Intellectual or Polemicist? Or Both?

Mark Bauerlein, writing in The Chronicle of Higher Education, makes a claim that when “we assess intellectuals, we enter a rarified habitat of books and ideas.” His article, entitled “How Academe Shortchanges Conservative Thinking,” is rather a head-scratcher. Or it is until one realizes that he means any book and any idea.

Trying to set up an opposition between conservative intellectuals, who he sees as being outside of academe, and liberals ones, those inside, Bauerlein uses the likes of Andrew Sullivan, Michele Malkin, David Horowitz, and Dinesh D’Sousa as examples of conservative “intellectuals.” To be honest, he does mention a few real conservative intellectuals—problem is many of them, like economist Friedrich A. von Hayek, existed inside academe, cutting into his dichotomy. He tries to get around this by remembering that Hayak wasn’t discussed much in his graduate school department, while Michel Foucault was. I don’t know how much one can glean from that: The mathematician Kurt Gödel wasn’t discussed much in my department even though he was one of the most important thinkers of the twentieth century—but my department was English. Everything has its place and time, and complaining that a certain thinker wasn’t the focus of discussion at a certain time in a certain department says very little about the importance of a thinker, especially in his or her field, especially when the department that Bauerlein was in was not Economics but English.

Not surprisingly, given his tendency to ignore significant distinctions, many of Bauerlein’s conclusions are based on blurred boundaries. Ultimately, his argument is that we need to bring more conservative “intellectual” thought into academia. But, again, not all books, nor all ideas, fit into any “rarified” intellectual realm. Not even all writing by an intellectual belongs there. Bauerlein talks of three books, one each by Sullivan and D’Sousa, and one by Michael Bérubé, a Penn State professor who certainly is an intellectual. He discusses all three as though they were all intellectuals (I am not sure that Sullivan would make that claim for himself; D’Sousa might, but few would agree), and all three books as though they belong in an intellectual realm.

Thing is, none of them does. Though that’s not to demean any of them or their arguments.

Let me explain: Following in the tradition of Alexander Hamilton (who was referred to as “Tom S**t” for some of the nasty things he wrote in the popular press, but who also composed a great deal of The Federalist Papers), Bérubé writes in different ways for different audiences. Case in point are his two books this year, books that appeared just a month apart, the What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts? that Bauerlein writes about and Rhetorical Occasions: Essays on Humans and the Humanities. The former, though it is about academia, isn’t really an “intellectual” book. It’s an attempt to step into the public sphere (as Bauerlein does recognize) and speak in a polemical fashion as part of a broader, American discussion. The latter, even though it even includes blog entries, is much more an “intellectual” work.

In this sense, none of the three books Bauerlein writes of is an “intellectual” work, but Bauerlein, somehow, moves from the fact that Bérubé is an intellectual to assumption that a book by him must be intellectual to a further assumptions that all books he (Bauerlein) can force into any sort of similarity must also be “intellectual.”

Bauerlein ignores the fact that there is a real difference between “intelligence” and “intellectual.” Sullivan and D’Sousa might be smart and may write books, but that alone does not make them intellectual.

Of course, neither does being an academic. Nor does one not being an academic keep one from being an intellectual. Eric Hoffer was one of the most important post-WWII intellectuals in America, yet he was no academic. Sullivan and D’Sousa, however, are essentially political polemicists, quite a different animal from the intellectual, though some of the markings (a certain native intelligence, for example) are the same.

Even Bauerlein, who has intellectual credentials of his own, is writing no “intellectual” piece in this case, though it is published in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Though the polemical nature of his piece, in fact, may be the explanation for the sloppiness of his definitions.

However, just because something is meant for a broader, less “intellectual” audience does not provide excuse from intellectual rigor. Bauerlein, like Bérubé, sometimes writes as a polemicist (as he does here). And, even though it is certainly possible for polemicists to write about intellectuals, it’s a little unseemly for an intellectual to leave his rigor behind for the sake of scoring polemical points.

There are plenty of real intellectual conservatives inside academe (the whole idea that our universities are strictly leftist is the result of another purposeful blurring of distinctions). Thing is, few of them feel the need to act as polemicists—there are plenty of those on the outside already. The same is not true for their liberal counterparts. There has been no movement to establish well-financed liberal think tanks as an outside polemical base. So, liberal academics have to take up the battle that their conservative colleagues can much more safely ignore.

Though Bauerlein claims otherwise, the fact that conservative polemicists dominate outside of academia certainly is no basis for claiming that they, and their ideas, should be welcomed inside. As Bauerlein himself says, writing of D’Sousa, “the genuine and troubling dilemmas he uncovers are reduced to a campaign strategy.” Which is exactly why D’Sousa (and most of the conservative polemicists) remain outside of academe.