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Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone? by Frank Furedi

Neil Richardson laments a surplus of generalities.

Professor Furedi’s pocket-sized book broadcasts his concern that a commitment to truth and excellence in thought – the role of the intellectual – is no longer considered important. Today the demands placed on the general public, tutors, and students, are restrained: we are not expected to provoke serious conversation, or read controversial texts. Society has been intellectually detuned by new conservative elites, with knowledge turned into a commodity more dependent on technique than on the application of the intellect. Intellectuals happily engaged as employees experience, “an instrumentalist approach to life” (p.42), whereby they have become simply a means to the increase of profits.

The early pages discuss the changing status of intellectuals, starting to become unpopular since the Enlightenment, when they apparently attempted to stamp the ideology of reason on society. Paris, Berlin, and Greenwich Village were centres of vehement argument over social causes, which is not to be confused with the busy activity of academics well-established within their university domains. Asking awkward questions outside specialist fields is a defining feature of intellectual life, as doing so stirs public opinion. By contrast, according to Edward Said in a Reith lecture, if you want to climb the academic ladder, don’t rock the boat, avoid controversy, make yourself marketable and above all presentable (p.39).

Furedi, a sociologist, acknowledges the popularity of education, books, and media documentaries – even science documentaries are in vogue. Yet despite this boom, we live in an era uncomfortable with challenges to the status quo, beset by trivial pursuits, and suffering a reaction against rationality “far stronger than at any other time since the development of capitalism” (p.55). Furedi blames the subjectivity and intuition favoured by postmodernism. One example he gives is how the personal experience of children is now treated as an important educational pedestal. However, Furedi’s critics might argue that subjective outlooks usefully complement the three Rs: ‘Know thyself’. Specialists also form a cohort in the anti-logic brigade because their focus is micro-knowledge rather than the big picture; thus they work outside a “web of common meaning”. However, given a regularly emailed torrent of data, I imagine making sense of common webs is a sufficient challenge for most people.

Einstein missing

The chapter ‘Dumbing Down’ dwells on the current cultural unease over developing subtle ideas. For example, politicians and university scholars have condensed their debating style. In the US, knowledge of Abe Lincoln’s speeches scores higher than Kennedy’s or Nixon’s. Politicians believe the general public can’t cope with complex arguments; and in any case, they’re not interested. Many citizens do appear generally apathetic about political life; we’re more likely to vote for TV celebrities. Neither are we happy when we’re handed serious books, art, or drama. Should lay people encounter the Herculean labour of reading, they need accessible literature delivered in the comfort of libraries furnished with sofas, TVs, coffee machines and background music.

Although a thought-provoking read, for me this book fosters two major questions.

First, Furedi deals in ill-defined generalities, which probably apply only some of the time, among some folk. Yes, a group of students, teachers or accountants could make themselves marketable and step quietly through their careers without triggering much upset. But aren’t they behaving in ways which seem logical when the need for income, pensions and housing beckons? Perhaps they find the local ‘big picture’ adequate, and they have no urge for public debate. So would it be ethical to criticize their lifestyle and push them in a radical new direction?

Second, do readers need detailed, juicy examples of an intellectual’s chosen pathway – how it started and evolved, with lessons learnt along the way – in order to follow the author’s intriguing theme? Or should we instead ask for a group of action-oriented thinkers to hand more than abstract buzzwords over to us? We recipients of this potential transaction are not necessarily striving for excellence in thought; but we might be aiming to moderately improve the status quo.

© Neil Richardson 2017

Neil Richardson is an administrator with North Kirklees Clinical Commissioning Group.

Where Have All The Intellectuals Gone?, Frank Furedi, Continuum, 2004, 198 pages, £18.99 pb, ISBN: 1441191186

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