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.

Good night.

Trackbacks & Pings

  1. Top Five in 2004 on 15 Nov 2007 at 12:05 am

    […] Life of the Mind – [W]e can expect some level of activism/intellectualism from Average Citizen X, and anyone who goes beyond that level can fairly claim to be an activist or an intellectual. […]


  1. des wrote:

    I never know whether I count as in the academy or not, given as I’m essentially a non-commissioned officer with acting rank of postdoc (but better pay) and in a maths department (and it ain’t no stinkin’ liberal art the way I do it, for sure): If I say I’m not, it’s weaselicious; if I say I am, it’s presumptuous.
    Maybe you should get some “I read Bourdieu and I vote” bumper stickers made up and sell them on Cafepress..?

  2. Rana wrote:

    Anybody who knows who Bourdieu is, let alone reads him, counts in my book!
    That would be a fun bumpersticker to have.

  3. yami wrote:

    I keep quiet about the equivocations between academia/intellectualism and the liberal arts because science gets so much more money and respect… but I’m not generally happy about it.
    I wonder if such a bumper sticker would be undermined by public expectations that “I read Bourdieu and I vote” means the voting is left-wing – I’m not sure I’d want one appearing right next to “Kucinich 2004″ anyway. I think this might be an instance where a change in cultural discourse comes first, and politics is dragged after kicking and screaming.

  4. LiL wrote:

    I’m so amused at how obviously I grew up in a different culture… I don’t usually think of it, but clearly my interpretation of being intellectuals is rooted in Socialist 70s Hungarian culture. Where being an intellectual was sort of like choosing to do your civic duty with thinking. Then again, university professors are actually civil servants in Hungary.
    (I guess this means you can take the socialist out of socialism but you’ll never take socialism out of the socialist…)

  5. Liliputian Lilith wrote:

    discussion continues
    Academics, intellectuals or civic duty – muses yami, via rana, and Adam Kotsko coins the term the “universitization of knowledge.” I know I’ve missed a number of interesting posts in this debate and I’d really like to know what you…

  6. yami wrote:

    I’m not sure if I need to clarify this or not, but I’m not thinking of intellecualism as the kind of generic civil service where if you don’t like to think you can just pick up trash on the freeway or something; more along the lines of voting. We have the same inherent, non-transferable obligation to be active, critical participants in culture as we do in politics. Voting and writing occasional letters to my congressfolk doesn’t make me a politician, or even an activist; similarly, thinking critically and writing blog entries shouldn’t qualify me for any special labels either.

  7. LiL wrote:

    “…thinking critically and writing blog entries shouldn’t qualify me for any special labels either.”
    Why not?
    Although I actually meant those of us who (as it happens) are writing blog entries, are highly educated or very well-read, and also happen to work or at one time happened to work in those amorphous jobs that require critical thinking in one form or another but are not generally counted as part of academia. I include adjuncting or being a grad student in this category. I probably don’t say it clearly enough, what I mean is, our jobs or careers are not the sum total of our intellectual or thinking activity, but for my part, I want that activity recognized as part of my identity. (They usually aren’t for academics either, current language usage makes it seem appear as though for academics, their jobs equaled their identity.)
    You also mention writing to your congressman not qualifying as activism, which is an interesting parallel. Why does it not qualify as activism? Why can someone not be an activist sometimes and not at other times? Where are the dividing lines here, what amount of activism-type activity does one have to do to qualify as an activist? Similarly – how much intellectual activity does one have to do to qualify to be an intellectual?

  8. LiL wrote:

    I meant to add this: I think the point you make about the cultural habit of devaluing paid work is a really good one and worth exploring at more length.

  9. yami wrote:

    I guess writing one’s congressperson does count as activism – but I would feel weaselly about calling myself an activist because I don’t feel I’ve done anything more than I can rightfully expect of fellow citizens. If there needs to be a dividing line I think that’s where it is: we can expect some level of activism/intellectualism from Average Citizen X, and anyone who goes beyond that level can fairly claim to be an activist or an intellectual.
    Not a full response, but it’s FRIDAY! and it’s FIVE! so I’ll keep thinking on the drive home =)

  10. LiL wrote:

    Okay, I can live with that dividing line. You have high expectations of people, right? Which also means you’re an idealist and unapologetic about it. I like that!

  11. yami wrote:

    I suppose they are a bit high – I also expect many/most people not to meet them. The tricky and vexing bit is when I start wondering why it works that way…

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