The public intellectual? Always existed? Part of the impact agenda?

No stranger to broadcasting himself, Christopher Bigsby considers the rise of the public intellectual – halfway up a mountain, on a motorbike, quoting Aeschylus, coming to a telly near you

There is a plaque in Norwich Cathedral I have always liked. It praises a clergyman for delivering sermons “entirely without enthusiasm”. I have sat through many a lecture dedicated to the same principle. Once, at the University of Cambridge, I passed through the back of a room in which a man wearing a gown was lecturing, I have to say entirely without enthusiasm, to a single student. Now there’s a staff-student ratio to be envied.

On another occasion, I attended a lecture by an art historian (not at my institution) who made the mistake of lowering the lights in order to show slides, only to be confronted by an empty lecture theatre when the lights went on again. Today though, slides, all too often engagingly projected back to front, upside down and out of order, smack of the spinning jenny: not without their utility in their day but a touch out of date. Now showbiz has entered academe. Human communication, it seems, has to involve electronic mediation. Blackboards are now virtual, while chalk, pens and paper are doubtless in containers ready to be shipped to needy countries alongside stolen cars and Henry Moores melted down for scrap.

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