Times Literary Supplement: How to be an intellectual

“Journalism and scholarship usually inhabit different planets”, Jeffrey J. Williams writes. Journalists and academics have different gods and languages. While journalists favour speed, paying homage to Hermes, scholars look to Apollo, favouring rumination. In How To Be an Intellectual, Williams, who is Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, argues the twain shall meet in the writing of criticism. Academics should take lessons from literary journalists such as George Orwell and Susan Sontag; and journalists should know how to draw from the deep well of scholarship without making it sound like “a distant planet called Geek”.

Over the course of thirty-two essays, Williams chronicles the politics of criticism, assesses the work of public intellectuals such as Richard Rorty and Judith Halberstam, and fiercely criticizes developments in American higher education. In his profiles of notable critics including Terry Eagleton, Michael Walzer, Donna Harraway and Stefan Collini, Williams argues that we need to see critics in the context of their time and place, because criticism comes from a personal root. The book’s centrepiece is a chapter called “The Predicament of the University”, on the topic of student debt. Here Williams lucidly explains why higher education seems to be “going to hell in a handbasket”, while emphasizing just how valuable academe is for society and proposing ways to better its current state.

The university in the past forty years, Williams argues, has gone from being a flagship of the post-war welfare state to a privatized, business-like enterprise. Universities were once substantially funded through public sources; the expense has been transferred to students and families. Two-thirds of undergraduates at American universities now finance their education through loans. The average undergraduate federal student loan debt was $27,840 in 2012, not including private loans, compared to $2,000 in 1982, thirty years earlier. For over 60 per cent of those who pursue graduate degrees, add about $25,000 for a masters, $52,000 for a doctorate, and $80,000 for professional degrees. “Working your way through college”, Williams writes, is no longer an option. To pay one’s way through an Ivy League university, at minimum wage, while studying, one would have to work 136 hours a week.

The university in the past forty years has gone from being a flagship of the post-war welfare state to a privatized, business-like enterprise

Universities used to be places for young members of society to explore their interests, develop their talents and receive training, as well as becoming informed citizens – in the belief that society would benefit in the long term. Now “those who attend university are construed as atomized individuals making a personal choice in the marketplace of education to maximize their economic potential”. Student debt nourishes an each-for-himself culture, and prejudices students in favour of lucrative careers in, say, investment banking or the law. While most academics are left-leaning, however, there is a strange disconnect between their politics and their willingness to discuss such breadbasket issues. Talking about money is seen as “crass, like clipping coupons”. But should professors stay silent when financial difficulties affect the majority of those who sit in front of them in the lecture hall? The situation is just as dire on the teaching side, where full-time jobs have been converted to casual, contingent adjunct positions, and academics have learnt to publish or perish.

Williams observes how this shift is mirrored in films and university novels. Since Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) and David Lodge’s Changing Places (1975), the fates of fictional academics have veered from the comic to the tragic. Williams identifies Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1985) as the turning point in this ominous progression, and notes that the protagonists in Sam Lipsyte’s The Ask and James Hynes’s Next (both published in 2010) end up with minimum-wage jobs and seedy apartments to boot. “Instead of gaining secure, middle-class toeholds, they are casualties of a Hobbesian academic world.”

Williams presents us with many progressive ideas of the communitarian kind, some more realistic than others. Two ideas stand out: First, he proposes a “National Teaching Fellows” programme, which would provide exceptional undergraduate students from less wealthy backgrounds with full scholarships. In return, they would be required to teach in less privileged school districts for a few years after graduating. This educational contract would shed the draconian weight of debt, and create a positive sense of public service, while providing more teachers and smaller classroom sizes. Dostoevsky said: “The degree of civilisation in a society is revealed by entering its prisons”. Similarly, Williams suggests that society can be judged by the state of its schools. The second idea is an organization called “Academic Opportunities Unlimited”. This organization would select older faculty members, who clog up academic positions, and send them into retirement. While this might help to remedy the bias against young scholars, it is somewhat reminiscent of ancient traditions of pushing the elderly over a cliff.

In his final and most vivid chapter, Williams combines the personal and the critical. He writes a riveting and heartfelt tribute to his former teacher, Michael Sprinker, a brawny, brusque and brilliant professor of English and Comparative Literature, who came from a working-class background, and whose teaching was unstinting in its energy and left no soul untouched. It is here that Williams, also humorously, tells the story of his own career and previous jobs – in a prison, in a second-hand bookstore, and as editor of the minnesota review. Out of such experiences comes his much-needed attack on academic-speak: terms such as “problematic” are “just clunky”, he writes; why not say “troublesome” or “contradictory” if that is what you mean? His editing advice should be compulsory reading at universities – academics and journalists can learn from each other. Jeffrey Williams beats the drum for critics to become public intellectuals who address injustice and contribute to society. And he leads by example.

Jeffrey J. Williams, HOW TO BE AN INTELLECTUAL, 232pp. Fordham University Press. Paperback, £18.99 (US $27).

This article was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement 21 May 2015

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