The UK's unloved elite

April 13, 2007

Why should UK academics be public intellectuals? France, we are told, has lots of them. America, apparently, is also well stocked with well-paid thinkers. Britain remains curiously bereft.

At first sight, this is odd. The nation's universities and their occupants have done far better internationally than its football, rugby, cricket, tennis or athletics teams ever have. UK academics obviously have great thoughts. They just seem reluctant to share them, and who can blame them? If ever there was a land whose prophets are without honour, this is it.

It is not merely that the audit culture conspires to reward outcomes rather than originality, or that the market rules fail to prize "thinking time", or that red tape blots out blue-skies concepts. UK academics have shown themselves adept at flourishing in such conditions. But having overcome these impediments, why should they engage with a public whose political masters have in the past delighted in deriding abstract pursuits because they could not perceive their utility, or who casually conflate and confuse social with intellectual elitism? Why should academics put themselves in the hands of a media that is far more at ease with ridicule than enlightenment?

It is difficult to step up to a soapbox if the noises off are so cacophonous.

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