A book of our times in reflective mood on role of public intellectual

Reflections on Crisis:The Role of the Public Intellectual

Edited by Mary P Corcoran and Kevin LalorRoyal Irish Academy, €10

Review: Oliver Moore

Tom Garvin: He attacks university leaders who “pretend that their activities are going to be about economic growth”. Picture: John Jordan

This publication, with contributions from sociologists, law lecturers, economists and political scientists, asks how public intellectuals should, or indeed can, respond to the economic crisis.

While the book offers no single definition of a public intellectual, Mary P. Corcoran’s introduction describes public intellectuals as offering “clear sighted insights” without “fear or favour”. In the preceding sentence she describes their role as “putting forward moral frameworks and schemes of interpretation which are accessible to the wider public”. These two sentences capture the conundrum faced by the public intellectual, and aptly enough, by this book itself: balancing the required depth and complexity of meaning with an approachable understandability for non-specialists.

For the most part, this timely, revealing and stimulating book succeeds. Reflections on Crisis begins with a quite chatty style: by the end of the final chapter, the reader has experienced a more challenging workout. This trajectory has the positive effect of easing the reader into more complex territory.

Corcoran’s introduction is bookended by one of Ireland’s foremost public intellectuals, President Michael D. Higgins. As well as succinctly summarising each author’s contribution, Corcoran ties emergent themes together, such as the emphasis on fairness, democratic reform, greater accountability and concern over the encroachment of technocratic and instrumental knowledge on intellectuals. She also points to the need for reflexive (i.e. critically self-aware) academics operating in “more systematic mutually reinforcing relationships”.

Donnacha O’Connell’s quite conversational chapter suggests that universities aren’t best equipped to produce public intellectuals, citing Mark Twain, Karl Marx and George Orwell as exemplars. O’Connell rails against the crude process of rationalisation at work in third-level institutions, which lumps law and commerce together for ease of administration, whatever about the other consequences. “The ‘key performance indicator’”, he states with an ironic buzzphrase, of a good scholar should still be “inspiring others to learn through scholarship grounded in a genuine passion for one’s subject”. For public intellectuals to blossom, O’Connell suggests a more developed think tank sector, converting intellectual capital into public policy initiatives and political strategies.

The sharp-tongued chapter by Tom Garvin is very entertaining. Garvin, using literary and historical examples, points out that “the fate of the Irish intellectual and creative writer after independence was pretty horrendous”. He playfully posits idle curiosity over applied, intellectually derivative, supposedly profitable research: “an appetite for knowledge is a good in itself and encourages detached and penetrative thinking”.

Garvin lambastes the stultifying effects of imposing the physical science model on all other disciplines, sounds a warning bell about the encroachment of the Chinese university model in Irish academic institutions, and saves his best bombast and basalt for what he describes as people who “’run’ Irish universities”, and who “pretend to be businessmen running efficient enterprises”... who “pretend that their activities are going to be about economic growth”.

A more typically structured offering by Frances Ruane argues the case for academic economists, who he claims stepped up to engage with the public post Celtic Tiger, an era when private economists dominated.

Helpfully, Ruane categorises three types of public intellectual: explaining complex knowledge to the general public; cross connecting academic disciplines or adding to policy; engaging in a range of issues because of their status in one.

Other people and processes make the complex understandable too, so the boundaries blur: economic journalists and media commentators like Shane Ross, Matt Cooper and most notably Fintan O’ Toole. Information is also more accessible, with greater use of graphics in print, economics blogs and audio-visual props being used on TV — though there are refereeing and bias issues with the latter two, for Ruane.

Interestingly, Ruane also feels that urgent, real-time commentating by academic economists needs now to be backgrounded.

The final two chapters are substantial sociological offerings from Pat O’Connor and Liam O’Dowd.

For O’Connor, the public intellectual’s role is to take the side of the underprivileged, turning private troubles into public issues. In explaining exactly how gender still really matters, she both describes limits on women making progress in society and performs as a public intellectual — “raising issues that those in power currently wish to avoid” as she says herself. The exposé is impressive, especially with regard to homeosociability, or like choosing like. In this case, its men choosing other men, in top management (89%) academic (82%) positions. With excellent use of evidence, O’Connor critiques the treatment of and threats to lone parents, equality organisations, and the children’s allowance, as well as Ireland’s extraordinarily high childcare costs. This compares starkly to the reliefs and benefits for the more male-dominated sectors of society, such as farming and construction.

The final chapter by Liam O’Dowd deals forensically with the context of public intellectuals and accountability.

This sequence of sole-authored chapters makes for a positively varied reading experience. However, there are numerous areas where the same information emerges, which is slightly wearying. Examples include the difficulty intellectuals face in being both specialist and lay, which risks the wrath of academic peers; the fact that universities may not be the best place to produce public intellectuals; the lack of a public sphere for debate in Ireland, but the value in blogs like Irisheconomy.ie. This information is crucial, which explains why so many of the authors refer to it. Nevertheless, a stronger editorial whip hand might have worked out a way to prevent this reading so repetitively, as though the authors hadn’t read each other chapters before publication. Dealing with this issue would have added considerably to the coherence of the book as one is left with a collection of papers masquerading as chapters.

This small consideration aside, Reflections on Crisis is certainly a book for our times, one that deserves as wide an audience as possible.


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