Vinoth Ramachandra

Wanted: More Amateur Intellectuals

Posted on: August 29, 2016

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?


22 Responses to "Wanted: More Amateur Intellectuals"

Dear Vinoth,
There is so much of Grace and should I say ‘space’ in this post. Grace to understand a world out there; though not as academically & professionally inclined but…are making impact though not often recognised. Also this post gives space for the many ‘not so intellectuals’ to join and grow in Grace. Welcoming indeed.

As long as conservative evangelicals dominate the landscape of American religious life, with their very narrow understanding of the Gospel, I’m afraid the kind of intellectual engagement you are speaking of Vinoth will remain missing in the U.S. What a pity for the rest of the world.

As a former academic, I’d like to say two things. First, that the ‘professionalism’ that you here describe is very familiar. It was not a route I chose to travel, but one that was laid on me by the university which had hired me. I could not get tenure (and would have therefore lost my job) had I not submitted to ‘professionalism’. I was required to publish, and publish with prestigious journals. I was required to get substantial research grants. I was required to specialise, to have good teaching evaluations from students (many of whom thought they deserved high grades because of the high fees they paid). No one (except me) cared whether my research with low-income families had any effect on the lives of those who participated in my studies.

Second, in some small ways I did rock the boat. I dared to do ‘mainstream’ research in non-mainstream cultures. I dared to listen to what low-income struggling mothers were saying and try to make some sense of it. For the university it meant that my research proceeded too slowly. It meant that my results were messy (like the lives of those I was ‘studying’), it meant prestigious journals were reluctant to listen to me, it meant battle after battle with reviewers.

Becoming a ‘professional’ quenched my inner fire. I was told by someone famous in my field that to be a successful academic I would have to work 6 days a week and 10-12 hours a day. After holidays I was not asked if I had enjoyed myself or rested well, but how much work I had accomplished on my latest publication. I left academia tired and disillusioned.

I would love to think that this problem can be solved simply by Christian academics living and thinking in a different way. I would love to think that it was ‘just me’ – that I simply failed to live and work in a way that lived up to my inner ideals. But I think a radical change in the system is needed if academics are to rediscover delight and responsibility and still keep their jobs. May God raise up people who can lead the way in bringing this change!

A great article, thank you Vinoth.

I’d just say that the hard sciences can and are benefiting from input from laypersons. In the life sciences, there is a host of baseline data that needs to be collected so that more investigative science can be built upon it, such as bird counts and surveys. There’s volunteering work that can help tremendously with NGOs. There’s computing power that can be harnessed for scientific calculations, such as Folding@Home. Not to forget donations to research institutions and NGOs, particularly those who pursue ‘pure science’ – science for the sake of it, the kind that does not demand an immediate return on investment.

At least, this is my perspective as a non-scientist who contributes to scientific work in some the ways mentioned above.

This is great. Someone who has done this is John Baez, a fairly well known and respected theoretical mathematician who decided it was time to look at some of the real problems facing humanity. See for his announcement, and for the mission statement on his new blog. It would be wonderful to see more scientists doing this, whether publicly or privately.

At my university, the inner fire is one of the most essential marks of a Scholar.

This sends me thinking in two directions
First, the capture of public discourse in the US by hardline partisan operatives. Even the word “intellectual” is derided by conservatives, in a way that has done great damage to claims of fact or reason. There is little room for intellectuals – professional or amateur – when trolls and Trumps rule the day. Even conservative insiders who have participated in this in the past are retreating from the monster they’ve helped create:
Second, I’m not sure we can talk about the academic community as a monolith. Historically, Christian (both Protestant and Catholic) liberal arts colleges were a strong haven for broad discourse on political and social issues. I am thankful for schools and faculties that continue to dig deep into questions of economic and environmental justice and sustainability. Those voices are not easy to find, but still there. (I live near Eastern University, which has done much on economic justice, and Messiah University, working hard on sustainability, and Villanova, which regularly hosts forums on both).
The greater difficulty is a Christian media – I use the term loosely – that effectively punishes real discussion and shouts down voices that don’t fit the right-wing agenda.
I left the academy decades ago because I am – in the best use of the word – a dilettante. I write about the issues you describe on my own blog ( recent post was about global migration, climate change, and the US response) and do what I can to continue the dialogue with others, in the US and elsewhere, trying to do the same. Maybe this disastrous election cycle will stir conversation about the need for change in our public discourse and will awaken Christians who have been lulled into compliance with partisan agendas. Please pray that will be so.

Hi Vinoth, I thank God for creating people like you who are always straightforward about this kind of thing. I just want to share my personal experience – I do need to think more about this.

As an international student coming to the US for my Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry, I personally experienced the points you mentioned. Specialization without respect of actual impact, rebutting and undermining others, and politics – I experienced all of these within my first year of graduate study. It is very frustrating, and as a student it have intimidated me to the point that I just go with the flow. However, your post rekindled the old flame that I had when I started – I want to be a good theoretical chemist and I want to inspire my future students and encourage them to do (good) science. I almost gave up but now I know that I need to stand up and refuse to submit to those worldly enticement because then I can’t be an effective salt and light here. I think, one of my personal homework will be to think harder about the first point – why am I doing what I am doing? And this is indeed hard in a system that pressures people to churn out publications.

Stephen, Carol and Penny: I am very moved and challenged by your frank sharing.

Thanks to KW for the reference- I’ll look Baez up.

Thanks Stephen for your honesty. May God strengthen you to stand firm and work out a better way!

Vinoth, this is quite a thought-provoking post, particularly in light of posts by Alan Jacobs and others responding to him. On the American scene at least, I think a critical problem is the disjunct between what intellectual culture there is, even in the Christian community, and the still substantial white lower and middle class population to whom Trump appeals. A popular book right now is “Hillbilly Elegies” which explains the character of the population Trump has a strong base with. So many of these people feel they have been snubbed by the intellectual and policy elites in our country, they feel passed up with regard to economic opportunities, and Trump has played on all of this. I’ve observed a similar condescension to such folk in Christian intellectual circles as well, and a corresponding disjunct. Consequently, when Christians who are thoughtful about matters like climate change, for example, people like Katherine Hayhoe, speak out, they end up mostly speaking to a more educated audience who already agree. I think actually Christians could play an important bridge-building work if they practice good missiological principles in first understanding this sub-culture, secondly, approaching with humility rather than patronizing, and among Christians, helping them listen to scripture and recognize the kingdom things they care about more than the culture trappings they’ve been encouraged to embrace. A good case study of this was Susan Drake Emmerich’s work with Tangier Island Waterman. Here is a brief summary:

If I was as skillful with words as my colleague and good friend Bob Trube is, I would have said something very close to what he wrote. Thanks, Bob, and thanks Vinoth for initiating this conversation. A great example of why IFES has made such a difference in my life.

Thanks for a stimulating post.

Dave Andrews has a challenging article about amateurs, professionals, and vocation that goes beyond intellectuals.

One note of caution. There are certain kinds of “Amateur intellectuals” who I don’t think should be encouraged: those who are “skeptical” about climate change, biological evolution, vaccination, … and retired engineers who have developed their own “unified field theory” in theoretical physics.

Regarding the first point I want to say this. I think that my research focuses on the ‘big moral and political question’. As I look back I would say that had I immediately started PhD after my Undergrads, I would not be in a position to identify the ‘big moral and political questions’ that require Christian voice. I joined the staff team of UESI (IFES India) for eight years and that helped me see things differently. It’s not necessary to work with IFES or take so many years gap, but I think taking a ‘gap year(s)’ is helpful.

The competition to race ahead is crazy, and so many may find the idea of taking such a gap to ‘see the world’ not quite relevant or practically feasible. But I don’t see how my life will crumble to pieces just because I step back from the University for a year or two to look at the world from a different perspective. As a staff worker I saw some students making plan even before they graduate when they will graduate, take loan, buy car, buy house, get married… But some are not like that. And I don’t see how those who take part in the rate race are better than others over the years.

Bob, I fully agree with your observations. However, I don’t think that “speaking to a more educated audience who already agree” is to be discounted. It is, in fact, what many of us outside the US yearn for, simply because it is a matter of the credibility of the Church’s witness. The secularized “educated audience” in the US’s universities and mainstream media needs to be disabused of its belief that “evangelical Christians” are all right-wing climate-change deniers, Zionists, nationalists, etc. There is no point in our bemoaning this perception when there are relatively few counter-voices emerging from that wing of the church (and these tend to speak and write only to their fellow-Christians). It is also why Christian “missions” abroad by American churches and parachurch ministries will continue to lack credibility as long as this situation persists. So the good “missiological principles” that you rightly point to need to be applied across the board. Thanks again for your comment and references.

Where are these evangelical voices we so desperately need to positively engage the intellectual and secular quarters of global society in a winsome manner? I don´t hear them … especially from the U.S.

Then again, I may be hard of hearing or simply overly pessimistic or both.

Timothy Keller? Ron Sider?

Although I’m a Keller fan when it comes to his apologetic work, he still is a Gospel Coalition calvinist who isn’t very progressive.

I hadn’t thought of Sider. Thanks.

Matthew – Your use of “Gospel Coalition calvinist” as a pejorative may indicate that you may be “hard of hearing or simply overly pessimistic”.

It´s just my opinion Greg Jobe. Like I said, I highly respect Keller as an apologist. I loved his book “The Reason For God”, but I tend to think that most of those associated with conservative evangelicalism/calvinism (like the Gospel Coalition members) in America are not real adding to the kind of intellectual conversation(s) Vinoth is discussing in this post. They seem to be much more interested in discussing conservative doctrine and theology. That said … I´m certainly open to changing my mind of course as more evidence coming out of the conservative U.S. evangelical world presents itself. Thanks so much for the comment.

“Such amateurism is, of course, impossible nowadays in the “hard sciences”

The word impossible has become somewhat of a gauntlet to me, due to the fact my work was impossible.
Twenty five years later i’ve gone from impossible to 100%.

Now in the sense of a horse race, I’d win .. using logic and such.

The word impossible in this case, intellectual study, ‘living in a garret existing on crusts of bread’/ free time, is still possible due to our ‘safety net’ and ability to adapt.

So, in conclusion, the result of my twenty five years .. my dabbling? .. cause and treatment of all disease, found in the Bible, treatment now being recommended for more diseases than any treatment in history.
Iron reduction therapy.

Curing Aids.

“Pursuing the destruction of HIV-infected cells
May 18, 2016
Rutgers University
An oral drug used to treat an illness unrelated to HIV eradicated infectious HIV-producing cells in lab cultures while sparing uninfected cells — and suppressed the virus in patients during treatment and for at least eight weeks after the drug was stopped, according to results of a clinical pilot trial.”

“Deferiprone (tradenames include Ferriprox) is a drug that chelates iron and is used to treat iron overload “

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