January 02, 2004

Professors at the Pentagon?

"The public intellectuals' lack of accountability no bucks stop at their desks and their remoteness from the world of difficult, flawed, risky, but necessary decision-making," declares Elaine Showalter in "Judging 2003's Ideas: The Most Overrated and Underrated," "makes their critical posture seem self-indulgent despite its virtue." Well, sure. I'm happy to acknowledge that Showalter has a point.

She loses me, however, when she adds the following: "Anybody can complain, blog and find fault; the real intellectual might try to solve problems." Eh? Are we to understand that the real (as opposed to the public) intellectual is directly accountable, and indeed intimately connected to the "world of difficult, flawed, risky but necessary decision-making"? I'm not convinced that the role of the intellectual should be to solve problems in a direct, hands-on, pragmatic way. At the very least, I would need to be persuaded on this point. But I'm pretty sure that this is not, for the most part, the actual role that intellectuals (real or imagined, public or private, or what have you) currently play.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at January 2, 2004 05:55 PM

Would it help if she had said "pundits with PhDs" rather than "public intellectuals?"

Posted by: ogged at January 2, 2004 07:27 PM

If that had come from some exquisite hermit who had spent a lifetime studying the collected works of a single writer or some such, I'd have read it tolerantly and disagreed, but coming from Elaine Showalter of all people, it can only be read as a strange kind of confessional which I am willing to generously apply to her but to no one else.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at January 2, 2004 08:25 PM


Posted by: Ripper at January 2, 2004 08:58 PM

Why do they get an English professor for comments?

I would have suppose getting some public policy, economics or government professor will be more appropriate. Some of these people do deal with policy type issues that indeed do have significant impact, and where hacks and quacks might cause some real damage.

No offence, but I cant really see where a hack english phd or a 'real' english phd can do anything which impacts me.

Posted by: Passing_through at January 2, 2004 10:38 PM

Well, a hack or real PhD in the humanities can have an impact - as a real hack, I can speak from experience. I work for human rights groups as a volunteer to advocate for bettering conditions in the part of Africa I do research on. I have friends with English doctorates and MFA's doing similar work.

One could retort that academics moonlighting as lobbyists are out of their depth. However, I've already run into full-time lobbyists that are far more skilled at presenting their employer's spin than actually knowing about the issues at hand...

Posted by: better left nameless at January 3, 2004 10:32 AM

People should solve their own problems. "Intellectuals" as a class shouldn't exist. The role of the intellectual should therefore be to make themselves dissappear by giving their knowledge freely and in such a way as to undermine the separation between planning and execution.

This all reminds me of a fine film: "Memoirs of Underdevelopment". Probably can't see it in the US, but...

Posted by: che at January 3, 2004 04:06 PM

The opinions in the article were intriguing. I'd never heard of most of these people, but then the average IA reader hasn't heard of most of the people important in my field either =).

To me it seemed mainly that Showalter wished there were more people involved in applied work, not that she was disparaging the value of "public intellectuals". An analogy is the difference between theory and experiment in physics -- theorists make the ideas and experimentalists test the ideas, and any given physicist may need to fill both roles to get work done. She was just wishing that more "public intellectuals" would "do the experiment" as opposed to "creating theory".

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at January 3, 2004 07:19 PM

Aramis...I'm not sure that the analogy with physics works very well. In physics, *anyone* can do the experiment (given adequate equipment) and it can be done any number of times. In social and political affairs, the "experiment" can be done only once. We don't have any way of setting up alternate universes, in one of which we destroy the Taliban and in one of which we don't, so that we may measure the outcomes.

So I don't think it's realistic to expect everyone who writes on political affairs to "do the experiment" themselves--to take this position would in effect say that no one is entitled to an opinion other than the government officials who must actually make the immediate decisions.

I do, however, think that we have today a very large number of people--particularly among those who consider themselves as intellectuals--who have spent their entire careers analyzing, recommending, and critiquing the actions of others, and who have little experience in *themselves* taking action and making decisions (as opposed to, say, a farmer or a small businessman, who must make decisions every day and live with the consequences)...just blogged about this yesterday.

Posted by: David Foster at January 4, 2004 11:56 AM

The thing with "public intellectuals" is not that they give bad advice or sometimes wrong advice (everybody is guilty of that at some time or another), but that they may do so with the wrong reasons or methodology.

A trival example, say if you would ask 3 5-year olds about what is going to happen to unemployment rates. One says it will go up, one says it will go down and another says it will remain the same. The key here is not which one is right, (trival since I have covered all possible cases) but how they have arrived at their results that is important.

With public intellectuals, if their credentials go only so far as personal experience or anadotal evidence, then their advice is highly unrealiable. Whether they have the "right" answer is not a good guage of anything. Then there is no different from asking lots of 5-year olds or reading tea leaves.

If someone cannot back up their so-called "theories" with emprical data, mathematical proofs or models (some things can only be proved or demostrated mathematically) but uses fancy prose or emotionally charged writing instead, thats when I start getting suspicious(**). If their ONLY defence is that "I have a PhD and you dont, thus I am right", thats just rubbish.

** Not to claim that anything that has numbers is more accurate, but its just that math models and data are a whole lot more realiable and more difficult to fool others than words, especially if you bother to learn something about them

Posted by: Passing_through at January 4, 2004 02:27 PM

From Showalter's thing:

(the "tenured gadfly," as Richard Posner says in his updated "Public Intellectuals," is an oxymoron)

Maybe not. In ancient Israel, the office of "prophet" was a kind of tenured radical. All the kings, even the ones that the biblical authors claim were wicked, still keep prophets around, even if the prophets seem to be "social critics who take an exclusively oppositional stance to political policies in general, and [Israelite] foreign policy in particular" (again from Showalter, paraphrasing). A commonly repeated prophetic formula is that God will hold them accountable if they don't tell the people the right thing to do, but if they tell the people and they still don't do the right thing, then the prophet is in the clear.

Overall, I think some kind of division of labor between advisor and executive is necessary and proper, and advisors who work for the good of the entire populace, rather than for specific politicians, should not be blamed if the current regime does not believe their advice to be politically feasible at the moment.

This isn't to say that English professors are necessarily modern day prophets, just to say that I think Showalter's complaints are misplaced. A lot of intellectuals do come up with solutions -- it's not their fault that President Bush or whoever doesn't implement them, for whatever reason.

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at January 4, 2004 11:45 PM

DF, let me ponder that awhile. I was trying to express my understanding of Showalter's complaints, but I think there's some wisdom in your comments for me. Thanks.

Posted by: Aramis Martinez at January 5, 2004 04:37 AM