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?

We are inspired to do so by Dougald Hine (of The Institute of Collapsonomics, School of Everything, Dark Mountain and much more).

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.”


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  1. Tim says:

    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.

    Plus there was that whole inventing-the-Enlightenment thing.

    I think Dougald’s right in so far as public intellectualism isn’t common to the Anglo Saxon fringe, so not all of Britain.

    When England creates public intellectuals who’s ideas are as important in the public realm as Hume’s and Adam Smith’s, they’re either given free reign but confined to the literary world (Henry Fielding, Boswell and Johnson, Bunyan) or exiled (Thomas Paine), then eventually stuffed and turned into mascots in glass cases.

    (In my hometown of Lewes, where Paine lived, he’s as pervasive as a monkey in Hartlepool. Yet despite the profusion of independent-minded Liberals, the illiberalism of the coalition government that our MP, Norman Baker, belongs to has barely been challenged in the public realm thus far…)

    Elizabethan censorship throws a long shadow…

    (I’ve mused some more about this, among other things, here).

  2. Chris Mac says:

    Agree – academic life in the UK is characterised by extreme compartmentalisation with the effect that academia (‘theoretical’, ‘technical’, ‘market oriented’) and intellectual life become dislocated. In Latin America, academics tend to want to be broader intellectuals – to be read and known outside the academy – which is seen as limited, formal and reactionary . . . .

  3. Dougald says:

    Mike –

    Glad you brought up the Democratic Intellect. I should have distinguished between the anti-intellectualism which is a cultural currency in England and the distinctly different histories and attitudes in Scotland, Wales or Ireland.

    I would say, though, it’s not that England has had a shortage of public thinkers, only an ambivalent relationship to them (and vice versa). Something to explore further on the New Public Thinkers blog, once I get it set up.

    1. Tim says:

      I’d like to make a plea for an unrelentlingly multicultural approach to this endeavour; to reach beyond the boundaries of these shores to embrace the influence we have had, and continue to have, in the world. Good and bad.

      (Kipling’s ‘Kim’ is an example of what I mean. It’s embraced by Indian and British readers as part of the national literature and yet it contains all the ambivalences inherent in that relationship).

      It’s not just that these fucking bastards are closing humanities courses. It’s that they’re intent upon creating a banal national narrative that’s the equivalent to the Dome, the Olympics site, “aspirational” mission telly…

      Michael Gove, the education secretary […] publicly praised Ferguson’s “exciting and engaging” ideas for a “campaign for real history”.

      Niall Ferguson, the British historian most closely associated with a rightwing, Eurocentric vision of western ascendancy, is to work with the Conservatives to overhaul history in schools. […] The big question the course would attempt to answer, he said, was how in AD 1500 “the small warring kingdoms of Europe, which looked so feeble compared with the Ming or Ottoman empires, got to be so powerful”. He said the syllabus was “bound to be Eurocentric” because the world was Eurocentric.

      I mean, Jesus Christ, where do you start?

      (That would be Jesus, the Turkish intellectual and religious leader who’s ideas were combined with an Indo-Iranian camp-fire cult by later followers; and which were adopted by the Roman Empire, once its based shifted to the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa to become the state religion…)

  4. bellacaledonia says:

    Agreed Dougald – and I wouldn’t want to paint an overly-rosy picture of the context here. If anything the ‘democratic intellect’ can act as a sort of crutch to rest weary on. It’s important thought to realise that the differences in attitude to higher education have a history and these roots are potentially useful in defending and understanding our cultural past against the assault of austerity and the closure of public intellectuals to all but an elite. Hurtling backwards.

  5. Will Stevenson says:

    I am a reader from the USA very interested in our common struggles to overcome the cultural fracturing that is being imposed everywhere (it seems). Its a struggle to follow the particulars of the discussion at times and perhaps I presume too much to even try, however I believe our obstacles are more alike than not. We all face a dumbing down on a global scale, the Tea-Party over here have done serious damage to the political landscape as they are all plugged into FOX television which distorts the truth as a matter of broadcast strategy, yet somehow they’ve managed to capture the imagination of a large percentage of the (North)American people. I’m not sure one can even point to anyone you could call an intellectual in this country that wouldn’t have a negative response from 9 out of 10 ‘Americans’, Noam Chomsky is lucky to even be alive in this climate of hate. I don’t know where to even start. The only thing that is abundantly clear is that we (‘America’ and Britain) continue to push imperialism and thought control at an unprecedented, maddening pace. And any intellectualism at all is shunned by the general populace, how the hell did we get here????

  6. Ray Bell says:

    I believe two of the biggest mistakes of recent times were: 1) turning building societies into banks, and 2) turning polytechnics into universities. Neither of these have worked very well, and good building societies and polytechnics have turned into bad banks and universities. In both cases, I believe snobbery and the profit motive played their part.

  7. I think there is, within Scotland, a reawaken of the public intellect in a way not seen since the 1780’s.

    Its conduit is the web and the ability to comment on articles and media supposition in a way we previously could not at a speed that stimulates and spreads ideas and comment amongst hundreds in minutes. I would argue that the web is the modern variant of the Scottish Pamphlet and is used, on truly open sites, in much the same way as the ‘Flyters’ did in Edinburgh’s Parliament Square in the 18th Century.

    Where the enclosed world of academia has lost the plot is, as my Professor of Oral Surgery pointed out in the 1970’s, in its fascination of knowing more and more about less and less. He predicted that it would not be long before there would be a Professorial Chair for the anal sphincter and the lack of the encouragement of the polymath by University education would lead to academic sterility and stultification.

    The place where new public thinking is bubbling to the surface is at web sites such as Newsnet where the combination of ‘professional’ journalists and citizen journalists are speaking about what appears unspeakable to main stream establishment thinkers. Not only speaking about the unspeakable, looking at how to make it not only speakable but the doable.

    Currently I would nominate Alex Porter, at Newsnet, as a thinker interrogating the difficult and mainly avoided issues that are effecting all of us on a daily basis. His current piece on the ‘Calman Gulag’ is a case in point

    1. bellacaledonia says:

      Good shot Peter, Alex is doing an amazing job at Newsnet exploring our dysfunctional economy.

    2. bellacaledonia says:

      Good shot Peter, Alex is doing an amazing job at Newsnet exploring our dysfunctional economy.

  8. milgram says:

    If Glasgow was the place it should be, there’d be a statue of Bob Hamilton that appeared in a different, out of the way, part of the city every day. 🙂

    (And Bob would find the statue, replace it with one of someone else each time.)

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