Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I really enjoyed Gerald Early's essay about Thomas Sowell in this month's issue of The Figure in the Carpet. Early says he likes to think of the conservative Sowell as a "contrarian," and it seems to be in that contrarian spirit that Early himself entertains, without much in the way of rebuttal, some of the ideas underpinning Sowell's recent book Intellectuals and Society:

Sowell does not say this openly, but my general impression is that he thinks, on the whole, that intellectuals are status parasites with a self-created importance: they have no worthwhile skills, and if they all disappeared tomorrow, the United States would function very well without them. They are like an aristocracy that has deluded itself that it actually measures up in some important way in a meritocracy. This is why intellectuals generally hate capitalism: because it will not place the value on them that they feel their superiority warrants. [Philsopher Robert] Nozick makes this point also, adding that intellectuals generally are people who did well in school, were recognized as verbally brilliant by their teachers, but who hate capitalism because the larger society won't recognize their worth they way their schoolteachers did, which is why they like the strong, centralized government of the teacher and not the chaotic "market" world of the hallways and lunchrooms where they were not very popular or appreciated.


rich said...

Tom Sowell's convictions about academia, as conveyed by Gerald Early, sting like truth. But his critique of status in academia seems more legitimate to me than his implicit exaltation of the ways the marketplace confers value. (Does he really mean to cheer for the bullying of kids in the locker room and the hallway?) How does a religious conservative respond to this location of perhaps all value in the marketplace. I think here of Edwin Muir's poem "The Return," which contrasts the values of chaste and Penelope awaiting the return of her husband with the marketplace values of those suitors bargaining, gambling, and spitting in the halls of her own home. How can we value her chaste and disciplined love and her self-discipline If real value only emerges only in the marketplace? Moreover, if real value exists only in the marketplace, then the values of, say, the Bible are negligible.

For me, Sowell's critique relfects the fundamental dichotomy of Catcher in the Rye. Holden hates the assumption that "life is a game" and that value depends not on aesthetic experience or moral discernment but on demonstrated competitive advantage. For Holden, a phony is someone who seeks competitive success--that's why Holden says that DB is out in California being a prostitute--making movies rather than writing short stories. DB seeks status and value in the domain that Sowell respects.

Ultimately, this is the source of Catcher in the Rye's enduring value: it poses as well as any work of art the prime question about life: is it success or goodness and beauty that confer real value?

Sean said...

Thank you for such an interesting post, Frank.

Sowell's critique of intellectuals (and, like Rich, I take this to mean "academia" for the most part) is certainly nothing new. It's the old utilitarian argument that is frequently aimed squarely at the humanities departments of universities when funding gets tight. People don't really "need" history, or literature, or foreign language, etc. as much as other things the story goes. (And this disregard for foreign language is a decidedly American disposition.) Sowell, similarly, through his little thought experiment of disappearing intellectuals (something which he perhaps took no small relish in imagining) "proves" that the country doesn't really "need" intellectuals. Perhaps he's quite right. I'll admit, I have had enough irritating experiences with academics bloated on their own sense of self-importance that I, too, took a bit of relish in his thought experiment.

The problem with his argument, though, is the same problem with the utilitarian argument that's made against humanities departments: what, exactly, does a person or a society "need"? We need clothes, sure. But what kind? Do we need green shirts and blue shirts? Do we need hats? What about shelter? Sure, we need a place to keep us out of the elements, but what kind of shelter is necessary? One with four walls? One with a pool? One with five flat screen TVs? Do we need movies? Do we need crayons? Do we need paper bags, or staplers, or clocks? Perhaps the more important question, however, isn't what we actually need, but who decides what we need. Tom Sowell? Seems odd coming from someone who seems to reject the authoritarian classroom in favor the "chaotic" market world of the hallways and lunchroom. The utilitarian argument, whether its used against humanities departments or frustrating academics, gestures towards some sort of ascetic understanding of the worthwhile life, but I find that the people usually making the argument are wholly unwilling to actually live a ascetic life.

Sean said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sean said...

Which is precisely why I, as one of the nerdy kids, much preferred the world of the classroom to the world of the hallways. Sowell errs is suggesting that I resented the world of the hallway because it didn't appreciate me. After all, I read books about Ancient Egypt and played Final Fantasy: I had no delusions. That said, it would be false to suggest that the world of the classroom was one where I entirely "fit" either. Final Fantasy was no bigger with teachers than it was with cool kids, and I didn't follow sports, a fact which left me feeling out of the loop in much of the classroom banter in an all-boys school.

Here's the difference though. Sowell falsely supposes that in the hallway and the lunchroom there is no dominating governmental presence. Any nerd kid will tell you that this is complete and utter bullshit. As soon as Mr. Maliborski left the room, Nick (I'll leave out the last name) became the de fact dictator of 7th period Algebra I. Second tier cool kids pandered to him, and everyone else laughed at his jokes. The world of the hallway and the lunch room is not one of "anything goes" where Cinderella really can become a princess. There are people on top running the game and that game is judiciously refereed by the hangers-on.

I think the reason the nerd kid likes the classroom better than the hallway, then, isn't that it's always a place where they feel that they "fit," but because it’s a place where they feel safe. Mr. Maliborski and the guys would sometimes talk football, and I had no idea what was going on. But, with Mr. Mal in the room, I knew that my difference would not make me the target of ridicule. In the hallway, where Nick was king, this was not the case.

For the sake of argument here, let's suppose this wasn't simply because Mr. Maliborski was a better person than Nick. At the very least, Mr. Maliborski was beholden to a particular code of conduct as an adult and an educator, whereas Nick was not, and all the nerd kids know this. Blatant example: if the teacher hits a kid, that teacher gets fired; if Nick hits a kid – and supposing he gets told on – he doesn’t necessarily get expelled. This, then, is why I bristle when the Fabulous Fab and all of his ilk cowboy around under the guise of "free market." The Fabulous Fab is just a Nick all grown up. The Bush era policy on Wall Street was one in which the teacher just decided to go to the copy room and never come back.

And this is why the nerd kid prefers the classroom to the hallway and some of us prefer the regulation of law to unbridled capitalism: in the classroom, morality exists and even the classroom's most powerful figure, the teacher, must adhere to it. I'm no gung-ho socialist, but I would like to live in a society where the richest and most powerful have to follow the rules too.

Dan Davinroy said...

I couldn't agree more Sean, well said. The people who always cry that "capitalism" is the answer never discuss how the market is rigged from the very start so that some players have more of an advantage.

Someone has to tell Nick who operates only out of self aggrandizement, that he is out of line and of course, not thinking about the consequences of his actions.

Reflecting on and analyzing human behavior is an activity that we all should engage in not just so called intellectuals. Are we to believe that only activities that bring in money are worthwhile? If so, then all artists, musicians, writers,volunteers, etc..., should just give up if you are not making money.

Rich said...

Brilliant and eloquent analysis, Sean.

framiko said...

Indeed. Thanks, Sean.