Monday, June 22, 2015

Why Don't We Have Public Intellectuals?

Recently I was reading this insightful piece by Michael Schwalbe, an academic I greatly admire. In it, he makes an argument for why we don't see nearly as many public intellectuals these days, at least not in the form of academic professors actually making an impact on public opinion or public policy. He does a great job of detailing how the many economic pressures currently facing universities makes such a position untenable for the great majority of academics. Between budget cuts, a relentless assault from anti-intellectual politicians, and the proletarianization of the academic work force, most academics are so busy trying to get enough publications and funding to keep their jobs that there's simply no time to insert themselves into public debates like they used to. It's a pretty compelling argument, and well worth your time to read.

But I think there's one factor that's missing from Schwalbe's analysis -- namely, that the position of public intellectual has been over taken by pseudo intellectuals who are not at all beholden to "research" or "basic facts" like academics are. Take one of my most hated people in the world, David Brooks. Brooks obviously fancies himself a public intellectual, and while he is indeed quite publicly visible, the "intellectual" tag can only be applied in the most generous of settings. Really, Brooks is best understood, to borrow a phrase from this great takedown of Malcolm Gladwell, as what a stupid person thinks a smart person sounds like.

When he's not using banal observations of single cases and pretending they explain large swaths of humanity (as in the comic above), he's often just outright making stuff up. Though often even his "observations" are also completely fabricated, such as his infamous claim that you can't spend $20 at a restaurant in "red America" even though a cursory glance of the menu at said restaurant proves the claim false.

But more to the point, to give himself the sheen of an intellectual, Brooks is fond of making up stuff that sounds right to those who want to believe it, but has no actual basis in reality. In essence, he's pretty much the living, breathing embodiment of truthiness. Take, for example, this man's bewildering account of attempting to find out where Brooks got one of his favorite academic-sounding anecdotes.

The anecdote in question, which Brooks regularly cites in speeches and in print, concerns a survey that found in 1950 only 12% of high school seniors thought they were a very important person, while by 2006, that number was up to 80%. Ha! Those millennials and their damned self-importance! It sure sounds right, doesn't it? What with all these think pieces on the kids today and their tweetbooks and facetubes. The problem is, it's completely fabricated. There exists no such survey. And while the linked piece eventually locates some surveys that are kind of talking about the subject, they're so far off from what Brooks claims them to say that it's obvious this isn't a simple case of reading it wrong or forgetting one or two important details. No, this is obviously yet another example of a case in which Brooks just flat out made something up to give his rote condemnation of the kids these days an intellectual veneer.

Which brings me back to the absence of public intellectuals. If an academic of any field made stuff up as regularly as Brooks, or used one small piece of factual information to represent large swaths of society, they would be laughed out of their job. Yet in the much more forgiving world of opinion journalism, Brooks somehow still has a regular column in what is supposedly our nation's premier newspaper. The problem is that actual research is never as clear cut nor as convenient a story as the kinds Brooks and his compatriots tell; after all, this is why he has to make shit up. But in the chaotic marketplace of public ideas, in which very few readers are fact-checking these arguments, it's pretty hard for the nuanced, ambiguous, and hesitant findings of actual intellectuals to hold court against the pat, decisive, and often demonstrably false proclamations of the faux intelligentsia. So while Schwalbe is no doubt correct about the corrosive effect of draining resources from our nation's universities, I'd argue another important factor in the decline of professors as public intellectuals has been the usurping of their place by people who have the free reign to simply make up a better sounding story when there are no facts to support what they want to say.

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