Monday, January 2, 2017

Will the true intellectual stand up, please!

For the monks who preserved and redefined the liberal arts in the Middle Ages, secular learning was an avocation rather than a vocation. If the liberal arts cannot be a gainful occupation for more than a few, then an American secretary of culture, if we had one, would want to know who might keep the tradition alive by pursuing it as an avocation. Change often begins at the margin. The central actors in American higher education as we have known it it in recent decades have been the administrators, the tenured faculty, and the students. Adjunct faculty have been marginal. Significantly, however, nonacademic staff have been almost equally marginal. They have been similarly condescended to, whatever their intellectual attainments. I am thinking, above all, of three categories of nonfaculty campus professional: the librarian, the museum curator, and the director of academic computing. If Peter Drucker is right and if thirty years from now the university as we have known it is no more, are we to assume that the university library, the university art museum, and the various university data bases and computer networks will also have shut down? Let me suggest, to the contrary, that if and when the university as such is out of business, all three of these may still be in business supporting, among others, those unsalaried irregulars who will succeed the salaried professors as carriers of the humane tradition in American learning. An alliance of the now marginal may inherit what will remain of the center.

Is there a word for such people? What do you call an extra-academic humanist, a man or woman with a trained mind who does not make his or her living as a teacher? The term that comes most readily to hand, I submit, is intellectual. If intellectuals, paid or unpaid, succeed today's academics as the principal carriers of the humane tradition, even granting that these terms are not mutually exclusive, what difference will the succession make to the tradition itself? What are the differences between an academic and an intellectual?
Academic vs. intellectual; specialist vs. generalist:
The second difference between an academic and an intellectual is the familiar difference between a specialist and a generalist, the academic being the specialist and the intellectual the generalist. There are those who think that an academic who sometimes writes for a popular audience becomes a generalist on those occasions, but this is a mistaken view. A specialist may make do as a popularizer by deploying his specialized education with a facile style. A generalist must write from the full breadth of a general education that has not ended at graduation or been confined to a discipline. If I may judge from my ten years' experience in book publishing, what the average humanities academic produces when s/he sets out to write for "the larger audience" is a popularizer's restatement of specialized knowledge, while what the larger audience responds to is something quite different: It is specialized knowledge sharply reconceptualized and resituated in an enlarged context.

The generalist assumes, as the specialist too seldom does, that he is writing for readers no less intelligent than himself but trained in other areas. How does one prepare to write for such readers? One does so by spending as much time as one can visiting them, intellectually speaking, dropping in on them, observing what portion of what one happens to know seems to "travel," as publishers say, and what portion does not. The born academic, as he begins to do this, will feel that he is wasting time better spent in deepening his knowledge of his specialty. The born intellectual will count such wandering as time well spent on his general education.
To boldly go where no man has gone before:
The difference between an intellectual and an academic, then, lies in the greater freedom that the intellectual has to be, without penalty, an explorer and a generalist. [...]

The human mind does not naturally or spontaneously remain in externally appointed channels. Only intense training and steady policing can make it perform in this way. Prodigies of learning result from this channeling, as already conceded, but limitation and blindness result as well. It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual. For a great many academics, the impulse to break free, to run wild, simply comes too late for effective realization.

In sum, then, the second difference between an academic and an intellectual may be stated as follows: An academic is a specialist who has disciplined his curiosity to operate largely within a designated area, while an intellectual is a generalist who deliberately does otherwise.
Moreover, for academics writing is merely instrumental. For intellectuals good writing is a thing in itself, to be sought, cultivated, and treasured.
Farmers vs. hunters:
Academics are farmers. They have fields, and they cultivate their fields well. Intellectuals are hunters. An intellectual does not have a field but a quarry which he pursues across as many fields as necessary, often losing sight of it altogether. Hunters cannot replace farmers, or vice versa; but if liberal learning in America, hitherto mostly a farm culture, becomes progressively a hunt culture, there will surely be consequences. By the standards of farmers, what hunters do seems reckless and undisciplined, but hunting has its own interior logic, the logic of an agenda that is individually rather than collectively determined.
H/t Jonathan Goodwin:


  1. I find myself moving away from a home in academia at the end of this semester and into a role where I supply ideas and support to those disciplines on campus I wish to work with and are open to more "intellectual" approaches as you've defined them. I'm leaving, in part, because of the narrow approach disciplines usually take, as you pointed out. I suggest that a role that may exist is the one I'm beginning to explore as a consultant outside the bureaucracy. This allows me to work with universities, museums, hospitals, and community housing developments as a bridge. A far better structure these days than a tower. Thanks for your writings.

    1. You're welcome. Remember that the Catholic church was the institutional center of intellectual life in the West for centuries. Along comes the Reformation, the scientific revolution, and a few other things, and that's over. Colleges and universities moved out from under the church and became the new institutional center. But maybe their time is coming to a close as things, once again, go through major changes. Of course, the Catholic Church didn't disappear, nor did its universities; but they're no longer central. The current college/university system won't disappear either. But new things are starting to emerge.