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Intellectual Vacuum

Mark Goldblatt

A book review

Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? by Frank Furedi
(Continum Press)

Friends often describe me as an intellectual. Most of the time, this isn't meant as a compliment; it's supposed to account for a deficiency. Well, he's an intellectual, they begin, so you can't expect him to hang a shelf . . . or catch a football . . . or make polite conversation. Their usage, which invokes a stereotype as ancient as Aristophanes, identifies an intellectual as someone too involved with abstract ideas to deal with concrete realities. Put more crudely, it connotes someone whose head is up his butt.

There's no shortage these days of people with their heads up their butts, so when the British sociologist Frank Furedi titled his new book Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, he presumably had a more rarefied definition of intellectual in mind. According to Furedi, the first requirement of a genuine intellectual, beyond thinking deep thoughts, is "detachment from any particular identity and interest." That stipulation, in itself, narrows the field considerably, for it means there are no "English intellectuals, Black intellectuals, Feminist, Gay and Jewish intellectuals," notwithstanding the fact that Brits, blacks, feminists, gays, and Jews can be intellectuals. Perspective cannot trump universality. Furedi also contends that "being an intellectual requires social engagement." Put together the two demands--universality and social engagement--and you begin to see Furedi's point. How many deep thinkers can you name whose judgments and activism do not arrive prefabricated by their ancestral or ideological camps?

Even more troubling, from Furedi's perspective, is the widespread epistemological pessimism that has taken root among the educated classes. "Michel Foucault's claim that there is 'no truly universal truth' has gained widespread influence in academic circles," Furedi writes. "Truth is rarely represented as an objective fact; it is frequently portrayed as the product of subjective insight, which is in competition with other equally valid perspectives." If the intellectual's primary allegiance is to objective truth rather than a particular ideology, as Furedi would have it, how does he move past the criticism that such truth cannot be had--that all knowledge is ideological? "Just as Truth is often represented as lacking authority," he writes, "so too people who claim to pursue it are dismissed as an anachronistic irrelevance." For Furedi, postmodernism is inimical to intellectualism because it relativizes claims to truth, cutting the intellectual's legs out from under him. Postmodernists, he writes, "claim that all knowledge is socially constructed; therefore, all knowledges are incommensurable and all knowledges are in principle equally valid." The notion that intellectuals should be "the critical voice of truth" seems, in a postmodern context, almost quaint.

The inescapable paradox of postmodernism, of course, is that it propounds its own set of truth claims--most notably, the ideological nature of every truth claim--and its adherents are therefore compelled, at least implicitly, to bracket whatever propositions they put forward within ironic quotation marks. Truth becomes "truth." And whoever would remove those quotation marks becomes, by virtue of that desire, an object of suspicion. By insisting on the superiority of his own truth, he becomes an elitist.

Elitism, in Furedi's view, is the intellectual's stock in trade. Being an intellectual requires, if nothing else, an elite array of mental skills. But this recognition is intolerable in the present intellectual climate. "Hostility to elitism," Furedi writes, "is now mandatory for any individual who hopes to join the cultural elite." The intellectual is therefore confronted with an untenable choice: either deny that quality in himself that makes him special or risk being denied a platform on which to make his case. The college at which I teach probably would not bat an institutional eye if I were to walk into class tomorrow and declare that "Shakespeare" was a lesbian, but if I were to suggest that half the students in that classroom should not be attending college in the first place, there would be hell to pay.

The suggestion that college isn't for everyone, a truism half a century ago, today would be deemed offensive because the point of education has itself been subverted. The principle of knowledge for its own sake has given way, according to Furedi, to a kind of instrumentalism that values education only insofar as it serves "a wider practical purpose." That purpose can be something as tangible as preparing the student for a professional career or something as airy as enhancing the student's self-esteem. The only purpose, it would seem, that education cannot serve is cultivating excellence through the application of standards, because "one of the central arguments advanced against the maintenance of standards of excellence is that this is an elitist project that will exclude the vast majority from participating in institutions of culture." The inevitable result is a great dumbing down.

In such a climate, the very notion of higher education has dissolved–since higher implies a hierarchy about knowing certain things versus not knowing them. Or knowing certain things in certain ways: "The tendency to equate knowledge with the insights that people gain from fragmentary experience," Furedi writes, "makes it impossible to have a meaningful common standard to evaluate knowledge claims." College credits, Furedi points out, are now regularly awarded for "life experience"--the rationale being that a school shouldn't privilege classroom instruction over the impressions gathered in the course of living a life.

This creeping perspectival equivalence makes perfect sense once you recognize a multiplicity of truths. Furedi sums up the implications nicely: "Since there are many truths, there are also many valid ways of getting there." Drawing conclusions from verifiable evidence is one method. Relying on pure intuition is another. The problem is not merely academic. How do you convey to people that they don't really know what they think they do know? If a majority of African Americans believe blacks were systematically disenfranchised during the 2000 presidential election, who's to say they weren't? Indeed, John Kerry twice repeated the charge, during his 2004 run for the White House, that a million blacks were intentionally disenfranchised in 2000. The awkward fact--demonstrated though the exhaustive research of Abigail Thernstrom and Peter Kirsanow--that not a single African American who was registered and eligible to vote in 2000 has ever come forward with a credible story of being prevented from voting doesn't matter. To deny that systematic disenfranchisement took place would be to deny the legitimacy of what many African Americans feel is true. It used to be the job of intellectuals to call such beliefs into question, to ridicule them as irrational. No more. If a conviction is heartfelt, especially if it's heartfelt by a historically oppressed group, it becomes immune to rational scrutiny.

The irony for Furedi is that challenges to reason as the final arbiter of public debates used to come from the political right, especially from the precincts of religious conservatism. Now they're more likely to come from the left, where "the ideology of 'difference' [has been] extended to fundamental questions of cognitive style and epistemological values." The player who won't sit down at the chessboard cannot be checkmated. The common ground of rationality has always been the playing field for competing ideas; once it has been abandoned, debate quickly degenerates into name calling. Furedi clearly sees the intellectual peril implied in the suggestion "that only blacks have the right to write black history," and he correctly singles out Carole Gilligan's influential work as epitomizing "the trend towards the marriage of subjective experience and knowledge," a trend that posits "rationality and objectivity [as] merely a male prejudice." Truth, Furedi insists, cannot be cordoned off along lines of race or gender.

Furedi has written a stimulating book. I endorse its thesis wholeheartedly, but I cannot recommend it without significant qualifications. The subject matter is vital, but the writing itself is distinctly dry. Specific examples of the trends he describes are few and far between. Even worse, in constructing his case, Furedi cuts many evidentiary corners, often bypassing empirical data or even anecdotal support in favor of tracking down quotations from authors who happen to agree with him. This hunt-and-peck methodology doesn't engender confidence in the solidity of Furedi's research. He notes a New York Times column by Michiko Kakutani in which she discusses the way the language of American college students captures their "mood of disengagement"--and assumes, in his citation, that Kakutani is a male writer. Does this affect the validity of Furedi's point? Perhaps not. But it indicates that he hasn't read much of Kakutani's work. It's lazy scholarship.

Part of the problem may lie in the breadth of Furedi's subject. He is determined to tackle relativism in all of its contemporary manifestations--philosophical, sociological, political, educational, and aesthetic--in fewer than 200 pages. For readers unacquainted with the steady slippage of intellectual values in the West, his critique might serve as a useful primer. For readers who've spent a decade or two rowing against that current, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone? is little more than a Cliffs Notes guide to the decline.

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