Intellectuals are Freaks

Why professors, pundits, and policy wonks misunderstand the world

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Intellectuals — a category that includes academics, opinion journalists, and think tank experts — are freaks. I do not mean that in a disrespectful way. I myself have spent most of my life in one of the three roles mentioned above. I have even been accused of being a “public intellectual,” which sounds too much like “public nuisance” or even “public enemy” for my taste.

My point is that people who specialize in the life of ideas tend to be extremely atypical of their societies. They — we — are freaks in a statistical sense. For generations, populists of various kinds have argued that intellectuals are unworldly individuals out of touch with the experiences and values of most of  their fellow citizens. While anti-intellectual populists have often been wrong about the gold standard or the single tax or other issues, by and large they have been right about intellectuals.

The terms “intellectual” and “intelligentsia” arose around the same time in the 19th century. Before the industrial revolution, the few people in advanced civilizations paid to read, write, and debate were mostly either clerics like medieval Christian priests, monks, or secular scribes like Confucian mandarins who worked for kings or aristocrats, or, as in the city-states of ancient Greece, teachers whose students were mostly young men of the upper classes.

The replacement of agrarian civilization by industrial capitalism created two new homes for thinkers, both funded directly or indirectly by the newly enriched capitalist elite. One was the nonprofit sector — the university and the nonprofit think tank — founded chiefly by gifts from the tycoons who lent these institutions their names:  Stanford University, the Ford Foundation. Then there was bohemia, populated largely by the downwardly-mobile sons and daughters of the rich, spending down inherited bourgeois family fortunes while dabbling in the arts and philosophy and politics and denouncing the evils of the bourgeoisie.

Whether they are institutionalized professors and policy wonks or free-spirited bohemians, the intellectuals of the industrial era are as different from the mass of people in contemporary industrial societies as the clerics, scribes, mandarins, and itinerant philosophers of old were from the peasant or slave majorities in their societies.

To begin with, there is the matter of higher education. Only about 30 percent of American adults have a four-year undergraduate degree. The number of those with advanced graduate or professional degrees is around one in ten. As a BA is a minimal requirement for employment in most intellectual occupations, the pool from which scholars, writers, and policy experts is drawn is already a small one. It is even more exclusive in practice, because the children of the rich and affluent are over-represented among those who go to college.

Then there is location. There have only been a few world capitals of bohemia, generally in big, expensive cities that appeal to bohemian rich kids, like the Left Bank of the Seine and Greenwich Village and Haight-Ashbury. In the U.S., the geographic options for think tank scholars also tend to be limited to a few expensive cities, like Washington, D.C. and New York. Of the different breeds of the American intellectual, professors have the most diverse habitat, given the number and geographic distribution of universities across the American continent.

Whether they are professors, journalists, or technocratic experts, contemporary intellectuals are unlikely to live and work in the places where they are born.  In contrast, the average American lives about 18 miles from his or her mother. Like college education, geographic mobility in the service of personal career ambitions is common only within a highly atypical social and economic elite.

In their lifestyles, too, intellectuals tend to be unusually individualistic, by the standards of the larger society. I am aware of no studies of this sensitive topic, but to judge from my experience the number of single individuals and childless married couples among what might be called the American intelligentsia appears to be much higher than in the population at large. The postponement of marriage in order to accumulate credentials or job experience, the willingness to move to further career goals, and — in the case of bohemians — the willingness to accept incomes too low to support children in order to be an avant-garde writer or artist or revolutionary sets intellectuals and other elite professionals apart from the working-class majority whose education ends with high school and who rely on extended family networks for economic support and child care.

The fact that we members of the intellectual professions are quite atypical of the societies in which we live tends to distort our judgment, when we forget that we belong to a tiny and rather bizarre minority. This is not a problem with the hard sciences.  But in the social sciences, intellectuals — be they professors, pundits, or policy wonks — tend to be both biased and unaware of their own bias.

This can be seen in the cosmopolitanism of the average intellectual. I was the guest of honor at an Ivy League law school dinner some years ago, when, in response to my question, the academics present — U.S. citizens, except for one — unanimously said they did not consider themselves American patriots, but rather “citizens of the world.”  The only patriot present, apart from yours truly, was an Israeli visiting professor.

Paranoid populists no doubt would see this as confirmation of their fear intellectuals are part of a global conspiracy directed by the UN or the Bilderbergers.  I see it rather as a deformation professionelle.  Scholarship, by its nature, is borderless.  The mere phrases “Aryan science” and “Jewish science” or “socialist scholarship” and “bourgeois scholarship” should send chills down the spine. Furthermore,  many successful academics study, teach, and live in different countries in the course of their careers.

So it is natural for academics to view a borderless world as the moral and political ideal — natural, but still stupid and lazy. Make-believe cosmopolitanism is particularly stupid and lazy in the case of academics who fancy themselves progressives. In the absence of a global government that could raise taxes to fund a global welfare state, the free movement of people among countries would overburden and destroy existing national welfare states, or else empower right-wing populists to defend welfare states for natives against immigrants, as is happening both in the U.S. and Europe.

The views of intellectuals about social reform tend to be warped by professional and personal biases, as well. In the U.S. the default prescription for inequality and other social problems among professors, pundits, and policy wonks alike tends to be:  More education! Successful intellectuals get where they are by being good at taking tests and by going to good schools. It is only natural for them to generalize from their own highly atypical life experiences and propose that society would be better off if everyone went to college — natural, but still stupid and lazy. Most of the jobs in advanced economies — a majority of them in the service sector — do not require higher education beyond a little vocational training. Notwithstanding automation, for the foreseeable future janitors will vastly outnumber professors, and if the wages of janitors are too low then other methods — unionization, the restriction of low-wage immigration, a higher minimum wage — make much more sense than enabling janitors to acquire BAs, much less MAs and Ph.Ds.

The social isolation of intellectuals, I think, is worsened by their concentration in a few big metro areas close to individual and institutional donors like New York, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. (where I live) or in equally atypical college towns. It was never possible for Chinese mandarins or medieval Christian monks in Europe to imagine that their lifestyles could be adopted by the highly visible peasantry that surrounded them. But it is possible for people to go from upper middle class suburbs to selective schools to big-city bohemias or campuses with only the vaguest idea of how the 70 percent of their fellow citizens whose education ends with high school actually live.

Universal national service would be a bad idea; the working class majority is hard-pressed enough without being required to perform unpaid labor. But it might not hurt if every professor, opinion journalist, and foundation expert, as a condition of career advancement, had to spend a year or two working in a shopping mall, hotel, hospital, or warehouse. Our out-of-touch intelligentsia might learn some lessons that cannot be obtained from books and seminars alone. •

Images courtesy of  simpleinsomnia via Flickr (Creative Commons).

Michael Lind is a contributing writer of The Smart Set, a fellow at New America in Washington, D.C., and author of Land of Promise: An Economic History of the United States.
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Good article that describes the Extreme side of Liberalism. We all know that it is an incorrect assumption to stereotype any one group of people. Fortunately, not all Intellectuals fit this stereotype the author portrays. Most I know have the “intellect” to know their biases and do their best to be aware of them. Self-awareness is key. That said, most Conservatives are religious and believe and do what they are told by a higher authority within their religion. Most all believe that their religion is “The Right Way” to practice and lead their lives. Why then are there several hundred… Read more »
Very interesting article. I relate on several levels. Coming from a coal-mining area in the UK, I went to University in the 60s .Under a Labour government, tuition was paid according to the means of our parents. It wasn’t easy to get into higher education at that time: you had to have high grades. I agree with your ideas on unionization and a higher minimum wage ( I’m sure most Americans will be horrified to hear that !) Working class people are no longer getting the fair deal they deserve- I’ve never forgotten where I come from. Another point is… Read more »

I had this thought regarding universal national service.
Wouldn’t the intelligentsia simply loose any remaining respect towards the “majority” after witnessing their value system ?

As one of the “freaks” (retired) I recognize Michael Lind’s portrait as spot on, which augurs ill for the polities this class is busy advising or steering. Thank you, and congratulations!

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