The word “intelligentsia” is often used to criticize—a derogatory demonym for the inhabitants of the “Ivory Tower.” During the election and in its wake, a long-simmering resentment against the denizens of a broader neighborhood, the “liberal bubble,” came to a boil—but, then, the Ivory Tower is perhaps the most haunted of all the houses in this neighborhood. It is where hand-wringing men in lab coats use taxpayer dollars to practice their dark arts—their “politicized science.”
What is it, exactly, that makes academia such a despicable trade in the eyes of an anti-intellectual America? At the beginning of the semester, I envisioned my column as an opportunity to get to the bottom of this question. At times, it felt like something more self-centered. It may well have served its purpose, then, if conceit is the cardinal sin of academic types.
George Orwell, in his 1941 essay “The Lion and The Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius,” lamented that the intellectual left—the faction that might lead the way forward, might envision a socialist but democratic and united England—amounted to a gang of arrogant cynics, more determined to degrade the English spirit than to improve the English condition. He found it “a strange fact, but unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God save the King’ than of stealing from a poor box.”
But then, their querulous condition was “necessarily so,” for “in an England ruled by people whose chief asset was their stupidity, to be ‘clever’ was to be suspect.”
Is the same true of an America ruled by the stupid? The American university has become, in the popular imagination, a site of loud but ultimately feckless dissent. And by this account, the professor is the chief propagandist—brainwashing our darling children, proselytizing nihilistic drivel from the safety of her armchair. But this isn’t a new or special view—it’s simply a variant of an older, more generalizable take on labor relations: There are those who subordinate themselves to the powers that be and thereby make themselves useful, and then there are those too proud to contribute anything but the sound of their own voice.
For those who take this view, the title “Professor of Philosophy” might make eyes roll. I’ve spent this semester in the audience of one such professor—Dr. Carol Rovane. Dr. Rovane is the kind of academic that one might initially find intimidating—she speaks with force and calculation, and, though she was often generous to us in class, one got the sense she doesn’t always suffer fools gladly. The course, The Philosophy of Language and Mind, is one of those distinctly Columbia experiences, where halfway through the semester, you realize that your professor came straight out of the intellectual lineage which has shaped the titular field—Carnap begat Quine, Quine begat Davidson, Davidson begat Rovane. It becomes tempting, at that point, to project an aura of grave intellectual seriousness.
I sat waiting outside of her office for thirty minutes once, too afraid to knock. I had come to office hours to talk about the course, but I was hoping to sneak in a little interview, too. I wanted to hear the perspective of someone who had made study their life’s project. What, in her mind, is her contribution to society? What is she proud of, and, conversely, where could she and her colleagues do better? But the minutes ticked by, and, as her office hours came to a close, I decided not to risk disturbing her. The door swung open just as I was making my getaway, and she came out, wrapping her scarf, ready to lock up and head home.
“Are you here to see me?”
“Yes, I’m sorry… I thought you were in with someone,” I said, sheepishly.
“You should have knocked,” she said, amused. Taking pity on me, she smiled and held the door ajar. “Come in, then…”
I started by volleying some questions her way concerning the content of her lecture from earlier that day—the possibility of psychological laws and the consequent problems for the normative dimension. When I ran out of steam there—didn’t take long—I brought up my column. I told her of my own aspirations to become an academic, but how I recently came to wonder whether the profession had any merit at all. I told her of my parents and their distrust in the “intelligentsia.”
She laughed knowingly. She recounted a memory of a family get-together when she was just starting down the road to a life in academia. Recalling what one uncle had to say about her hopes and dreams, she screwed up her face and barked, “You’re going to be a parasite!” I immediately sympathized. I had always felt some shame about my ambition, shame that I might be pursuing something entirely selfish. It was some relief to know that this anxiety might be common among academics.
“There are certainly those in philosophy who are more concerned with the careerisms than with solving problems and spreading ideas,” she admitted. I’m not entirely sure what she meant by “careerisms,” but it invoked images of infighting at contentious conferences, of shiny plaques on office walls, and of dressing and speaking a certain way.
“But I try to make my teaching useful. A lot of students in this class, for instance, go on to fields like finance, or law, or computer science—fields in which they’ll be forced to think in nomological terms.” The student of economics, might, for instance, initially take for granted that consumers act rationally, as a law.
“I want them to wonder whether these things they take to be laws are actually just regularities they are tracking in the environment—patterns that might not always hold.” The example that has come up in class goes something like this: “All swans that I have observed so far are white. Therefore, all swans are white.”
Professor Rovane wants her students to be ready for the day they stumble upon a black swan.
I think there might be something underappreciated about intellectual labor like that of a philosophy professor. Engineers, financiers, and lawyers can justify their work by pointing at buildings or numbers or cases won and say “Look at what I’ve made! Look at what I’ve done!” The academic is often forced to point, in turn, to their students who go on to these jobs and say, “I hope that something stays with them.”
And something always stays. But credit is not always given where credit is due. It’s easy to be suspicious of people whose desks are piled high with books, who spend their days in argument with themselves and with their peers, concerned with the nature of this and the implications of that. How could these people know anything of the real world? Perhaps some of them, so caught up in their own philosophical problems and disputes, really don’t know much about it. And, perhaps some of those who are outward-looking only look through a cynical lens. Every profession, every habit of life, comes with its pitfalls.
But, many of them struggle and fight to study the things they love. They work side jobs, take on massive debt, accept ever-increasing contingent offers that force them to skip around the country, sacrificing family, friends, and fun. And even if they’re lucky enough to someday settle into comfortable, tenured positions, where they might not be as steeped in the day-to-day of some so-called real world, perhaps it’s because they’re too busy shaping it.
I know that so many of my peers will go on to become policy-makers, captains of industry, innovators, and activists—the makers of the next real world. I suspect, and hope, that many of them will do so bearing in mind what they owe to their mentors.
To have that kind of impact is, I think, something worth aspiring to.
Ian Hewitt is a Columbia College senior studying biological anthropology. He works as a teacher’s assistant and research assistant in the department of ecology, evolution, and environmental biology. He hasn’t done “the Twitter” since high school, and so cannot be held responsible for anything tweeted by @ian_hewitt. The Cloisters runs alternate Wednesdays.