Soapbox: Our critical capacities are truly essential

October 12, 2001

Academics consider Afghanistan's crisis and responses to the war on terrorism: academic freedom.

I share Frank Furedi's concerns ("The intellectual vacuum", THES , October 5) about the demise of the public intellectual in the UK, but I believe that the terrible tragedy of September 11 has opened a space in which we can and must renew our role as public intellectuals. This tragedy, and the war that has begun in response, has brought a growing minority of us to recognise that "Operation Infinite War" - war without temporal or geographical limits - could result in much more devastation than that which has thus far occurred.

The world in which we live and the possible scenarios we face now seem starker and clearer than before to many of us. At a time when the world and its people could potentially face unimaginable devastation and destruction, do we want to continue to be hemmed in by a logic that suggests that there is no alternative to marketisation and the wider forces of a globalising economic logic - a logic that in higher education means it is getting harder and harder to obtain funds to research issues and ideas that do not immediately generate cash? If not, then I believe that we must take on the mantle of public intellectuals. We can then demonstrate the power and clarity that come from using our knowledge to imagine and work towards building a world that respects and affirms the rights and dignity of all people everywhere.

We must communicate relevant findings from our research in accessible language to the widest audience and use our capacity for critical thought in ways that allow us to step beyond our research interests into issues and ideas in the wider world. Through recent seminar discussions with my students about the horrific acts perpetrated on September 11, the initiation of war on October 7 and the prospect of future acts of violence, for example, I have been able to show my students that sociology matters and can provide them with new ways to think about the world as it is and can be. This was unimaginable four weeks ago.

I would urge all of us to organise talks, teach-ins, debates and other activities, where we use our critical capacities to help untangle the complex and contradictory webs of the present moment and to encourage others to do so.

There is an urgency about the present moment that offers us an opportunity to demonstrate the worth of our work, of the university as a key site for critical thought and of our more general role as public intellectuals.

Joyce Canaan is a senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Central England.

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