Life of the Mind
Over at Frogs and Ravens and Liliputian Lilith, people are fighting to reclaim the word “intellectual”, or perhaps some other word, for non-professional/quasi-professional participants in traditional academic endeavors. I think it’s a mistake not to situate that discussion within a broader cultural habit of devaluing upaid work. I also think there’s a funny elitist tinge to the whole concept – some of the things brought up as possible contributions of a non-professional intellectual class are more properly thought of as civic duties. It’s quite an involved discussion to plunge into after three days in the field, so I hope all y’all can bear with me as I try to catch up.
At bottom, somewhere, hides a discussion on the purpose of liberal arts in broader culture, and how academics and “intellectuals” might nurture or twist the Cause. Jack Miles’s essay is big on referring obliquely to a Cause like this, without lending any clue as to what the fuck he’s talking about:
Unfortunately, these training programs [for musicians, artists, writers, etc.], not to disparage them, do not meet American culture’s broader needs for preservation and refreshment. …A salutary exercise would be for [liberal arts faculty] — and for any American who reads and thinks — to ask what is entailed in an engagement with the subject matter of the liberal arts that is not defined in any way by the needs of students or the preferences of teachers.
If American culture needs refreshment, and can’t turn to those who continually create what is traditionally recognized as culture, I suggest a glass of ice cold lemonade. Lemonade is always refreshing! If the creation of culture won’t do it, and lemonade won’t do it, I guess we’re left with the critical analysis of culture as the central component of Miles’s “liberal tradition”. It’s just a guess, though; in my nerd school education the liberal arts were used only as an ointment to apply after doing too much math.
What is entailed in an engagement with the subject matter of the liberal arts that is not defined in any way by the needs of students or the preferences of teachers?
Analyzing culture is a salutary exercise for any reading and thinking persons; beyond that, it’s a sacred obligation for all living and breathing persons. Delegating this task to a cadre of educated intellectuals, paid or not, affiliated with recognized institutions or not, has the same harmful effects as assigning all intellectual life to the formal academy. Education in this country is not distributed any more fairly than those elusive tenure-track positions in the humanities. Lilith asks:
I mean, here we are writing our blogs, all of us from so many different places, backgrounds, occupations – dealing in part with our own personal hurts, yes, but: we’re not getting bogged down in the personal but are thinking with the greater good in mind. What is that if not being intellectuals?
And the answer is that we’re being adults and good citizens.
I’m not going to properly situate this discussion in the broader cultural habit of devaluing unpaid work, not before bedtime – it’s already after bedtime. A quick note, though: only mothers are allowed to define themselves without reference to paid labor. Are there useful analogies between motherhood and “free-lance” intellectual effort? Probably.