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Celebrity Academe

It is not exactly an original observation to write that we live in a celebrity culture. All around us are the signs of the power of celebrity and there is a seemingly endless supply of academic papers and commentaries analyzing the phenomenon. Most of these pieces don’t exactly welcome the phenomenon, it has to be said, but neither do they give much sense of how it might be dislodged.

But has celebrity culture now started to bleed into academe?

I think that the answer is undoubtedly, yes. But I am not sure to what degree and with what effects. I can think of three different ways in which celebrity culture manifests itself as a part of academe.

First off, there is the public intellectual. Writers like Paul Krugman, Nouriel Rohini, Joseph Stiglitz, Jeffrey Sachs, Simon Schama, Lisa Jardine, and the like have reached a high enough degree of visibility in print and on screen to be counted as members of this group. Their visibility is well-known to a certain section of the population – those who read the New York Times or the Financial Times, and watch the BBC or PBS, for example. They often have some of the paraphernalia of celebrity — like agents who arrange speaking tours.

Then, there are what might be called, without prejudice, minor key academic celebrities, usually consisting of academics who have appeared in a television series of some kind or who have become connected with major celebrities. In the U.K., the list might include currently Marcus du Sautoy, Bettany Hughes, Lucy Worsley, and Mary Beard (who, by the way, has an always entertaining blog at http://timesonline.typepad.com). Although all of these people have become visible through television programs, this is not the only route to fame. Certain kinds of accessible book can also work well, as in the case of Ian Stewart at Warwick – whose visibility was not hurt by writing a series of books with Terry Pratchett.

But, even though they have television programs and appearances to their names in most cases, these academics are not exactly household names, a vital part of everyday conversation. And so we come finally to those few academics who have broken through the fame barrier into the full-on version of genuine celebrity. In the U.K., there is, of course, the international phenomenon of Stephen Hawking who has become an icon standing for the individually brilliant scientist (and is the subject of an excellent new book on his celebrity by Hélène Mialet, Hawking Incorporated). But Hawking is unusual in being so famous, anyway you look at it. A better example is probably the physicist, Brian Cox. His television programs have made him into a national celebrity, migrating out of science to appear on talk shows and in all kinds of other situations as a prototypical “scientist who isn’t like a scientist.” Indeed so famous has he become that his Web site (http://www.apolloschildren.com/brian) announces significantly that “due to his schedule, Professor Cox is unable to accept the many kind invitations for him to visit schools, colleges and universities, nor is he able to attend their individual science events. All fan mail and general enquires PLEASE SEND SELF-ADDRESSED STAMPED ENVELOPE to Apollo’s Children Ltd,” an outfit which also includes Brian Cox’s new media presenter partner, Gia Milinovich (see http://www.apolloschildren.com) and which links on to Sue Rider Management which has a fascinating scientist client list (see http://www.sueridermanagement.co.uk/presenters.htm). My guess is that his nearest U.S. physics equivalent is Brian Greene (http://www.columbia.edu/cu/physics/fac-bios/Greene/faculty.html).

But what is interesting is that Cox has been able to use his celebrity as a platform for good. Physics has seen a rise in applicants taking the advanced examination at 17/18 in the U.K. and Cox’s programs and general presence are at least one part of the reason for this state of affairs.

The question is whether the promise of celebrity has malign effects on academe. After all, remember that a few academics have always been high-profile public figures throughout history. Think just of Henri Bergson or Michel Foucault in France, John Maynard Keynes or Hugh Trevor-Roper in the U.K., or W.E.B Du Bois or John Dewey in the United States. But it is open to question whether they were celebrities in the strict sense of the word.

The Puritan part of me still hankers after seeing academe as a disinterested vocation and therefore remains a bit suspicious of the call to celebrity. But I recognise that it is also a vital way of communicating ideas to the public and, in general, I see its effects as mainly harmless – but with some very positive moments.

[Creative Commons licensed Wikimedia image by Blackbow17]

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