Leader: Go public to prevent extinction

Knockabout popular debate appeals to few scholars, but if intellectuals disappear from the public eye, academia may suffer

May 28, 2009

Homo academicus: "an unattractive species whose main goal in life is not advancing freedom of inquiry but the myopic pursuit of self-advancement", according to Roy Harris, emeritus professor of linguistics at the University of Oxford, in a speech on academic freedom last week. Strange as it may seem, however, this trait is failing to propel the species into the public intellectual arena.

For academics, it appears, are very good at advancing in their own narrow field but stop short of the wider stage. The traditional public intellectual - the white middle-aged man who addressed the world from a great height - is now, happily, largely defunct. But where are the scholars providing intellectual exploration of the challenges facing society today? Journalists are edging in (and edging academics out of the review pages of the national press to such an extent that Times Higher Education has had to abandon its "The week in books" reviews round-up), and vacuous celebrities and vengeful commentators fill the void, emboldened by an embittered, venomous and capricious public.

It is this mob mentality that turned its lust for destruction to the profligacy of MPs, having bored of crucifying bankers and their bonuses, skirting over legality in their condemnation of immorality and forgetting that, as with the financial crisis, we had all turned a blind eye to these things when times were good. In the midst of this circus, where was the intellectual discourse, the battle of minds?

In this gladiatorial arena, only certain kinds of academics can thrive: those dubbed "cameo intellectuals" by Stanley Fish, professor of law at Florida University. These are courted by the media because they hold views that can be "theatrically opposed" to those of another, preferably well-known, academic, the damaging "contrarianism" highlighted by philosopher A.C. Grayling.

Public intellectual, Fish says, is not a status but a job description, and it is a job for which scholars are not "particularly well qualified". It is not achieved by extending one's own professional skills but by learning those of another, entirely different profession.

And unlike elsewhere in Europe, the status of scholars is low in the UK. It is not only the general dumbing down of culture that is responsible for this; there is also the increasing distrust of academic (and other professional) expertise and authority, the soundbite culture and the rise of instant-access intellectuals on the web.

These web intellectuals can speak directly to the public, communicating in a way that can be understood by any intelligent person willing to make the effort to understand. They need no platform and are unconstrained by the publishing tyranny of the research assessment exercise, ridiculous academic protocols and the narrow focus of a core specialisation beyond which few academics ever dare to venture.

Next month, the 2009 Reith Lectures, that premier platform for the public intellectual, will see Harvard University's Michael Sandel attempt to halt the decline of Homo academicus into an endangered species with his exploration of, among other things, spiritual values in public life and the moral limits of the market. But for a puerile public more interested in celebrity than cerebral matters, it looks likely to be eclipsed in the national consciousness by the latest instalment in the break-up of Katie Price and Peter Andre.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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