Wanted: More Amateur Intellectuals
Posted August 29, 2016on:
I am indebted to the sociologist Les Back’s Academic Diary for some thought-provoking insights on academics from the late Palestinian-American literary critic and public intellectual Edward Said. In his 1993 Reith Lectures, Said commented: “The particular threat to the intellectual today, whether in the West or the non-Western world, is not the academy, nor the suburbs, nor the appalling commercialism of journalism and publishing houses, but rather an attitude that I will call professionalism.”
The professional academic tends to be obsessed with personal reputation, furthering one’s career, publishing as much as possible and in the most prestigious journals.
Said pointed to three dimensions to the damage that professionalism does to the life of the mind. The first is specialization. The specialist can ignore the burning issues of his day, and happily go on mining within a very narrow, intellectually constricted area without ever being troubled by the big moral and political questions.
Secondly, while specialists are hard workers, the work that they perform often has to do with rebutting and undermining others in their area of intellectual expertise. This can be a time-consuming business.
The third and perhaps most damaging dimension has to do with political enticement through the conferring of honours or research grants with strings attached. This leads to timidity, a desire not to rock the boat or be too outspoken. Don’t do anything that might threaten the next invitation to give a conference keynote address or join an editorial board.
By contrast Said promoted a model of the intellectual as an amateur- the passionate dilettante or committed dabbler. The word “dilettante” today implies irresponsible flitting from one topic to another. But, etymologically, it stems from the Latin delectare, to “delight”. The passionate amateur dilettante engages in learning and communicating knowledge out of delight and a sense of responsibility. George Orwell once said that all who choose to write are political activists- they write because they want to change the world. However, making intellectual life a job has resulted in conformity and an aversion to risk-taking.
Such amateurism is, of course, impossible nowadays in the “hard sciences”. And Said’s principal targets are scholars in the social sciences and humanities. But how many scientists and engineering raise awkward questions about research priorities?
One can quibble with Said’s characterization, and the specialists among us will object (typically) that he paints with too broad a brush. Further, not all can be Renaissance Men/Women like Said himself. But such generalizations are often helpful in that they serve to highlight aspects of intellectual life that are too often swept under the carpet. We are too much in awe of people with academic qualifications and do not hold them accountable for what they do -or do not do- with their intellectual training.
Those of us who teach, preach and write not because we are paid to do so, but because of the “inner fire” in our bones that cannot be quenched (cf. Jer.20:9), and who feel insecure when in the company of professional scholars, can take heart from Said’s forthright comments!
I remember mentioning to an American biblical scholar that I have often written letters to newspapers not only in Sri Lanka, but even in the US and UK, on social and political issues that moved me deeply. Sometimes they were done at risk to my life, and many did not pass the local censor. He told me, with a self-satisfaction that shocked me, that he had never done this, as his vocation lay in teaching good biblical exegesis to future church pastors.
Perhaps I have an old-fashioned view of academic teaching. I expect a teacher to embody what he or she teaches, not least when it comes to the Bible and theology. I somehow cannot envisage how anybody can teach from the Gospels while being cautious about saying anything that might “offend” the donors to their institution; or to fail in exploring with their students what following Jesus entails in their global and local neighbourhoods.
For some years now I have declined all invitations to contribute to Christian dictionaries and encyclopaedias from publishing house in the US. I have given two reasons. First, since neither I nor my colleagues in the Majority World can afford these publications, they seem to be a form of “exploitation” of our scholarship. But, secondly, the American Church has more Bible dictionaries, commentaries and other academic resources than the rest of the World Church put together. Do they really need yet another mega-commentary on Romans, say, or another tome on Reformation Theology? Is it not, rather, simple obedience? And more amateur intellectuals who will speak with courage and wisdom into the burning issues of the day?
One burning issue is global warning (no pun intended!). Donald Trump calls climate change a “con job” and “a hoax” propagated by the Chinese to make American manufacturing non-competitive. In his manifesto, he promises to defend the coal industry by pulling out of the Paris agreement, stopping funds for the UN’s climate change work, and forbidding the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating carbon dioxide.
This clearly has consequences for those of us non-Americans who suffer the effects of the “American lifestyle”. It is an issue of global justice. Is it, then, unreasonable for us to expect Christian intellectuals in the U.S to speak up for us, and not just for their fellow-Americans, when addressing election issues in their universities, churches, national newspapers and social media?