In the Kitchen with a Candlestick: How Academia is Effectively Killing the Intellectual

Society gave the job of critical thinking to the intellectual centuries ago, and it has been his burden ever since. Socrates was forced to drink poison for his efforts and Galileo was exiled and stoned.

These men, cursed in their own individual lives, blessed society overall with the visions they had, improved it and left indelible foundations for generations to build upon. Throughout time the intellectual has given us such things as the Constitution, the pulley system, the computer, and the university. The latter of which has traditionally been a place that society agreed upon was where the thinkers would go: Those who were more inclined to the book perhaps a bit more than the hammer.

This has been accepted because society recognizes the need for people to think. This does not mean to imply that society rewards these people any more than they reward the rail road worker who gets killed with dynamite, but the inherent value of the intellectual is the balance that he or she provides society. There is a potential threat then to this balance when considering the role the university / academia and particularly the role that the English department has played since the early eighties in how a student learns to think and write not only in his or her chosen discourse but across the curriculum.

The potential threat that I speak of is cultural leftism, an idea that Maxine Hairston in her article, “Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing” puts forth as an ideology that “violate[s] all academic traditions about the university being a forum for the free exchange of ideas” (707).

A ‘free exchange’ of ideas fosters critical thought that in turn gives birth to the intellectual. I could go so far as to compare the cultural left prevalent in the occidental university system these days to a hegemonic colonial power structure that is in every way as aggressive and systematic in its approach to eradicating the intellectual as the British were to wiping out the culture of every land it conquered. Truly, the cultural left dominates every humanities department in just about every university in America.

Nowadays it is labeled as ‘diversity training’ but its not near as innocuous as it sounds. Hairston contends that many teachers use “writing classes for vehicles of social reform” and that there is a trend in putting “politics before craft and ideology before critical thinking” and that many teachers feel they have “the duty to put ideology and radical politics at the center of their teaching” (698).

Bear in mind a recent example of cultural leftism brought to my attention via a fellow student: Professor X says to her students to consider a fifteenth century painting depicting a group of men who appear to be talking and exchanging some food or money, (its hard to tell) and then asks, “How does this painting show the negative attitudes of Europeans towards the Jews?” Professor X, so deeply entrenched in her ideology never probably considered or will ever think that questions phrased in a certain way will naturally produce a certain answer.

Hairston would say that this was an example of the “self-serving rationalizations that allow a professor total freedom to indulge in personal prejudices and avoid any responsibility to be fair” (707).

Critical thinking has a chance to a occur when a professor fosters multicultural education through writing assignments that are about personal experience in a collaborative environment not in a forced approach through the lens of political and social reform. David Bartholomae, in his essay “Inventing the University” says that the student has to learn to “speak as we do” in regards to how a student learns a discourse.

The university speaks with leading, loaded questions, the student answers in a way that they have learned is the right way, not his or her way, but the ‘right’ way. This effectively squashes, for many individuals, any potential to reach a level of critical thinking that would allow for him or her to attain ‘intellectual’ status.

Hairston says that “when students are in a classroom where they suspect there is a right way to think they take refuge in generalities and responses that please the teacher” (708).

Following this logic it would seem that when it comes to the whodunnit of dumbing down America the responsibility lies squarely in the lap of the university itself. A little too ironic, don’t you think?

Patricia Bizzell, in her article, “Cognition, Convention and Certainty: What we need to know about writing” said that the “teaching task is not only to convey information but also to transform students’ whole world view” (387).

Her article mirrors a popular debate that was being considered thirty years ago about where and how writing fit into a university. Is the English department, as Hairston contends, the discipline whose mission it is to “always […] oppose the dominant culture” (705)?

The world has changed so drastically in terms of global events and technology that Bizzell and her ilk were obviously incapable of understanding how this opposition to the dominant culture would seep like a sludge into the entire Humanities department. Nor would they have been able to appreciate the negative effects that the splitter mentality of the hegemonic cultural left versus liberal and conservative politics has done for the next generation of potential intellectual’s ability to think critically.

I would also suggest that in fighting cultural leftism, liberals and conservatives may be able to find common ground because surely both parties can agree that being told what and how to think is not only un-American but also not very educational and definitely not contributing to critical thinking.

Ellen Cushman in her article, “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research,” says that academes’ penchant for publishing in, and she gives the example of the New Yorker, is only publishing for a more or another elite crowd and only serves to “bolster” a career within academia rather than “widening the scope of the civic duty of the intellectual” (821).

Ultimately, there is an inherent responsibility that comes with being an intellectual in any era and this is that historically and traditionally, the intellectual contributes to society with his or her learnedness. I would like to point out that society expects that the academic intellectual will contribute to the making of so many new intellectuals each year. So if some of the intellectuals in academe today are feeling guarded of his or her knowledge, only publishing for each other and choosing not to further the skills necessary to the critical thinking process in students, which contributes largely to the success of an intellectual, then why is society permitting them to carry on unchecked?

Intellectuals are not doing the job that society has deemed a necessary thing; teaching and engaging in critical thinking. The ability to reason, to not be told what to think, but to come up with one’s own ideas, this is the basis of the world that we live in: Our modern world would not exist if the teachers of today had taught the thinkers of the past. This grim notion sets up and even grimmer possible future and therein lies the danger in continuing to allow the cultural left to rule our schools.

Hairston asks, “Can professors claim the right to indoctrinate students” (707)?

Hairston is quite clear when she says that “diversity and ideology cannot flourish together” (707). So what did the cultural left do with that? They made diversity the new ideology. They flipped terms, they tricked us all. Hairston contends that the “so-called multicultural courses threaten the integrity of [the] discipline” (711).

Unfortunately, Hairston was saying all this back in the nineties. Too bad more people didn’t listen. If the few intellectuals managing to come out of academics today wake up to the threat of the campus cultural leftist, there might be a chance to preserve some of the integrity of academic history and tradition and make a return to the exchange of ideas instead of the promotion of them.

Works Cited

Bartholomae, David. “Inventing the University.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 623-650.

Bizzell, Patricia. “Cognition, Convention, and Certainty: What We Need to Know about Writing.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 387-408.

Cushman, Ellen. “The Public Intellectual, Service Learning, and Activist Research.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 819-828.

Hairston, Maxine. “Diversity, Ideology, and Teaching Writing.” Cross Talk in Comp Theory. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana, IL.: National Council of Teachers of English, 2003. 697-714.

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