The Place of the Intellectual: the Future and Its Enemies

Academic dawn is like no other beginning.   No other daybreak like it exists.  Alumni never forget it and forever pine away for that first light of college life – the anticipation of the first day of classes in early September.  It’s filled with possibilities – new friendships, new stories, parties, homecoming, new loves, new dreams.  It has a way of giving lift to the soul because the slate is wiped clean by the certainty of the semester to come – everything has to be forgotten, left behind and erased to begin anew, to carry on for the next fifteen weeks.  A new September, every September, is an aphrodisiac.  And everything that is to come in one’s life, whether it’s been dreamt, planned and scheduled, will give way to the glorious routine of strolling to class across a genteel campus, maples and pines waving in the breeze, students perpetually smiling – de rigueur – to show how hopeful they are, how eager they are for a professor’s  lecture.  There is a finality and a logic to this ongoing cycle, a neatness, a tidy composure and a comfort that permeates everything and is instantly obvious the minute one steps into a luxurious, modern classroom – cushioned seats that rock, adjustable arm rests, desks on wheels that can be moved to form circles or be put in lines, which no one does anymore in this new age of composed dialog.   For seventy five minutes, listening and doodling and thinking and drifting and wondering while the professor strains through a lecture, there is escape, there is release.  The lecture is a momentary stay against the confusing madness beyond the consecrated ivy; it’s predictable and welcomed, it pushes aside everything  – suffering, anxiety, sadness, and even memory.  All.  It pushes aside life.  Daily, with each class, faculty and students experience the almost infinite cycle of new dawns, daylights that come in waves with each course and that call attention to existence itself – and at a distance, from the comfort of well appointed abstractions and theories and criticisms.  Oh how beautiful it is to keep the world and its filth at an intellectual distance.  Academic dawn lightens the air and it excites.  It makes everyone eager on a college campus in September. Academic dawn is a drug; with it the foreseeable, the inevitable, is forestalled – so we like to think.

What today we can’t sidestep is the place of the professor, however, particularly because s/he is being averted by our culture.  The professor is experienced more as gatekeeper, rather then an expert on a subject. The professor creates requirements, hoops students must jump through in order to find their lives in a society dominated by a harsh, vertical economic system.

The professor is essentially an abstruse theorist that uses code words to explain the obvious, we’re told;  s/he builds intellectual edifices for the elite and has absolutely no relationship with the “common man,” an acerbic criticism that likewise places into question university education because it is overpriced and overrated, say critics.

The criticisms of the professor and the elite University that houses him or her has helped usher in an age where the professor, most commonly referred to as an intellectual, is not a person to emulate and listen to. These are extraordinary anti-intellectual times in America.  And why not?  In Boston, for instance, where there are over 60 colleges and universities and one can pass a Nobel laureate on the street quite easily, there is still extensive and daunting poverty; there is racial divide and gender divide.  Eight miles from Newark, rife with socio-economic and racial problems, is Columbia University.  Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute and author of The End of Poverty, is there, yet the South Bronx, even closer then Newark, struggles with mere subsistence, as are other poor communities of color.

The divide between our problems and the intellectuals that study them is an abyss of massive proportions. This gap is implicit in every single problem we have — socio-economic, political, health and education. So it’s not surprising that America has become intensely anti-intellectual, preferring the misguided bravado of a wanna be cowboy like Rick Perry, instead of the softer reflective hand of a scholar such as President Obama.  We would rather engage destructive ideologies instead of reasoned argument framed by facts.  We have chosen a caustic path, a nihilistic path, rather then the path of deliberation based on compromise and negotiation.  We have successfully shunned the professor, the intellectual — but at what cost?  Where might we be heading?

There appears to be little respect for those individuals that quietly spend their time studying what we call life — the economy, social tensions and new developments, the media, culture(s), politics and the arts — and try to make sense of it all and speak it to us.

Power is best kept — and gained — if the citizenry has its eyes glued on  The Kardashians while ideological sound bites and name calling are squeezed in-between episodes.  Tea Party narrow minded conservatives.  Democratic big spenders.  Socialists.

So on this path to nowhere, what is the place of the intellectual in America? What are the representations of the intellectual, to use the phrasing of my own intellectual father, Edward Said?

To find the answers to these questions — and to locate myself, as well as others labeled intellectuals, I once again turned to Said’s 1993 Reith Lectures, published first in 1994, then again in 1996, by Vintage Books Edition. (The lecture can be heard here.)

In the Introduction to the print venture of the lectures, Said says that, “One task of the intellectual is the effort to break down the stereotypes and reductive categories that are so limiting to human thought and communication.”  This initial statement may be one cause for the disenfranchisement of the intellectual; in this sense, the intellectual, both a public and a private figure, is subjected to the limitations posed on him for being the one who articulates “stereotypes” and “reductive categories.”  This is critical since we are in an age where reductions of reality are how media and politicians function; or, said better, perhaps, the function of both media and politics is to reduce all pictures of reality into stereotypes — then separating these into ideologies.

In other words, says Said, “The problem for the intellectual is not so much … mass society as a whole, but rather the insiders, experts, coteries, professionals who in the modes defined earlier this century … mold public opinion, make it conformist, encourage a reliance on a superior little band of all-knowing men in power.”  This, then, automatically puts the intellectual in a challenging position since the “insiders”, the “band of all-knowing men in power” dislike criticism; it threatens their way of being, their methods.

Yet another reason why the intellectual is marginalized is that s/he relies on clever and insightful uses of language; it is the only means of expression in a culture that privileges writing above all other forms.  “Hence,” said Said, “my characterization of the intellectual as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak the truth to power.”  The intellectual is easily exiled by the art and science of his or her methodology, the tools that must be used in order to describe and critique the reductive methods utilized by the mediating forces of a culture.

Thus, the intellectual lives in “a spirit of opposition, rather than in accommodation, that grips me (Said) because the romance, the interest, the challenge of intellectual life is to be found in dissent against the status quo at a time when the struggle on behalf of underrepresented and disadvantaged groups seems so unfairly weighed against them.”  Said himself is a perfect example, as is Malcolm X.

For me, in my own case, this alienates me from many — if not most — in the academic community since the overall interest is not to stand in romantic opposition against forces that advocate for and create the means by which the status quo is maintained.  I am therefore narrativized into a secondary position — truly exiled from the academic world that has taken me years of toil to enter.  In pursuing the position of dissenter, the forces of the status quo push back harder and in subtle forms.  As Said says, the “inescapable reality” is that the intellectual “will neither make them friends in high places nor win them official honors.  It is a lonely condition, yes, but it is always a better one than a gregarious tolerance for the way things are.”

I’ve been dismissed, routinely passed over.  I live on the outer most edges of the academic community, literally and figuratively. But the experience of others pale by comparisons to my own.  And in this exile, students, hundreds of students from all walks of live, for that matter, reach out; their parents, too, on occasion send me notes of thanks or seek me out to thank me for what I say to their students.  This would seem that those outside the bastions of intellectual pursuit behind the hallow ivy know something that mediated constructions of power and reality forget or willfully leave out: the power of the intellectual as romantic dissenter that speaks truth to power is that s/he imbues others, mostly students, with different points of view that can help cast them into alternative versions of the accepted truths.

The central fact  … is … that the intellectual is an individual endowed with a faculty for representing, embodying, articulating a message, a view, an attitude, philosophy or opinion to, as well as for, a public. And this role has an edge to it, and cannot be played without a sense of being someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than to produce them), to be someone who cannot easily be co-opted by governments or corporations, and whose raison d’être, is to represent all those people and issues that are routinely forgotten or swept under the rug.”

Traditionally, the academy has been experienced as an institution on the left — this could not be further from the truth. An intellectual persisting with the notion that all human beings “are entitled to expect decent standards of behavior concerning freedom and justice from worldly powers or nations, and that deliberate or inadvertent violations of these standards need to be testified and fought against courageously” is routinely marginalized and exiled within the academy. Thus the intellectual is exiled from the society in which he lives — and the status quo wins and suffering and injustice persist.