Which books should I have read if I really want to be thought of as an intellectual?

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20 January
13:50
6 March
12:29

This question reminds me of a slim but provocative book that was published ten years ago, called How to Talk about Books You Haven’t Read, by a French academic (are you surprised?) called Pierre Bayard. This book was fascinating because its author tried to expose the empty elitism (the “system”) that enforces our intellectual insecurities. At the same time, Bayard provides tips on how to seem like you really have read all of Marcel Proust, as well as the most recent scholarship on Proust. This will make it seem to others that you also have read the best commentaries on Proust’s readers, his biographers, and his Russian and Arabic translators, etc. So this author pokes fun at elitism, but clearly he also wants to instruct us on how to join that elite—or empty elite.

I mention this because our question today concerns not “which books will reveal that I am an intellectual,” but rather “if I really want to be thought of as an intellectual.” So our focus is not on which books will stretch and strengthen our intellectual capacities, but which will impress other people.

If authority in the classroom means knowing it all, then it also means inviting nothing but silence among our most ambitious students.

Shall I assume that historians like me are specially equipped to know what “other people” want to think? If so, that hurts! Why? Because as a teacher and research supervisor, I think that by acknowledging my lack of knowledge on many things, I encourage students to realise their own intellectual ambitions—showing that there’s still a lot of research to do, many questions to ask, and further arguments to be made. My colleagues tend to agree with this. If authority in the classroom means knowing it all, then it also means inviting nothing but silence among our most ambitious students.

Most of us will agree that the Socratic method of teaching - showing that we learn more from exploring good questions rather than memorising facts and arguments - is a more effective pedagogical method than standing at the podium and citing quotations from books students can access elsewhere.

Intellectual ability is more about thinking critically than knowing lots of stuff.

So this means that, in my view, the best way “really” to be thought of as an intellectual is to show we know those books that have taught us to pose good questions. Intellectual ability is more about thinking critically than knowing lots of stuff anyway.

Perhaps the best book of this type is The Historian’s Craft, originally published as Apologie pour l’Histoire ou Métier d’Historien, by the great French historian Marc Bloch (1886-1944). Historians realise the importance of distinguishing an author from her/his ideas. We should not allow a person’s life to determine the meaning of their thoughts. If we did, every book on our shelves would need to be written by a moral hero. Unfortunately, there are more brilliant publications than there have been moral authors.

Since history is the study of the past in the context of the present, study without witnessing is like reading without learning.

In the case of Bloch, we have a moral hero and a provocative book that emphasizes the importance of asking critical questions. Marc Bloch, a Jewish intellectual and officer in the French army, refused to emigrate from France during the Nazi occupation. Simultaneously horrified and fascinated by the capacities of his fellow citizens to justify leading "normal lives" even while they colluded with the Nazis, Bloch believed that the task of a historian is to witness the world, to better reflect on its meaning. Since history is the study of the past in the context of the present, study without witnessing is like reading without learning.

Bloch knew that he would be rounded up and murdered before completing this short treatise—and he was. Edited posthumously by his friend Lucien Febvre and published in 1949, reading this book today compells us to reflect not only on Bloch’s demand for critical questions, but also for us to reflect on the task of intellectuals during wartime. How different are we, reading today, while refugees drown, sea waters rise, and we elect leaders who encourage inequality?

So Bloch teaches us to witness and to ask questions—of ourselves and of each other. Done with sincerity, it’s hard work, intellectually.

“Poverty and the Tolerance of the the Intolerable.” Professor Amartya Sen with Prospect‘s editor Bronwen Maddox, at LSE, 14 Jan 2014 © Sophia Schorr-Kon

Taking Bloch seriously, we need to face the challenge of seeing injustice amidst our world of stimulating ideas. We need to balance outrage with creativity, and critical thinking with demands for solutions. So my final “book” is, in fact, a lecture - this means, hopefully, more of us will be able to consume it—it’s available as a free download.

Amryta Sen, the intellectually restless Nobel-prize winning economist and philosopher, asks: why do we tolerate injustice? What do we tell ourselves to justify our willingness to look the other way, to ignore suffering even while we know it is there?

If we want to shape definitions of what it means to be an intellectual, cultivating a meaningful response to Sen, given Bloch's arguments for a critical approach to history, seems to me a fine place to start.

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