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 dissolvedsince 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
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.