Is 'dumbing down' really 'reaching up'?

Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism
December 10, 2004

Frank Furedi is one of the most incisive critics of the bureaucracy that has spread like dry rot through the university sector. He is also a tireless campaigner against the philistinism that infects academia. Take the story of the senior manager at Kent University who berated Furedi for writing an article in which he claimed "that undergraduates could spend a year without reading a book". The person concerned was not upset because of the negative publicity but because Furedi had made the "arrogant assumption" that books should have "a privileged status in higher education". I wonder what this individual would have made of Milton's remark that "he who destroys a book kills reason itself". Nothing probably.

So it is good to have someone such as Furedi campaigning against form filling and managerial crassness. He is eminently readable, and often right - some would add "wing".

So "where have all the intellectuals gone"? If Furedi is an example, they have gone from being revolutionary communists to media pundits. His thesis is that cultural elites "are reluctant to affirm any transcendental cultural values and truths, (being) more interested in appearing relevant, accessible and in touch with popular opinion". Because policymakers think that people are not capable of attaining "standards of excellence" they offer them an experience of culture that, instead of challenging them to think or see in new ways, simply makes them "feel good about themselves".

Well, we can't have that can we?

Furedi's great gift is to make a part of the truth seem like the whole of it. You read him and think "yes, that's right" but soon you find you are objecting to student counselling and disabled access. Something is wrong in the argument. So you go back and examine it more closely.

Let us take the terminology. What on earth are "transcendental cultural values"? Furedi does not say. And what about "objective truth"? Again, he does not pursue the matter, preferring to exploit popular prejudices instead of rigorously examining them. Where is the evidence for claims such as "the content of university courses (has) become less theoretical"? All courses? Since when? Not in English, where it is the other way round. Why, when he is talking about England, are there so many examples from the US? And what exactly are we supposed to object to when he tells us that the museums and galleries on Tyne and Wear aim to widen access, help people appreciate art and promote a better understanding of how a gallery works?

But the biggest problem is Furedi's claim that "social engineering, rather than the market, today represents the greatest threat to the integrity of intellectual and cultural production". History departments aren't closing because more working-class people are going to university. In any case, why should a more widely educated public be seen as a threat? I would have thought that it was an incentive to improve standards - another term Furedi does not really define. I suspect that a lot of the fuss about "dumbing down" - for those who come to university it is actually a "reaching up" - is due to the desire of academics to preserve the mystery of their subject.

Furedi may be a professor of sociology but his passion is for controversy. Bold outline triumphs over historical detail. Since when was England ever noted for its "intellectuals"? Even during the Enlightenment, the emphasis was not on reason but on affection, sympathy and benevolence.

And how can someone in sociology ignore the complexities of modern society? Surely poverty, inequality, class, corporatism and the media's mendacity and infatuation with celebrity are far greater forces of social engineering than trying to get a few more working-class kids into university?

Like Margaret Thatcher, Furedi does not seem to believe in society; it is just a term for a collection of tough-minded individuals like himself who do not need any help and so do not see why anybody else should either. How dare these elites "patronise" what Furedi calls, in his non-patronising way, "ordinary folk". Let us stop all this social engineering and really start educating people. Well, OK. But then at least set a good example. Define your terms, refine your historical sense, give relevant evidence and do not cite The Daily Telegraph as if it were gospel. Otherwise your readers might think you are just flattering their intelligence instead of stretching them. And that, frankly, would never do.

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English, De Montfort University.

Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? Confronting 21st Century Philistinism

Author - Frank Furedi
Publisher - Continuum
Pages - 167
Price - £12.99
ISBN - 0 8264 6769 5

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