of sight, out of mind
Professor Steve Fuller has a voice powerful enough to reach the
back row of any lecture hall. He is using it to good effect this
afternoon, expounding at full volume his ideas on intellectual life
on both sides of the Atlantic and, indeed, the Channel. What the
other denizens of the Pumpkin cafe at Coventry station make of all
this is difficult to gauge. One is reading Glamour magazine; another
is staring into space while clutching a bottle of Budweiser.
The professor is catching the 4.50 to Euston and then a plane to
his native US. He is to be quizzed by students and academics in
Chicago on his new book, The Intellectual. But he will be back well
in time for next Monday's debate at Warwick University, where he
is a professor of sociology. Fuller will be opposing the motion,
to be put forward by Professor Frank Furedi from Kent University,
another sociologist, that the intellectual is an endangered species.
Furedi is the author of Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?
There is no shortage of big issues for them to tackle, he argues,
citing global warming and stem-cell research. But he says there
is a dearth of academics prepared to put forward complex and controversial
arguments. "Public debates are generated by market researchers
or thinktanks. Every week I get asked by someone in the media to
comment on a narrow, anecdotal issue and that's what drives it.
"As a result, intellectuals have become very defensive. They
don't take themselves seriously because they don't want to come
across as know-it-alls. A false, anti-elitist sentiment has sprung
up at a time when, paradoxically, there have never been so many
Never so many people in higher education, either. Furedi talks
about what he calls "the McDonaldisation" of knowledge
- the way in which universities have had to reorganise themselves
to "encourage predictable, bite-sized knowledge that can be
digested by other sections of society".
Is he suggesting, then, that scholars should remain cloistered
in academia, holding conversations only with each other? "No,"
he insists. "I'm a great believer in reaching out. We should
be challenging ourselves, our students and the wider world. Instead
we're giving out more and more degrees while flattering the public,
as if they were children, instead of drawing them into challenging
If Furedi and Fuller agree on one thing, though, it is that UK
universities have become infertile ground for the sowing of ideas
across a range of subjects. Even Fuller admits that "the way
that academics are rewarded discourages participation in mainstream
intellectual life. Increasing numbers are on short-term contracts.
They don't have the luxury of being able to speak across disciplines
because they're too busy proving themselves in their own discipline."
He believes there is still a wider public in this country that
academics could engage with. "Academic life is not the same
as intellectual life," he argues. "I'd say that you can't
have an intellectual life unless it's in the public domain. Unlike
Frank, I don't believe that dumbing down is a problem."
Surprisingly, considering concerns about how science is taught
and how it is conveyed in a press dominated by arts graduates, Fuller
believes the British public is knowledgeable about the subject ("compared
to the United States, anyway"). This country has a bigger per
capita readership of popular science books than anywhere in the
world, he points out. What's more, Richard Dawkins is the No 1 intellectual
with the public, according to a survey in Prospect magazine.
But surely intellectuals are not regarded as highly in Britain
as they are in France, say. "Unlike the French," Fuller
concedes, "we don't have sections of our broadsheet newspapers
put aside for major intellectual discussion. The nearest thing we
have to it are the review sections in the nationals. But it's worth
remembering that, during the Thatcher era, a lot of young academics
found it difficult to find work in universities, so they went into
the media instead."
One or two found their media niche BT (before Thatcher). Professor
Laurie Taylor, for instance, had established himself as a BBC talking
head when he was still a comparatively youthful professor of sociology
at York University. Today he presents Thinking Aloud on Radio 4,
where he recently asked listeners to define an intellectual.
"I quite liked the notion that he or she was someone who goes
to the library even when it's not raining," he says now. "Even
better was the suggestion that an intellectual was one so preoccupied
with great thoughts that he or she could walk into a kitchen at
a party, spot a tea cosy and resist the urge to wear it like a hat."
All of which suggests Taylor is not too worried by Furedi's argument
on the decline of intellectual life in the UK. But he adds: "Some
of the ways that government is attempting to manage universities
are absurd. Academics are forced to produce papers that will never
be read by anyone in order to keep themselves in a job. Still, I
think Frank has a slightly romantic idea about what universities
were like before the era of research assessment targets. I'm not
sure senior common rooms were full of people debating Kant and Kierkegaard.
In my experience, they were more likely to be discussing how their
geraniums were faring."
Taylor did, however, meet with some raised eyebrows in the common
room after his first BBC broadcast in the 1970s. "Somebody
said to me on the Monday morning: 'Why didn't you mention Max Weber?'
- as though, by failing to mention a key figure in second-year coursework,
I was somehow guilty of appalling philistinism. When I did a phone-in
programme, I remember telling one of my academic colleagues that
it was an exercise in counter-hegemonic discourse."
Back at Coventry, Fuller is proclaiming: "It is the burden
of an intellectual to make his or her ideas matter. He or she should
be out there in the public domain, fighting their corner and rebutting
argument. That's the stuff of intellectual life. You're not throwing
it out like a message in a bottle."
published in Education Guardian, 10 May 2005