Sunday, August 05, 2007

The Role of the Intellectual

One of the reasons I encourage all thinking people to blog is that I believe firmly that all persons who have something to say ought to use their talents to share ideas with their contemporaries. To me, life is about sharing information so that we can better our society for all people, not just the educated elite.

If you've been following the current debate raging in Unitarian/Liberal Christian circles, the question being posed is: How do we keep a sense of collective memory fresh in the minds of all people and how do we make them see how relevant it is to today?

Thomas Jefferson was not an egalitarian. He was an elitist. He believed that the educated elite ought to have access to the most education and that the masses ought to be educated on more practical matters and have a thorough grounding, but not the in depth study provided the educated elite. This philosophy has survived in intellectual, academic settings as well as the Unitarian church. I'm inclined to believe more in Jefferson's take because the older I get, the less I believe that the liberal idea that provided enough education, every person can rise above his station and reach self-actualization is little more than an exploded myth.

Horace Mann, a century later, took a much more egalitarian approach, arguing that education was for all people, regardless of class. I tend to see this approach as pie-in-the sky rather than practical or even possible.

As a historian, I understand that some concepts are so submerged underneath the crap we’re inundated with on a daily basis (particularly in these days of such constant information barrage) that it takes the intellectuals to point it out and re-frame the argument so that the average Joe and Jane can understand it. This shouldn't reflect negatively on the average person and I really believe the idea of blame has no purpose in the discussion. It has been my understanding that it takes a special person to look at the world and dig layers beneath the surface and not confuse that surface as all there is to know. We in education call those sorts “self-directed learners”.

I think only a few people are geared to a self-directed learners. It’s up to the intellectuals to show the average person how to think. Not out of a sense of paternalism, which with a pat on the head says I-know-better-than-you-do, but merely out of matter of course.

Thus we have two competing ideas of thought in history. We have the conservative viewpoint, which argues strongly against exploding conventional wisdom and preserving the mythology. Their viewpoint is based upon the fear that if we call everything into question then we will fall into anarchy and nihilism. To counter that argument, we have the liberal, revisionist critique which calls into question past viewpoints and dares to take on sacred cows for the sole purpose of revealing the past the way it more or less was, and not how it has been watered-down and sugar-coated to suit the whims of those who advance the fantasy to keep themselves in power.

Both points have merit, but it is my opinion that we owe it to ourselves to question and probe. I don't believe Christopher Columbus was a great man, and neither do I see Andrew Jackson as a great man, either. But the debate that really lies beneath the surface is that of fear versus trust. I see the conservative viewpoint as being firmly fear-based--the fear that if we dispose of traditional conceptions of history then we'll find ourselves utterly rudderless. I see the liberal viewpoint, which I entertain, as being based on trust. I trust that the revisionist school of thought will lead us closer to the way things really transpired.

The revisionist school has led me to understand a lot of crucial elements about human nature. There are constants in human nature, and among these are the desire for power, the desire for material gain, the desire for sexual conquest, and the pursuit of commerce. All wars when you whittle them down to their basest elements have these crucial elements in common. Many policy decision, too, have these same elements in common.

I think it is up to the intellectual to put these truths in a proper context. The average person is not capable for whatever reason or another of entertaining these concepts by himself or herself--after all, if he or she were, what would be the role of the pedagogy? If this is an elitist statement, so be it, but I doubt that we have advanced far enough in civilization for every person to be his/her own scholar. I believe that visionaries have an obligation to society to advance the cause of knowledge. In blogging, I've run across many fellow visionaries and nothing gives me more comfort than knowing I am not alone in thinking these thoughts and in pondering these issues.

For whatever reason or another, human beings were created unequal as far as educational prowess and intellectual capacity are concerned. Thus it can be a very lonely experience to be gifted and articulate. But we who do blog, and we who do probe do everyone a great service to keep the debate going. And at worst, it's a fun exercise that keeps us smartypants cognizant of the fact that we ought to have no shame for not being "normal", for not being the Proles of Orwellian fame who take everything the government and society tells them at face value and live lives of productive banality. Clearly, if we were all meant to be equal, we would all have high IQs. But we do not and rather than bemoan this point and rather than fear that we'll all fall prey to the eternal blame game, may we seek to grab the bull by the horns. Some of us are meant to lead, and most of us are meant to follow and whether you find that comforting or disquieting, that's just the way of the world.

1 comment:

Phydeaux Speaks said...


You, sir, have an excellent blog. I'm glad I "met" you as I semi-lurked at the BG chat tonight.

I shall be back.