May 08, 2011

Blog All Dog-eared Pages: Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?

The Observer today has a collection of articles about "public intellectuals", and whether we have enough of them, or think enough of them here in the UK. That reminded me of this long-neglected draft blog post containing my notes, and some extended thoughts on the topic, from reading Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?.

Given that I haven't gotten round to finishing it off in the past eighteen months, it's unlikely that I'll get any closer to finishing it than I am now, so with some minor tidying I'll publish it now...

"The growth of specialization is fuelled by a culture where intellectuals are discouraged from looking at the big picture, and encouraged to find meaning in their specialty. Discussions are increasingly self-referential and not designed to communicate and engage people outside a specific field of speciality. [...] Instead of Knowledge we have developed the tendency to develop micro-knowledge."
Page 70

"Apathy and disengagement breed both anti-political and apolitical reactions. The political class is aware of this: but instead of attempting to address the underlying malaise and disillusionment through developing challenging political ideals that could inspire the electorate to vote, its response has been to acquiesce in dumbing down."
Page 80

"Politics has gone into early retirement. The big issues of our time - the impending environmental catastrophe, threats to our health, killer bugs, weapons of mass destruction - are presented as perils that stand above politics. It is widely believed that the world is out of control and that there is little that human beings can do to master these developments or influence their destiny. Deprived of choice and options, humanity is forced to acquiesce in a world-view that Margaret Thatcher aptly described as TINA - There Is No alternative.

If indeed there is no alternative, politics can have little meaning. Without alternatives, debate becomes empty posturing about trivial matters. Politicians are forced to inflate relatively banal proposals to the level of a major policy innovation."
Page 83

"The more the act of voting has lost its purpose and meaning, the more deperate attempts are launched to give people yet another opportunity to 'have their say'.

UK commentators have noted, with more than a hiint of envy, that more young people vote for their favourite personality on the reality TV programme Big Brother than they do in elections."
Page 88

"As [French political theorist Bertrand] de Jouvenal states: 'the businessman offers to the public "goods" defined as anything the public will buy; the intellectual seeks to teach what is "good", and to him some of the goods offered are things of no value which the public should be discouraged from wanting'."
Page 108

On the problems of a policy of maximum inclusion:
"In June 2001, a statement on widening participation issued by Universities UK observed that 'the key issue for the sector now is attracting people with no background of (or current aspirations to) study in HE to courses and universities'. In other words, widening participation has little to do with meeting a real demand for a place in a university. It means getting people to come to university regardless of whether or not they have such aspirations."
Page 120

"Norman Fairclough's study of the language of New Labour suggests that social exclusion is conceptualized as a 'condition people are in, not something that is done to them. Social exclusion is rarely presented as a process but rather something like illness that people suffer from.' It is not so much about poverty or economic disadvantage, but the feeling of not being a part of the important institutions of society. The premise upon which this version of the problem is based is that people become excluded because they lack the sense of self-worth to participate in the institutions of society."
Page 126

"The exhortation [from the American Conference for College Composition and Communication (amongst others)] to remove the barriers posed by spelling, punctuation and usage illustrates the kind of education that the access agenda offers to the ordinary student. It is a form of education that is more interested in giving students a sense of achievement than in educating them."
Page 144

Maybe a lot of what is wrong with our country is the triumph of marketing and consumerism in persuading us that there's always an easy option and that hard work is to be avoided at all costs. The way to be successful isn't to work hard and persevere, it's to get lucky by catching the public's interest on some "talent" show or reality spectacle and become famous for being famous.

Hard work in the pursuit of something in which you really believe, or in a field that interests and excites you, is fulfilling and rewarding. It could be the pursuit of greater knowledge to understand and cure disease, but it need not be; academic difficulty is just one of the peaks available to be climbed - it could be the physical challenge of athletes; the problem-solving required to run a business; or the satisfaction of having fed and enriched the lives of the customers at your cafe.

"One of the distinctive features of the contemporary so-called postmodern era is the loss of convition in the idea that the public is capable of being enlightened. But scepticism about the project of public enlightenment is rarely expressed in a coherent and explicit form. In an era of inclusion and participation, doubts about the capacity of people cannot be raised in a clear and open manner. We live in an era where clear statements about people's ability are obfuscated by a vocabulary that relies on terms like 'special needs students', 'differently abled people', 'non-traditional students', and 'the intellectually challenged'. This confusing language coexists with the rhetoric of flattery that declares that everyone is special and creative. But at a time when normal university students are routinely described as vulnerable, it is evident that the mental capacity of the public is not held in high esteem."
Page 151

Part of the problem, Furedi claims, is down to the development of a docile public who don't have the opportunity to argue and debate the issues at hand.
"Communications are organized in such a manner that it is difficult for people to 'answer back or with effect'. Most important of all, 'the mass has no autonomy from institutions; on the contrary, agents of authorized institutions interpenetrate this mass [the public], reducing any autonomy it may have in the formation of opinion by discussion'."
Page 153

Here is something I feel is beginning to change. The Internet, and in particular things like blogs or Twitter, is providing a much more level playing field when it comes to discussion and communications. There are still issues with reaching less computer-savvy groups of society - see Julian Dobson's excellent piece about Reboot Britain - but I'm optimistic that, for the most part, these barriers can be overcome and we will all benefit as a result. The rise in the number of unconferences (and the way that they bleed out from the real world onto the online, through live video streaming, twitter hashtags, blog posts and recorded video) shows a reconnection to groups of people coming together to discuss and solve their common issues. It's nothing new, but maybe the digital tools give us the ability to scale it beyond the town hall to a national or global scale.

"Deference to traditional authority is being replaced by reverence for new ones. [...] Increasingly victims are endowed with a moral claim to authority. Victims of crimes are assigned authority to make pronouncements on the issue of law and order. Parents of casualties in the Iraq War are frequently treated as is they were experts in military affairs. Victims of an illness are transformed into expert cancer sufferers. Patient groups insist that their representation of their malady is the final word on the subject and that decent people have a moral duty not to offend them by refusing to affirm their claims."
Page 174

"Contemporary culture continually incites us to defer to a bewildering variety of relationship experts. Parenting coaches, life coaches, makeover gurus, supernannies apparently possess the authority to tell us how to live our lives."
Page 175

Maybe these seemingly contradictory paragraphs, from successive pages of the book, show the heart of the problem: we live in an age of contradictions, and it's difficult to navigate a path through them. Maybe that's always been the case, but I haven't lived in other times and so can't tell. Or maybe it's a flaw in the drive for specialisation. Fields of study have had to become so focussed in order to continue to make progress, but with that focus can come a lack of perspective of how that fits into the rest of the world. It's time us generalists stopped deferring too much to the specialists' greater knowledge of a particular topic, and started to assert the importance of our ability to weave the specialists recommendations into a wider context.

Posted by Adrian at May 8, 2011 01:57 PM | TrackBack
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