“Intellectual” is not a bad word. In fact, I tend to think that it is one the more important words in the contemporary world. I realize that it has taken a negative connotation with some today, that some hear the word and think of ivory tower elitism, but I’d like to suggest a different perspective.
I’m far from an ivory tower academic. Yes, I am a University administrator and professor. Yet, my work is largely applied. I have a love/hate relationship with most traditional avenues for the dissemination of scholarly work. I’m far more disposed to public scholarship and vetting my ideas in the open and public square. I have a bent toward action and real-world experimentation. At the same time, I wholeheartedly agree with Kurt Lewin when he wrote that, “there is nothing so practical as a good theory.” I can’t resist visible head nods of affirmation when I read or hear reference to Mortimer Adler who wrote, “It is man’s glory to be the only intellectual animal on earth. That imposes upon human beings a moral obligation to lead intellectual lives.” I believe that ideas matter.
I came across that Adler quote again recently when I was facilitating a book discussion with colleagues. When I talk to people outside of academia about my value for nurturing the intellectual life in myself and others, I find that more than a few people interpret that as some sort of detached University language that is altogether separate from the real world, from the realities and problems of life near and far. It is sometimes as if the word “intellectual” has taken on a negative twist, that it is in contrast to more favored words today like action, impact, or results.
Pulling out my handy, old-school paper Concise Oxford English Dictionary, I see the following definition for “intellect” and “intellectual.”
Intellect – “The faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively. A person’s mental powers. A clever person.”
ORIGIN ME from L. intellectus ‘understanding’, from intellegere [see intelligence]
Intellectual – “Relating to or appealing to the intellect. Having a highly developed intellect. A person with a highly developed intellect.
Or, from a more popular online source, Wikipedia offers this description of an “intellectual.”
An intellectual is a person who engages in critical study, thought, and reflection about the reality of society, and proposes solutions for the normative problems of that society, and, by such discourse in the public sphere, he or she gains authority within the public opinion. Coming from the world of culture, either as a creator or as a mediator, the intellectual participates in politics, either to defend a concrete proposition or to denounce an injustice, usually by producing or by extending an ideology, and by defending a system of values.
Don’t we need and want people who engage in “critical study, thought and reflection about the reality of society, [people who propose] solutions for the normative problems of that society”? Given such definitions and descriptions, I proudly strive to have my name included in the same sentence with the word “intellectual.”
Weaver was right. Ideas have Consequences, as he stated in the title of his 1948 attack on nominalism. The intellectual is an important part of navigating our commercial culture. It is part of living the examined life. It is a perspective that insists that the pursuit of truth, beauty and goodness remain relevant and important aspects of a vibrant society.
This is why, while I embrace and pursue many modern innovations in education, I also remain an advocate for strong liberal arts colleges as one piece of the larger higher education ecosystem. I don’t see them as the only means to the examined life, but they continue to have a valued role, granted that they don’t insist on maintaining some sort of educational and intellectual monopoly. It is why, while I embrace good work and thinking around workforce development, I also contend that curiosity and the love of learning are far more important to our education system than tests and standards…if we are going to nurture thoughtful people and not just a larger average test score.
At the same time, the intellectual life is too important to only be present in large concentrations within our top higher education institutions. I would love to see it, in increasing measure, in the pubs, public gatherings of all sorts, K-12 schools, early childhood centers, homes, workplace, and infused in our community efforts. As I see it, an intellectual is someone who values the life of the mind and seeks to use that mind for good, and I’m for more of that in the world.