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Te Kāhui Kura Māori, Volume 0, Issue 2

The Role of the Intellectual

The Role of the Intellectual

What is the role of the intellectual - in academia and in wider society? At their best, intellectuals should act as the critics and conscience of society. In Richard Benton’s words, the university should be like “a den of the tuoro. A little more benign, perhaps, than those that patrol the coasts and waterways, but no less effective when it comes to barking, burrowing underground, and emerging when necessary to give a miscreant society a judicious bite.” (Benton 2001:1) This is emphasised by Edward Said (1994) who claims that true intellectuals must resist being co-opted by those in power and stand up for the universals of truth and justice at all costs. Along with Foucault (1991), I am a little suspicious of this image of the “universal intellectual” (which I will return to shortly), yet I find Said’s vision of the intellectual highly appealing. I cannot help enjoying the idea that if you are not making people uncomfortable, you are not really doing your job properly.

Of course, it is foolish to be too idealistic about academic freedom. Noam Chomsky (2002) has demonstrated that radicals have a hard time staying in the academy, despite their merits, because it is essentially a political environment. Benton argues that in Aotearoa, what threatens academic freedom is not so much suppression as neglect, because of the increasing neoliberal emphasis on commercially useful knowledge (Benton 2001). Yet he argues that “Education is still, as it always has been, fundamentally a subversive activity…” (Benton 2001:2). Similarly, Denzin and Lincoln view educators within a critical pedagogy framework as “transformative intellectuals”, who can lead emancipatory cultural politics through promoting “critical literacy” (Denzin and Lincoln 2008:8).

Stanley Fish, author of Save the World on Your Own Time (2008) may not believe this to be a good thing. He claims academics should merely inform their students rather than preaching to them, allowing them to make their own judgments. However, critical theory has basically nullified this kind of argument. Thus, following Jeff Corntassel, I believe there is no shame in being “an activist posing as an academic” (Corntassel 2003). This is where I wish to position myself (with a full awareness that a degree of “posing” or politicking is necessary within these institutions): always pursuing the subversive, emancipatory potential of education.