Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Out of sight, out of mind
Chris Arnot

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 bookshops."

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 dialogues."

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."

First published in Education Guardian, 10 May 2005