Friday, September 17, 2004

Intellectuals and anti-intellectualism

As I spent more time in the US, an interesting paradox began to present itself to me. On the one hand, people (like me) came to this country because of its role as the driver of technological advancements, as well as its ability to nurture and sustain a dynamic intellectual culture in the academic system. On the other hand, it became more and more apparent that a streak of anti-intellectualism runs fairly close below the surface of American life, manifesting itself in such things as the attitude towards "smarts" in public schools, the focus on practical experience as opposed to "book-learning", and even in undercurrents of the 2000 and 2004 elections (It is not that such phenomena are lacking in the schools I grew up in; it just seemed contrary to what I had viewed the American education system as, before I came here)

One of the definitive texts that talked about this aspect of American life was Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. It traces back American history to tbe beginning of the colonies, and links this phenomenon to religious and cultural upheavals over the centuries. The book was written in 1966 and thus is limited in its analysis of the current state of affairs in this country, but had a number of insightful observations outlining what appeared to be a strong and long-running tradition (much more so that I had realized).

A more recent book by Franklin Furedi, 'Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?', discusses the demise of the "intellectual" in modern society (where by 'intellectual' I infer that he means more than an 'academic'. An interesting point that it brings out is the connection between postmodern relativism and the democratization of knowledge in the destruction of the intellectual by paradoxically, placing him front and center. Here is an excerpt from Terry Eagleton's review in the New Statesman (via Oxblog):
A society obsessed with the knowledge economy, Furedi argues, is oddly wary of knowledge. This is because truth is no longer precious for its own sake. Indeed, the idea of doing something just for the hell of it has always put the wind up philistine utilitarians, from Charles Dickens's Mr Gradgrind to our own Mr Blair. At an earlier stage of capitalism, knowledge was not so vital for economic production; once it becomes so, it turns into a commodity, while critical intellectuals turn into submissive social engineers. Now, knowledge is valuable only when it can be used as an instrument for something else: social cohesion, political control, economic production. In a brilliant insight, Furedi claims that this instrumental downgrading of knowledge is just the flip side of postmodern irrationalism. The mystical and the managerial are secretly in cahoots.
In other words, when everyone is in the business of producing knowledge, the pursuit of knowledge becomes a business, in a way that is antithetical to what the pursuit of knowledge should be: something done "just for the hell of it".

In our everyday lives as researchers, we see examples of this all the time, especiallly when having to either justify working on a problem, or when finding problems to investigate. I would go as far as to claim that the loss of public stature of NASA after the moon landings is caused by a serious lack of vision, of the kind that can inspire and elevate a discourse, and a mindless focus on minutiae of shuttle missions and space stations.

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