How to Be an Egghead: Harvard Conference on Public Intellectuals Host Lawrence Friedman Shares Four Key Characteristics

Though he couldn’t tell us exactly what a public intellectual is, Friedman did share a few qualities a person would need to be considered.

Harvard Conference of Public Intellectuals

Illustration by Ryan Heshka

A mass audience is one thing a public intellectual can’t do without. Einstein’s theory of relativity may have changed physics forever, but he didn’t earn the “public” part of the title until he started speaking out against the atomic bomb.

Academic cred is another must-have. That’s why David McCullough, the popular biographer of Truman and Adams, doesn’t cut it. “He is always talking about history on television programs, and yet it’s very poorly researched,” Friedman warns.

A degree, on the other hand, helps, but is not absolutely necessary. Eric Hoffer, a famous midcentury philosopher, was a longshoreman. “Plenty of academics are pretty dull and shallow,” he says. “It’s the work itself that is terribly important.”

A lasting effect, in the end, may be the hallmark of a public intellectual. “My kids love Mr. Rogers,” Friedman says. “He’s not an Einstein, obviously, but is he a public intellectual in terms of what he did to my kids. I think they became much more thoughtful while hearing him.”