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May 5
Briefly Noted: What Are Intellectuals Good For?


Please note: This post is very much off-topic.  But, as something I heard on NPR’s Fresh Air piqued my curiosity, I thought I’d share it with you. Enjoy!

In college and graduate school I spent many hours, days and nights working on two theses focusing on two highly speculative and relevant topics: jazz ethnomusicology and health care reform. (15 brownie points will be awarded to anyone who can define jazz ethnomusicology.)  During those heady days of academic bliss, I sometimes thought about what life would be like if I could spend the rest of my days as a free-ranging intellectual.  I wasn’t sure if I was smart enough to do so, but the idea certaintly sounded nice.

But, every time I went down that path, something pulled me up short.  It was a question Maureen Corrigan, in her review of a new paperback by George Scialabba, “What Are Intellectuals Good For?,” was asked when she got her PhD:  “So are you making any money now?”  Yes, thinking deep thoughts is really nice, but if I wanted to put food on the table, I’d have to figure out someway to make my very expensive education pay for itself.

I regularly listen to NPR’s Fresh Air podcast, but normally skip Corrigan’s reviews of new books.  After all, the books Corrigan normally reviews are usually not my cup of tea. However, I took time to listen to her review of “What Are Intellectuals Good For?”  According to Corrigan, Scialabba’s book focuses on the real-world impact of intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, William F. Buckley and others.  If they had never put pen to paper, would the world be the same?

This is certainly worth thinking about.  In fact, let’s take a modern-day example of a public intellectual, Malcolm Gladwell.  His bestsellers Blink and Outliers have influened the thinking of many around the world.  And, although some have suggested that Gladwell oversimplifies complex topics and states the obvious, there is no doubt that he has had a tremendous impact on how we think about the world.

So, here’s a question to take you through the rest of the day: “Would the world be better or worse off without intellectuals?”  I think we're better off, what's your take?

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