New Public Thinkers
In the week that the Tory-Liberals have signed the death-knell for democratic access to higher education in England, and on the day where Alex Salmond has responded by saying he is planning to make the main plank of the SNP’s Holyrood election campaign a commitment to keep university education free for Scottish students – we look at education for education, the attack on humanities and the roots of the idea of the democratic intellect.
The question also arises, is university the place where you should go to think, or is it just a degree factory? Where’s the best place to do real thinking?
Hine has asked:
Imagine that the BBC launched a search for the great public thinkers of the 20th century and set criteria which would exclude George Orwell, Antonio Gramsci or Gloria Steinem. The idea is obviously absurd, but no more so than Radio 3’s current attempt to find “the next generation of public intellectuals”.
The New Public Thinkers contest, which ends today, is open only to those working or studying within universities. This lopsided approach guarantees that the network will miss out on a huge amount of the emerging intellectual culture of my generation, many of whose brightest minds saw what was happening to academia and chose to do our thinking elsewhere.
It is also a misunderstanding of the role and history of the public intellectual. The breadth of thinking and degree of engagement required has always been the exception rather than the rule in university life. This is not to criticise academia, but to recognise that there is a difference between the diligence of the scholar and the restlessness of mind and suspicion of disciplinary boundaries more typical of those whose ideas shape the public sphere. (Both of these are also distinct from the skills of the public communicator of a specific academic discipline.)’
Dougald has set the challenge of collecting and promoting public thinkers who fail the BBC3 test but deserve our focus (Peter Geogeghan writes on it here ‘Public thinkers Beyond the Unversity‘) and asks us to nominate your own choice of “new public thinkers” from outside of the university walls . On a parallel track across at Newsnet Kenneth Roy notices that James Kelman, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, Neil Gunn, Murie Spark and George Orwell would have all been ineligible for the post of Edinburgh University’s writer-in-residence:
“Let us be clear what this means. Let us state it plainly: an honours degree in English literature counts for more than the ability to write.”
So what we are seeing is a three part phenomena. First the exclusion of an economic class of people from university education in some parts of the UK. Second a further marketisation and distortion of what that university education should and could be. Third a revitalisation of marginalised educational and intellectual circles, forms and projects inspired by the reality of late/hyper capitalism but also by new methods of communication and networked enabled collaboration. This has different expressions in different parts of Europe.
In Scotland we are working with a different understanding to some of these questions than in England. So I would reject Dougalds notion that ‘Perhaps the whole idea of the public intellectual is just not very British.’ Arguably Scotland has used education and law as a demarcation and point of national pride (way beyond their actual credibility) in a way that Wales has used language as prism and totem for national culture. This source is how we get today to the situation where we have come to very different conclusions about how further and higher education should be structured and supported.
The recent basis of this is of course George Davie’s Democratic Intellect. Davie, in The Democratic Intellect (1961) charts the gradual extinction in the Scottish universities of a type of higher education which encouraged breadth of study and, through the compulsory study of philosophy, a concern with theory and ideas. For these thinkers, the critical role of education can only properly be fulfilled through engagement with the wider community; and, indeed, part of the meaning of Davie’s ideal of ‘critical intellectualism’ is the need for dialogue between the learned and unlearned.
But before Davie’s work came Patrick Geddes and Hugh McDiarmid, both exiles from academia drawing on a generalist pedagogy that goes back to Thomas Reid and common sense philosophy. Geddes described the approach like this: ‘[a] general and educational point of view must be brought to bear on every specialism. The teacher’s outlook should include all viewpoints. …. Hence we must cease to think merely in terms of separated departments and faculties and must relate these in the living mind; in the social mind as well – indeed, this above all.’
As Philip Boardman put it, Geddes ‘held constantly before both teachers and students the single goal of reuniting the separate studies of art, of literature, and of science into a related cultural whole which should serve as an example to the universities still mainly engaged in breaking knowledge up into particles unconnected with each other or with life.’
Speaking in 2009 Murdo Macdonald traced a linkage between Comenius, Euclid and more recent expression of generalist thinking. Macdonald puts the Scottish tradition in a European context arguing that: “a central European perspective one of the great early modern generalists was the 17th century Moravian educator, Jan Amos Comenius, a thinker praised by Geddes in his book Cities in Evolution. Comenius put the rationale for generalism like this:
‘He deprives himself of light, of hand and regulation, who pushes away from him any shred of the knowable.’
It’s these quite different educational and methodological roots that make talking of one single ‘British’ reponse to public intellectualism futile. These differences – as Lindsay paterson has written about at length – remain accute.
So who are the public thinkers from outside the university? There are hundreds but lets kick off with the magic number three:
Elaine Henry: has developed the Edinburgh Radical Book Fair since 1996 and the presence and impact of her Word Power books in Edinburgh in a time when Big Books has all but taken over, is difficult to quantify. The Radical Book Fair has hosted Milan Rai, Ilan Pappe, Joel Kovel, Rahila Gupta, Haifa Zangana and hundreds of others down the years and is a testament to her quiet but deeply impactful thinking and organisation.
Alastair McIntosh: McIntosh and the Centre for Human Ecology were thrown out of Edinburgh University in 1996 after his / their methodological approach pushed them beyond the acceptable norms of that institution. McIntosh if not the centre have thrived since publishing the acclaimed Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power in 2004 and working for the irrepresible GalGael Trust, in Govan.
Bob Hamilton: the driving force behind City Strolls and the multiple projects that spin off and away from it, his description analysis and response here to Chomsky’s visit to Govan in 1995 underlines why he should be included. Bob writes:
“We are all kinds of people, with all kinds of things to offer and share. Our greatest weapon against the Armageddon, we are being led towards, is the communication of our ideas, in real time and importantly – in our own time. To join the public debate we will need to reclaim and protect public space, we need to build and maintain the access to constructive discussion, concerning our communities, in order to organise and make our demands and to influence, public affairs, at the government level – in our favour.”