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The vanishing intellectual

Darryl Campbell | Sunday, September 14, 2008

Along with the Tasmanian Tiger, the Lindbergh baby and the Soviet Union, the intellectual might someday be regarded as one of the great disappearances of the twentieth century. The term “intellectual” – a learned man or woman whose life is dedicated to informed discussion in order to influence public opinion – first came into popular usage with the Dreyfus affair in the 1890s. They defended the common good, appealed to human rights, national sentiment, justice, humanity and so on – the self-appointed public moralists of literate societies that placed a premium on free speech and, ostensibly, principled debate.In the world of universities, there are still some last flickers of public engagement, but you would be hard-pressed to find them. Whether due to the scarcity of academic jobs, the publish-or-perish mentality, the intense specialization of each discipline or some combination of these and other factors, academics have too much to risk – tenure and other professional considerations – to venture outside of their own small patch of academic turf. It’s certainly not the case that academics aren’t smart, thoughtful, passionate or engaging, just that the academic environment provides too many disincentives from doing anything other than focusing on lab reports, lectures and the next article or book.For their part, universities typically justify their existence and quality based on their stated commitments to academic excellence (whatever that means), small class sizes, selective admissions and skills development. Once again, there is too much to risk – donations, quality applicants, faculty satisfaction and prestige – to do more than store, increase and pass on knowledge. After all, universities make it clear that their mission is education and any attempt to apply that education to political, social or cultural issues is extracurricular. It’s not a bad thing by any means. But the closest thing most university-goers will ever experience to real political engagement in the classroom will be a “witty” political wisecrack that connects the topic du jour to some current event or public figure. And in every case, it is an ironic (probably unintentionally so) acknowledgment of the inconceivably vast distance between the academic world and the world of public discourse – about as wide, it turns out, as the distance between knowing facts and real understanding.As uncomfortable as these observations may be (and they are observations, not criticisms), it seems to be not an isolated problem, but rather a malaise that runs deeper than the groves of academe. Here’s an example that’s probably familiar to most graduate students, or for that matter humanities majors in general. When I decided to begin my Ph.D. program here in history, one of my college roommates, who is now working for Microsoft, couldn’t possibly fathom why for two reasons: First, because the pay was comparatively lower than what someone of my age would be making working in the public sector; and second, because in his mind I was going to waste my life doing something as irrelevant as history. This scene, as you can imagine, has played out and continues to play out with anyone working in the sort of job that involves poor compensation and dedication to an ideal, whether it’s academia, the arts, an NGO or the like.The point, simply, is that money, not ideas, seems to be the driving force in most people’s lives nowadays. In fact, people probably act on emotion rather than reason most of the time, too. It takes less effort to be moved by emotion and economics, and it’s much harder with ideas. A glance at political debate, at the news or at pop culture should be proof enough that we think of ourselves and our lives mostly in economic terms – How much is a college degree worth? How much do I need to retire comfortably? – and that we are moved by emotions foremost. We let ourselves be blinded to principles and ideas just because it’s easier to declare upfront that all ideas are equally valid and not have to think about them altogether, and let ourselves be moved by our passions or whether we like the proponents or opponents of one or another argument. And, in another probably unintentional irony, we forget that the result of all this talk of relativism, tolerance and political correctness – none of which are necessarily bad – has in the end turned into anti-rationalism, anti-intellectualism and the demolition of the value of ideas and principles. Trained not to think, what else do we have to fall back on except acquisition and emotion?So at a time when it seems that public intellectuals can contribute to public dialogue more than ever, none are forthcoming. The university, it seems to me, has all the elements to nurture and protect not only engagement among its faculty, but encourage thoughtful, critical, principled reflection on the great problems of our time, inside and out of the classroom. That it falls short of doing both surely is doing nothing to combat the failing public confidence in the value of ideas and in higher education.

Darryl Campbell is a second-year Ph.D. student in history. He can be contacted at [email protected] views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necesarily those of The Observer.