The Fallacy of Misplaced Modesty: Why Academics Don’t Become Intellectuals

The fact that you have a Ph.D. — let alone that you teach at a good university — doesn’t make you an intellectual. Being an intellectual means, at the very least, that you can convey ideas in multiple media, thereby testifying to the very existence of ‘ideas’ as entities that transcend a particular medium of expression. In its backhanded way, the phrase ‘public intellectual’ concedes the point, as it desperately tries to reserve the term ‘intellectual’ for well-credentialed academics who talk about big issues but to audiences no larger than their classrooms.

Nevertheless, academics, as their degrees signal, are in the first instance experts in particular fields of knowledge, which means that they can say things that other like-credentialed people find sound and interesting, even when they don’t agree. This matters to the larger society only because the particular field of knowledge matters to the larger society. The media – which is the natural home for intellectual life – grasps this point perfectly. This is why when they’re putting together a story of any depth, they’ll ask, say, ‘Where can we find a sociologist?’ It doesn’t matter who the sociologist is, as long as they are reputable in the field. This is just the right way to think about the default position of academics vis-à-vis intellectual life.

Now, of course, some academics function in a more expansive and personal capacity in intellectual life. But can you name one who has not been censured for having done so, especially when their academic expertise gets dragged into public debates?  An Einstein or Chomsky figure is quite rare, namely, someone whose prominence in their own fields is such that they are allowed to talk about things quite unrelated to their expertise. Usually academics who become intellectuals are, in some sense, leveraging their expertise without having received collegial approval. Richard Dawkins is an obvious case in point. What this shows is that academic disciplines are mainly in the business preserving the integrity of their knowledge base, and public enlightenment is something to be tried only in a low risk environment. Thus, the day that ‘peer review’ becomes totally demystified – be it by metrics-based replacement or some larger democratization process – the value of holding a degree in a particular academic field will disappear altogether.  However, the value of holding an academic degree as such – say, in something quite generic like ‘liberal arts’ – will not disappear.

In light of the above, academics who are reluctant to become ‘public intellectuals’ (to use their preferred phrase) are prone to two complementary modes of fallacious reasoning, which together constitute misplaced modesty:

  • I’m afraid of the impact that my words, even if correctly understood, might have on policy: Despite its surface modesty, this concern presupposes, rather arrogantly, that academic experts are given so much credit in a democratic society that the lives of millions hang on their every word. Of course, their words will be taken seriously, but only alongside other words uttered by experts and non-experts. So no excuse not to argue your case, given the opportunity!
  • I’m afraid that my words will be misunderstood and spun in the wrong way: This is the flipside of the first fear. But really, if you want to exert such proprietary control over how your words are used, then you need to see your intervention as an opening move in a public conversation, in which you continue to participate by clarifying your position. Otherwise, you should be psychologically prepared to let others do what they will with what you say – in the spirit of a vendor who doesn’t fret over how the client uses his wares.

If I were a psychoanalyst, I would say that the fallacy of misplaced modesty reflects the passive-aggressive attitude that contemporary academics have towards democracy: They claim to love it but they are repulsed by the prospect of entering into it. Moreover, I think this neurosis is endemic to the postmodern condition, since as Allan Bloom notoriously alleged in The Closing of the American Mind, academics from the 1960s to his own day (the mid-1980s) were more than happy to promote quite specific anti-establishment agendas both inside and outside the classroom. Ah, the good old days!

Categories: Higher Education, Mediated Matters, Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World

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5 replies »

  1. I see the situation differently. As you quite rightly point out, academics are “in the first instance, experts in particular fields of knowledge”. But by the same token they are generally no wiser than others on issues outside their particular area of expertise. And because life is complicated, the narrow prisms of academia are by definition inadequate as a basis for opinions on wider matters. This is not misplaced modesty but commonsense.

    This is nothing new. See Hazlitt’s 1822 essay “On the Ignorance of the Learned”.

  2. >the day that ‘peer review’ becomes totally demystified – be it by metrics-based replacement or some larger democratization process – the value of holding a degree in a particular academic field will disappear altogether.

    The merit of peer-reviewed work is not determined by the author’s degree. An excellent paper or insight can come from anywhere; but, most scientific fields require significant background in math, physics, chemistry, biology, and/or the subject matter at hand. A degree is simply a reflection of a student’s mastery of these subjects. Few, if any, PhD students are in it “for the degree.”

    I can’t imagine what you would hope to accomplish by opening up the peer review process to the public. It’s safe to assume that the average person is not well versed in any particular academic subject. What is the merit of allowing such people to determine the merit of a scientific paper? I can’t speak for the “metrics” system you vaguely mention, but can only point out that such a system would have to be designed by someone — presumably an expert. You would be trading a dynamic peer-review system for an arbitrary set of someone’s biases. Or maybe a committee’s biases.

    There’s no way out. Someone has to decide the merit of these things, and if you don’t think a panel of experts are the right people to do it…are you really of the opinion that you know better? Because your suggested alternatives suggest that you don’t value scientific rigor in the least.

  3. Two thoughts – one in response to the original post, and one in response to Jason, above.

    1. I agree with the overall depiction of “misplaced modesty,” and the two sides of that coin. However, PARTICULARLY in the case of the latter (“I’m afraid that my words will be misunderstood and spun in the wrong way”), but true for both sides – when considering our post-modern condition, we must consider how complex ideas end up circulating as memes, 140-character tweets, and other bytes of compressed information. It is all too easy for either the correct interpretation of a hastily-conceived idea…or the incorrect interpretation of any idea or sound byte – to take on a life of its own. While misplaced modesty is a problem, we can’t fail to be cognizant of this aspect of the post modern condition, whether the academic pursues and alter ego as an intellectual or otherwise. Even leaving it in the classroom, conference presentation, abstract, or paper, our words, thoughts, slides, deeds etc. can be shared instantly, whether we want them to be or not.

    2. Regarding Jason’s concern about peer-review and its potential democratization – perhaps the original post meant exactly what Jason appears to be concerned about, i.e. that people without any relevant expertise might be reviewing technical or specialized manuscripts (if I have understood Jason correctly). However, “democratization” of peer review might not be so extreme. I think moving the peer review system beyond the opinion of a single editor and 2-4 anonymous reviewers that she or he selected could happen lots of ways. Unblinded review, post-publication review, or “open comment” periods extended to members of the profession or those with relevant knowledge, etc. may all be more democratic, without going all the way to what I believe causes Jason concern.

    Indeed, the traditional peer review system has, at best, been tried-and-often-true, but also error prone and subjective; at its worst, it allows predatory journals to hide behind the traditional anonymity to implement (and I use that term loosely) non-expert or completely falsified review processes. The fact that a predatory journal can use a facsimile of the traditional peer review system to produce exactly the opposite effect of that traditional system, is also a product of the post modern condition that we must acknowledge.

    My two cents…

  4. According to the dictionary the term intellectual means someone with a highly developed intellect. There’s no reference in that definition to the requirement or demand to share the fruits of that development abroad, especially amongst the flashing lights and blaring noise of today’s ‘news as entertainment’ marketplace.

    Besides, what exactly is an ‘intellectual’ in today’s argot ? If I talk on NPR, do I become one ? What if I tweet, or maintain a blog ? And what am I called if I speak at a rally ? Maybe a ‘public intellectual’ is just an ‘independent scholar’ with tenure ?

    Just as a PhD does not mean one is automatically a competent teacher, neither does it denote one as readily publicly vociferous in advancing a theory or view. Perhaps the fault lies then with our own expectation – that the one be the other, or both.

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