An intellectual vacuum

October 5, 2001

Where are the UK's Chomskys, Sontags and Saids? Frank Furedi mourns the demise of Britain's public intellectuals and the rise of the safe university 'expert'.

At a recent discussion about the future of the university, a senior administrator stated as a matter of fact that the "idea that higher education should be pursued for its own sake is unsustainable". Everybody seemed to agree.

It was pointed out that students are interested mainly in vocational degrees and that the government expects universities to be relevant to the needs of society. Even graduate education is moving away from encouraging scholarship and towards professional training. Any doubts raised about the increasing professionalisation of postgraduate work tend to be dismissed as the elitist nostalgia of a few die-hards who are scared to leave their ivory tower. The idea that the university ought to be defined by its intellectual project is also rejected by opinion-makers outside the university.

The other week, a youthful think-tank "networker" gave me an off-the-cuff lecture about the irrelevance of "you academics". He indicated that "policy is everything", which is why all the "big ideas" are generated by people like himself. It is evident that we are in the middle of a very one-sided discussion about the nature of the university. It is one-sided because proponents of the classical idea of the university are conspicuous by their absence or silence. It is also very confused because the issues are often distorted by the manner in which they are posed. The sharp counter-position between policy and the ivory tower needs, in particular, to be interrogated.

In the United States - unlike in Britain - there is serious discussion about the role of the university and of the public intellectual. Advocates of the concept of the public intellectual argue that academics who have one foot in the university and the other in the public realm can play a valuable role in communicating research in a form that is accessible to a wider audience. Opponents of the idea fear that a shift away from the university towards a more public role will diminish the quality of research and teaching.

This debate is shaped by various influences. Many universities have actively encouraged academics to go public. It appears that their support for the public intellectual is motivated by the conviction that achieving a high media profile is essential to safeguard the viability of their institution. In a competitive market, public visibility can help universities to gain prominence and prosper. Institutions such as the University of Chicago have sought to associate some of their postgraduate programmes with the aim of training people for a public role. Chicago takes great pride in its stable of public intellectuals, which has included John Dewey, Susan Sontag and Allan Bloom. Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton has gone a step further and started an interdisciplinary PhD programme in public intellectualism (see box).

This top-down support for the public intellectual can be interpreted as an attempt by the authorities to find a new role for the university. Jeffrey Williams, who teaches English at the University of Missouri, believes that the celebration of the public intellectual is really a "professional myth to re-legitimate the academy". As in Britain, many US universities fear becoming irrelevant. By demonstrating relevance, some academics try to show that what they do matters.

It is not just the pragmatic agenda of university authorities that has shaped the debate. Many scholars genuinely worry about their role as intellectuals. In an era of university managerialism, it is difficult for concerned scholars to find a voice. The debate stimulated by the reprinting of Russell Jacoby's The Last Intellectual indicates that many academics are deeply concerned about their relationship to the wider public. Jacoby's book questions the intellectual pretensions of the university academic. It is not a lament about the good old days, but a "call for intellectuals to reclaim the vernacular and reassert themselves in public life".

It is no surprise that the debate about the intellectual's role is more developed in the US than in the UK. Since the 1980s, the US academy has been centrally involved in political controversy. In the Reagan years, the humanities came under attack for their politicised scholarship, and a central theme of the culture wars was the content of university education. Many academy-based public intellectuals are taken very seriously. Individuals such as Sontag, Henry Louis Gates, Edward Said and Noam Chomsky play an important role in cultural and political debate in the US.

The situation in Britain stands in sharp contrast. No one can accuse the British university of being the hotbed of anything. The public role of the British intellectual is now more marginal than at any time in living memory. Paradoxically, the diminishing role of the British university in the intellectual life of the society has coincided with the massive expansion of higher education. These days the word "intellectual" is more likely to be associated with the term "property rights" than with a real-life academic.

The decline of the intellectual role of the British university has nothing to do with the ivory tower. University life is more exposed to external pressure than before. The dictates of policy influence university research. Funding bodies explicitly link research money to their particular policy agenda. Political pressure to transform the university into a vehicle for social inclusion dominates the campus.

British university authorities encourage their staff to go public - not as intellectuals, but as "experts". But experts are not necessarily intellectuals, who are assumed to have intellectual interests that go far beyond their own research. Some university authorities actively discourage their staff from assuming this wider role. One colleague at a university was criticised by administrators for writing a letter to a newspaper about a subject that lay outside his field of expertise - he had criticised the bombing of Iraq, a subject quite clearly beyond the ken of a social scientist.

It can be argued that the managerial ethos that dominates campus life has eroded the foundation for a culture of critical thinking. The ceaseless round of competition for research grants is far more likely to produce conformity to the preferences of the funding bodies than to the questioning of the status quo. One likely outcome of an externally imposed research agenda is the weakening of intellectual independence. Yet it is in their capacity as independent voices that academics can make their most positive contribution. Jacoby's definition of an intellectual as an "incorrigibly independent soul answering to no one" is the direct antithesis of the British academic who is forced to answer to everyone. Jacoby's definition is a bit idealistic, but it emphasises the crucial relationship between independence and intellectual advance.

The real issue is not whether or not academics have a public role to play. The question is whether they assume a public role as a technical expert or as an intellectual. Academics can make big contributions to policy debates, but not if they accept the short-termist vision set by politicians and their agenda. Policy matters are multidimensional and require serious intellectual reflection. Engagement with policy requires thorough exploration of a problem. Otherwise the contribution of academics will simply reinforce the trivialisation of public debate.

We need public intellectuals, but for intellectual debate to thrive we also need our own independent space. Not an ivory tower to hide in, but institutions that are not ashamed of the idea that sometimes it is worthwhile developing ideas because it is exciting.

Frank Furedi is a reader in sociology at the University of Kent at Canterbury.

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