Guest leader: Intellectual sneering is no joke

The low opinion academics have of the public will not change until scholars open themselves up to debate, says Dennis Hayes

May 1, 2008

Academics can now be heard on the radio all the time. Recently, I heard four on a single daytime radio programme. They are colonising the media. The ivory tower seems to have collapsed, and academics appear to have found their long-lost public voice. How different it was four years ago when Frank Furedi's polemic Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? caused consternation. Now we have an answer: "Gone to the Today Programme", or at least to BBC Radio 5 Live.

In addition to media dons, there are institutes and units aiming to engage with public issues and policy matters. There are more public lectures and conferences on topical issues than ever.

The obsession with knowledge transfer and the marketing of higher education is an easy explanation of universities' keenness to showcase their relevance and economic usefulness. But universities also understand and respond to their funders. Much of what they tout is conventional and uncritical. "Government agenda is right" is the message, whether it relates to a study of the benefits of sport or the problem of obesity.

Also discernible in much of what gets aired is a philosophy based on a diminished idea of people. To listen to many academics, one would think that people are uninterested, unskilled, vulnerable, miserable, bullied, overweight or underweight, incapable of parenting or dealing with tragedy, unable to think clearly or freely and, most recently, environmental criminals opposed to "sustainability" who thoughtlessly continue shopping, driving and flying.

The tragedy of today's academic public intellectuals is that the public they are trying to reach is the very one for which they have a "diminished" vision. An illustration of this is the media "philosopher" who presents ordinary people as muddled thinkers who need academics to sort their ideas out.

It would take the notion of public masochism to the extreme to suggest that there is an audience ready to see itself as hapless and hopeless, but these ideas are popular with many media types who think that the public are ignorant and prejudiced. At the root of this diminished vision of humanity is not market forces or engagement with people but rather the opposite. Academia has become more isolated and the ideas it presents more and more arbitrary.

Scholars who are out of touch with ordinary people develop an arbitrary picture of them. Such isolation produces the misanthropic pessimism of the kind expressed in John Gray's rants against human progress. More rarely, and increasingly from the fringes or from outside of the university, you get a positive vision of humanity, such as that in Austin Williams's The Enemies of Progress.

Academic ideas will continue to be arbitrary because arbitrariness needs to be checked by discussion. But before pointing the finger of blame at an apathetic public, academics should look closely at their own behaviour. At academic conferences, there is little discussion; there are hundreds of papers but few questions. Academics who intend to engage with the public and presume to tell people how they should act and think ought first to put their own house in order and give more time to debate, which means fewer papers and more talking. An academia focused on narrow research rather than wider debate is a poor model for any public.

Without more talk, there is a danger that in presenting only "expert views", academics will not be public intellectuals but public jesters foolishly making fools of ordinary people.

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