Struggle and the Intellectual

“I got the notion that struggle is key to the intellectual’s vocation from the communities I grew up in.” Michael Eric Dyson

This quote from Dyson betrays his conviction that the work of an intellectual is not solitary. I couldn’t agree more. We all find our ways into vocations that demand varying degrees of mental and physical labor. But regardless of the form your labor takes, it must be done with the benefit to a community in view. As a person who works predominantly in intellectual labor, I am especially struck by Dyson’s focus on struggle as “the key” to the labor an intellectual performs. He sees his service to the community realized in his capacity for raising the physical, spiritual, and emotional well-being of its people.

“Struggle” is a difficult concept to nail down in any general way. But struggle always refers to contending against opposition. And in this way, the struggle of the intellectual can be understood as a contending against oppressive ideas. If economic policies are adversarial to the wellbeing of a group of people, the intellectual uses the tools of their discipline to struggle against those policies. The intellectual is an advocate for their community and this advocacy demands the strength of conviction that things are not right and, more importantly, they can be better.

While praising the virtues of gaining knowledge, Dyson also acknowledges that knowledge can “be dangerous, subversive, and liberating.” Unfettering the mind from bondage to oppressive ideologies is exhilarating but it engenders a kind of anarchy in those who have been liberated. If you wonder why there is growing anti-intellectualism in American society, you might find that the broadening of the mind and the honing of the intellect always seems to challenge the status quo. At a time of economic and moral uncertainty, knowledge is a threat to order. I am not being dramatic. A survey of Jesus’ interactions with the religious authorities of his day demonstrates a similar fear of social instability brought about by knowledge. The Jews in Palestine were under the thumb of the Roman Empire and as long as they didn’t cause trouble and paid their taxes, the Jews were allowed to live peacefully. Jesus shows up and begins perpetuating new interpretations of the Torah and upsetting the relative peace of Jewish society. Dyson adds, “Try as we might to quarantine knowledge, it invariably sneezes on us far beyond its imposed limits.” Jesus was the sneeze.

Universities are promoted as a means to acquiring a vocation while, at the same time, vilified as breeding grounds for liberalism. I suppose education does have the effect of broadening ones perspective and, in so doing, “liberalizing” the student. Somewhere along the way, “liberal” became synonymous with ambivalent or irresolute. In my experience, this is not the case. What is happening isn’t political indoctrination. It is a refinement process where the learner begins to experience the world as a vastly more diverse place than they once thought it to be. It is disorienting and in the process of getting their feet back under them, the students come to think differently about the reductive binaries we use to describe reality. Most often, the students simply understand the world as a spectrum and find themselves at different places on that ideological spectrum depending on the issue at hand. Granted, universities have gone through periods of erecting ivory towers and disengaging from the public sphere. But this is not always the case and is far less common today than it was two decades ago. And this brings us back to Dyson’s initial thesis.

If struggle is the key to the intellectual’s vocation then intellectuals have to reengage in their communities and their struggle to bring stability to the community. This takes diligence on the part of the intellectual to understand their community and its needs. Reengagement also requires courage to struggle even when your universities would rather you go about your work more quietly and less controversially. Henry Rollins has recently said, “Knowledge without mileage is bullshit.” Get out of the library and the laboratory and see the world. Begin with your neighborhood and use the tools at your disposal to contribute to solutions to the problems you and your community face.

*Dyson quotes excerpted from his introduction to The Michael Eric Dyson Reader entitled “Why I am an Intellectual.” Basic Civitas Books © 2004


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