What’s Eating American Intellectuals And, Now, What’s Eating Me

In yesterday’s post about what’s troubling American intellectuals I arrived at what I considered a fairly uncontroversial point of view, namely, that the diminished social stature of the intellectual – and, in some quarters, the scorn and mockery of educated “elites” — indicates something disturbing about our attitudes toward education and where we are headed as a society.

Just what that something might be is up for grabs, but I was tending toward the dramatic and alarming view that this is the first stage of the eclipse of liberal arts education in America, the onset of a dark age. I tried to hint at that in the final paragraph of my post.

Not a single comment all day — until last night, when someone registered his strong disagreement on my Facebook page, and I had the sinking feeling that maybe everybody had strongly disagreed with what I wrote, but was just too polite to say so.

Michael commented that he “lost all faith in the ‘liberal intellectuals’ long ago,” and he goes on to say my post fails to register how badly intellectuals of all stripes have failed us, so they might just deserve our scorn.

…it was a bunch of Ivy Leaguers who got us into the damn mess we’re in–the latest version of “the best and the brightest.” Your intellectual aristocracy has failed us, Louis. They’ve screwed up the environment probably beyond redemption, they’ve brought us war without end, they’ve totally fucked up the global casino economy. This last half century of downhill slide wasn’t the consequence of bunch of climate-denying yahoos and creationist boobs; it was all the brilliant scientists at MIT, all those glorious minds at the Kennedy School of Government, all those experts at G’town International relations, all those Harvard Business School MBAs. Thanks a million, minds.

Just to be clear, I am not out to defend tenured Ivy League professors, the best and the brightest, or an intellectual aristocracy (if there is such a thing). They don’t need me to defend them. Nor am I trying to put them at ease. I am simply trying to understand why they are so ill at ease these days, and what that might mean.

If I widen the historical lens I begin to wonder whether a certain idea of the intellectual is passing from the American stage and maybe from the world stage. Technocrats and scientists still garner our respect and admiration (despite what Michael says about the folks at MIT and elsewhere), and we are still captive to a narrative of scientific and technical progress; but we may have lost our faith in the idea that we can ever learn anything of consequence about human affairs or the human condition. That’s not something I can lay out arguments to prove; it is simply something I wonder about, and it’s a possibility I dread.

On the other hand, I can’t really go where Michael is going with his comment, partly because I recognize the inherent fallibility of all intellectual undertaking — it’s no surprise that the best and the brightest would fail to deliver us from evil; nobody can — and because I admit that most human endeavor ends in pure folly, no matter how noble and inspired and smart it might at first seem.

That is no reason to give up on education or enlightenment. This is a point Russell Kirk made, snidely, but powerfully, in a passage quoted by Bainbridge:

Populism is a revolt against the Smart Guys. I am very ready to confess that the present Smart Guys, as represented by the dominant mentality of the Academy and of what the Bergers call the Knowledge Class today, are insufficiently endowed with right reason and moral imagination. But it would not be an improvement to supplant them by persons of thoroughgoing ignorance and incompetence.

To be sure, the current wave of populism will pass. My concern is that after the revolution, we’re going to have to start rebuilding, and it’s difficult to do that in darkness.

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