are found in these venues.

To my...

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