What’s an intellectual good for? Hmm. Let me count the ways. Public intellectuals are good at grabbing media hits. They are skilled at making unreliable prophecies. They’re great at telling others to take risks they won’t take themselves. They’re good at wearing arm patches on tweedy sport coats. (All except that bit about the tweed coats, you can read about these dubious competencies in Richard Posner’s book Public Intellectuals.)
Little wonder, then, that some critics are inclined to answer the question of what intellectuals are good for by saying, Not much.
I’m interested in this question, not just because George Scialabba’s book What Are Intellectuals Good for? is such a good one, but also because I’m interested in you. I’m interested in what honors students are good for. You all care a good deal about learning. You care about asking good questions, reading good books, deepening good conversations. But surely you’ve been in a class where you felt like you were the only one who cared about asking questions, reading books, and deepening conversations. You might not have been right about that. But that’s how it felt. And at that moment, you might have found yourself asking things such as the following:
What am I doing here? What is my role here? What does it mean to be an honors student here and now?
One tempting answer is to say that honors students are good at becoming who they’re personally supposed to be. Being an honors student, in other words, is a private project in self-formation. The late public intellectual Richard Rorty argued something along these lines when he claimed (in Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity) that “philosophy has become more important for the pursuit of private perfection rather than for any social task.” Honors students keep a low profile by knowing how to quietly take care of their gpa’s and maintain their scholarships. There’s something admirable about that. It’s diligent, it’s humble, it’s unassuming.
I should add that Rorty didn’t follow his own advice. His public intellection paid a great deal of attention to the welfare of liberal democracy, and it’s a good thing, too. I hope you’re not satisfied with thinking of the honors student as someone who’s preoccupied with solo identity formation–or with scholarship as a private project. I hope you can’t stop asking what contribution you might make to the little polis that is Trinity Christian College.
Another possible answer would be to say that honors student are expert witnesses. They always do the homework. They always finish the reading. They always have their pre-class written reflections done. Consequently, during a classroom dispute, everyone else can turn to them for adjudication. This notion of intellection as expert testimony is something Richard Posner argued for expertly. But as dangerous as it is to disagree with Judge Posner, I’m not too comfortable with that as a description of the calling of the honors student. It makes you sound like hyperlinks. Double-click on Logan or Hannah or Matt, and you’ll get the info you’re looking for. It also situates learning in a kind of forensic situation—the classroom as courtroom.
What happens if we go with Zygmunt Bauman’s suggestion that the public intellectual is a kind of translator? Think of your role not as a purveyor of information, but as a redescriber, as a paraphraser. In a special issue of the Hedgehog Review a few years back, the editors put the translational problem of intellectuals this way: “Can intellectuals offer something to the public sphere in a way that resists, on the one hand, the specialization of academic discourse that makes it impenetrable to those outside the academy, but, on the other hand, also resists the reductive (and, at times, vindictive) tendencies of much of contemporary public discourse?” I like the focus of this question on the way thinkers translate ideas. I also like the proposal for a hospitable quality of intellectual speech.
But not everything proves readily translatable. Rorty dramatized this reality with his infamous shrug, a sometimes irritating, often telling gesture to his critics. He put the shrug into words when he asked his peers, “Why do you talk that way?” I can’t help thinking that, put a little more gently, that’s not a bad question for you to be asking of others in and out of the classroom. Asked kindly, gently, indirectly, good-humoredly, it can be a freeing question, one that liberates us for clarifying speech or silence. When someone in your class says, “This idea has to be true, because if it’s not all sorts of bad things will happen,” a good, simple, critical question might be, “Why do you talk that way?” It can be a question that kick-starts self-critical reflection.
Admittedly, Rorty’s habit of peremptorily telling others, “Stop talking that way,” was easy for him, because he was unconcerned about a little thing called truth. But at the same time, I can’t help thinking that he was pretty wisely preoccupied with the rhetorical health of a given community. He thought long and hard about how one’s manner of speaking might extend or choke up public conversations.
What’s an honor’s student good for? I’d be interested in hearing what sort of figure you’d use to answer that question. What metaphors guide your understanding of being in this program? You might be inclined to describe what you have to offer to this campus in terms of mediating knowledge to and with others. But maybe what you have to offer to this campus lies not only in what you know, but also in how you speak. Maybe your calling is to be someone who tends not just to the whats of our information, but also to the hows of our shared talk. That means paying careful attention to when something needs to be stated and stated and stated again till it starts to make sense. And it means, sometimes, acknowledging when no amount of restatement will make a difference. There is a time for everything, even for a smiling shrug.