Monday, April 11, 2005

What is an intellectual?

When I was in sixth form, I asked a hapless geographer holding fort for an English teacher: 'What is an intellectual?' Me: stupid for not to having looked it up in the dictionary. He: flummoxed, saying nothing, walking briskly away to the Master's Common Room, amongst the scrum of noisy, scuttling students. He had been to the South Pole, was a member of the Royal Geographical Society. Obviously - I later saw, though at the time it seemed a slight not to give an answer - this was not within his knowledge or remit. He did not have an answer. He had probably never asked himself the question.

The point? I was an 18 year old science student attending what was called General Studies. The only formal, non-science intellectual activity I had formally engaged in was research for an essay on Orwell for the recently formed Literary Society. My efforts were abysmal: I read out a compilation of directly transcribed source material, with hardly a word of my own! What opinions could I have? I had only read - aged 15 - the essay on shooting elephants! My fellow student were dumbfounded, indifferent or bored, and the headmaster, the chairman, probably thought me an utter dolt: I was immediately able to recognise I was one, in this regard, even though no one had the decency to tell me there and then. Why had no one asked me : Is this what you think? The anser would have been : I have to rely on what others think, I'm afraid.


Erich Heller: The Disinherited Mind, Pelican edition.

Rilke and Nietzche p. 110

...the first commandment of all enlightened education: to form his own opinions.


The oft quoted quote from Alexander Solzhyitsyn turned up in a letter by A P Drury of Stourbridge, England to The Observer, 25 August 1985 to satisfy my much earlier question:

May I offer Neal Ascherson (Column, 11 August) an alternative definition of an 'intellectual'? It comes from Alexander Solzhenitsyn. In The Gulag Archipelago he says:
An intellectual is a person whose interests in and preoccupations with the spiritual side of life are insistent and constant.
Maybe this would stem the 'retreat from kindness and tolerance' which Mr. Ascherson laments.

How I would love to know - remember - what Ascherson wrote in the first place.

Never mind. It is enough to talk about insistence and persistence for those of reasonable intelligence to get the message: it is not cleverness but profundity. But how are they to judge which is which? Though many are brilliant, having learnt their lessons well, and are able to weave webs using them, interminably, in unending permutations, the result is not necessarily understanding or wisdom. The tragedy: education has almostly certainly foxed them into thinking cleverness amounts to understanding. Time and experience will,should, untwine the two.

The failure of education to make this difference clear is tantamount to a crime against humanity: the waste of thousands of hours - the precious lives - of well-versed young people, digging with freshly acquired academic tools into the fertile soil of what it is to be human, to little purpose or avail. They will almost certainly dig in the wrong places to begin with: they have not thought things through themselves.

Some are born, education or not, with an intellectual streak. It would be wise to seek them out: where to look is not always obvious.


At Monday, April 11, 2005, Blogger Matt said...

Don't we also suffering from the opposite prejudice today, esp in the blogosuffix where opinions are a dime a dozen? That to refuse to engage with someone, or some suggestive constellation of ideas, it suffices to say, "well, everyone is entitled to their opinion" and click away..

Well no, the spirit of your post is other than this, and absolutely correct. Still, there are benefits to being deliberately vague, ambiguous and merely suggestive, as a blogger anyway. Nice post.

At Friday, April 15, 2005, Blogger lori said...

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