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The Silent Intellectuals

One of the traditional qualifications for being classed as an intellectual (among the historians of ideas and sociologists who study this area) has been the habit of not minding one’s own business. It is of course quite possible to be an intelligent person without being an intellectual. One could even, say, be a professor of physics and not be an intellectual; one could even perhaps be a professor of physics who writes regularly to the newspapers calling for more emphasis on the teaching of science and not be an intellectual; if, however, a professor of physics were to write to the newspapers, perhaps in conjunction with other academics and artists, calling for urgent action on prison overcrowding, that – according to this definition ‑ would tend to make him or her an intellectual.

The literary critic John Carey, well known for his general chippiness about artistic and intellectual elites, has little time for academics’ forays into matters of general public policy or their tendency to preach from a perch that he considers to be an unjustifiably comfortable one. True he uses the term “dons” rather than “academics” so he may be thinking more particularly of the senior teaching staff of Britain’s “ancient universities”, but these, I suppose, he assumes to be like other professors only more so (or is it that they are the only ones worth talking about?).

In an essay (“Down with Dons”) written almost forty years ago, but which there is little reason to believe he would now dissent from, Professor Carey writes:

One frequently encounters letters in the press ... with strings of academic signatories, gravely informing some foreign government that the way it deals with its refractory minorities does not tally with donnish notions of freedom. No doubt those who put their names to these documents get a pleasurable feeling of importance, but in fact a don is about as well placed to start clamouring for liberty as a budgerigar. Like the bird, he lives in a highly artificial, protected environment, in which all his needs are catered for. Any appreciable degree of liberty conceded to his fellow beings would quickly put an end to his existence. For it cannot be supposed that the ignorant, philistine majority would go on supporting the universities financially if it had freedom of choice in the matter, since it receives no benefit from these institutions, or none that it could be brought to appreciate, beyond, I suppose, the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race, and even that is less popular than it used to be.

This is, as they say, good knockabout stuff, though it might be as well to remember that the main thing high-minded dons might have been objecting to in 1975 would not have been the way foreign governments dealt with refractory minorities but the way an oppressive minority, in South Africa, dealt with the country’s majority.

Carey writes rather in the spirit of Orwell, who as well as being “a crystal spirit” was often something of an intellectual bully, inclined to use humour as a bludgeon (which is not to say it is not funny). Sadly, there was probably a certain amount of truth behind his judgment that socialism in the 1930s –he is referring to its appeal to sections of the middle classes ‑ drew with magnetic force “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England”.

It is interesting that Stefan Collini (Absent Minds), one of Britain’s leading writers on intellectuals, has taken the stick to both Orwell and Carey – and also to another robust performer, the late Christopher Hitchens, in a well-named London Review of Books essay, “‘No Bullshit’ Bullshit”. John Carey was a grammar school boy ill at ease with public school superciliousness and the dons’ stout defence of their right to “swill and guzzle” at high table. In Ireland we have enough privilege passed on through our fee-paying schools and we do not have, or want, elite universities. Indeed it is likely that in almost all cases our professors do not evince the sense of superiority and entitlement that Carey associates with Oxbridge. If that is the case, surely their intervention in public debate – particularly in matters which do not directly concern them – is only to be welcomed. Certainly the standard of such debate could do with being raised.