Insufficiently Educated, Intensely Intellectual: A Response to Richard A. Posner’s “More Public, Less Intellectual”

“Everything I had worked for, all my years of study, had been to purchase for myself this one privilege: to see and experience more truths than those given to me […] and to use those truths to construct my own mind. I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create. ” (335) || Tara Westover, Educated

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Upon the completion of my undergraduate degree at the University of St Andrews and return to the United States, I proposed to some of my closest friends that we create a book club, capitalizing on the instantaneous connectivity of Facebook Messenger to create our own contemporary, digital literary salon in lieu of geographic proximity. Here we would wax poetic about literary works, discuss our opinions, and encourage one another to grapple with texts outside of our respective “comfort zones.” I saw this book club not only as an opportunity to reinforce my bonds with my international circle of friends but also to prevent my critical thinking skills from atrophying as I faced unemployment and no opportunities for further study. It was through this book club that I read Tara Westover’s bitingly candid memoir, Educated.

I draw attention to Westover’s memoir as well as my encounter with it as these topics align neatly with the learning outcomes of this blog series, mainly an investigation into the intersection of public activity and intellectualism. Specifically, in reading Richard A. Posner’s “More Public, Less Intellectual” from his book Public Intellectuals: A Study of a Decline for class, Westover’s memoir and her unorthodox educational trajectory scratched at the back of my mind.

Posner defines a public intellectual as “a person who, drawing on his intellectual resources, addresses a broad though educated public on issues with a political or ideological dimension” (170). As a Cambridge-educated historian, published memoirist, and one of TIME’s “Most Influential People of 2019”, Westover seems to embody the definition of the public intellectual Posner articulates. Looking beyond Westover’s résumé, the issues that Educated a public testimony in virtue of being published highlights draw critical attention to intellectual matters that are positively charged with political ramifications, as Posner posits. Specifically, Westover addresses the accessibility of higher education, the disjoint between public and homeschooling, and negotiates critiques of institutionalized control over educational systems. Yet Posner’s definition of the public intellectual, and its relationship to an individual like Westover, begs a significant question. How might Posner quantify the wider public’s “education” in order for the public intellectual’s work to yield the desired effect?

Contemplating the measure one’s education drew my attention away from Posner’s study of the public intellectual in relation to the professional academic to Westover’s memoir. Westover was born in rural Idaho to parents who advocated “survivalism.” Essentially, the Westovers denied their children access to medical care and public education. They also evaded federal government regulations (i.e. procuring birth certificates for their children) out of suspicion for the pervasive institutional control over the lives of everyday Americans. As such, the Westovers’ efforts to educate their children significantly dwindled with each new child, eventually leaving the education of the younger children to the care of the elder children. By the time the seventh child, Tara, was born, she received hardly any “formalized” education at all beyond basic reading, writing, and arithmetic. However, Westover surmounted the remarkably fragmentary nature of her formative “education” to take and pass the ACT standardized college admission exam, attending Brigham Young University and later earning the prestigious Gates Cambridge Scholar award to pursue her Master’s degree at the University of Cambridge. As of 2014, Westover holds a doctorate degree in history, also from Cambridge.

Westover’s accolades are well-earned. Her writing style, though frank, reveals a sharp wit and a perceptive eye that evidence her successes as a scholar. Furthermore, her demonstrable drive to obtain simply a formalized education is palpable in the vivid detail with which she recalls her experiences to prepare for collegiate life. Though Westover attended noteworthy post-secondary institutions, it is critical to recognize that without her courage to defy and overcome her upbringing, Westover may not have achieved access to Posner’s “educated public” despite her curious and intellectually deft mind. Furthermore, it may not be an ideological stretch to suggest that Westover’s appeal transcends intellectual barriers, appealing to those with similar formative experiences yet without the same degree of formalized education. In other words: there may be any number of Tara Westovers in America reading her testimony, individuals capable of engaging in the public discourse surrounding the issues Westover raises. However, the very experiences that align them with Westover ultimately bar them from this notion of an “educated public” that the public intellectual allegedly appeals to. What, then, is the mark of the adequately educated by Posner’s standard?

Over the past four years, I have wrestled with this question at one time or another, especially in my indecision to pursue additional degrees. However, it comes into sharp focus in light of not only this course’s forced reckoning with my responsibilities as a scholar but also in the pursuit of my Master’s more broadly. My relationship with academia has become increasingly ambivalent due to the distinct tension between what is “adequately educated” and what is “deeply intellectual”, particularly as these notions relate to the public sharing of ideas.

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According to Posner, there is a tacit expectation that intellectuals “should be able to speak about anything” (173). To some extent, Posner’s argument holds. An individual with a profound knowledge of a highly specialized topic may struggle to effectively communicate their ideas. The sheer complexity of their deep understanding muddies comprehension by non-specialists. By Posner’s estimation, though, I could be considered a poor excuse for an intellectual. My ability to speak even on a range of literary topics (my alleged area of “expertise”) is rather poor if breadth of knowledge is to be privileged over depth. When fantasy novels such as Lord of the Rings occupy conversation, I eagerly take up my critical stance with rigor and passion. However, were I to be invited into a discussion on Modernism, seventeenth-century metaphysical poetry, or the plays of William Shakespeare, I would wither. 

Does my niche knowledge of literary subjects indicate a lack of intellectualism on my part? Speaking in broad strokes, does my preoccupation with literature and a rudimentary grasp of, say, economics signify a shortcoming in my education? Would a scholar such as Posner dare to classify me “sufficiently educated?” If not, then perhaps I have no business articulating my so-called intellectual ideas on this public forum or sharing the fruits of my intellectual labors at two academic conferences this spring.

Yet in eight months I will (hopefully) belong to an “elite” class of Americans, an exclusive 11% as of 2018, that holds a degree beyond a Bachelor’s. This tension evidences the most troubling facet of Posner’s ideas. Posner fails to indicate whether the capacious intellectual should speak well about a variety of topics. Consequently, in privileging breadth over depth of knowledge, Posner runs the risk of championing a system that feeds the wider public a diet of semi-nutritious yet amply portioned “intellectual” content. Is the successful public intellectual, then, the individual whose voice carries far and wide, yet always serves the skimmings, never the cream? 

For Posner, “To be among the most prominent public intellectuals requires more than scholarly renown. Indeed, scholarly renown may operate as a drag on public prominence by taking time away from public intellectual work, or may reflect a mindset or intellectual style inimical to communication with a nonspecialist audience” (187). However, figures such as Westover blatantly challenge Posner’s assessment. Westover published a piece of work accessible to a broad audience, including those who may exist outside of the nexus of the “educated” who are able to identify with Westover’s formative educational struggles. However, a doctorate in history conferred by Cambridge suggests a level of expertise, an “intellectual style”, as it were, that could be hostile to general comprehension. Yet Westover gracefully straddles this divide, exhibiting a mind capable of earning high academic honors while simultaneously writing in a way that appeals to the average American.

Does Westover’s success derive from her bilingualism, her ability to speak the language of the “insufficiently” educated to communicate more sophisticated ideas? Perhaps this is the mark of the truly skilled academic, the truly intellectual: a hybrid existence. What struck me about my retrospective analysis of Westover’s memoir is not necessarily its content — shocking though it may be — but rather her ability to transcend boundaries and gather disparate educational histories, cultural identities, and experiences to open broader discourse on subjects that require critical attention, such as the accessibility of higher education for children should they wish to pursue such a route.

Westover’s example and the troubling arguments surrounding the notion of a public intellectual Posner presents ultimately spur me to reconsider where the value in my higher education lies. Once, I believed it rested in the sheer fact that I read each and every piece of literature pictured at the top of this page. Nineteen-year-old Maggie would be chagrined to know that seven years later, while I am able to knowledgeably cite such texts, I believe my academic achievement transcends academia itself. Perhaps it is my ability to communicate to those without a specialist’s intimate knowledge of literature, to articulate unorthodox ideas at the expense of seeming “academic,” that evidences the value of my work in spite of my own insufficient education, my seeming lack of intellectualism (by Posner’s measure).

What this evolution of this perspective signifies for the future of my work remains to be seen.

Works Cited

“Educated by Tara Westover.” Goodreads. Accessed 24 January 2020. goodreads.com/book/show/35133922-educated.

“Educational Attainment in the United States: 2018.” U.S. Census Bureau. Accessed 24 January 2020. census.gov. 

Gates, Bill. “Tara Westover.” TIME 100. Accessed 24 January 2020. time.com/collection/100-most-influential-people-2019/5567699/tara-westover/

Posner, Richard A. “More Public, Less Intellectual.” Public Intellectuals: A Study of a Decline. Harvard University Press, 2001, 167-220.

Westover, Tara. Educated. E-book, Random House, 2018. Kindle Cloud Reader, e-book ISBN 9780399590511.

Disclaimer — 

I recognize that my discussions here today touch very little on the notion of public intellectualism in Canada, as is the focus of the course. However, certain circumstances necessitate the limiting of my discussion to an American context. Mainly, I am an American in Canada, and in light of the recent State of Emergency in St. John’s, my access to the class discussions about intellectualism in Canada, specifically, has been postponed until further notice. As such, my knowledge of Canadian public intellectualism will be limited until further learning from my peers and my instructor occurs, thereby pushing me to draw on my own experiences and national knowledge to fill in these knowledge gaps. Second, while it may be essentializing to root my discussions in the close geographic proximity of Canada to the United States (and Michigan in particular), I believe that my discussions of education, academia, and grappling with the concept of public intellectualism facilitated through an American lens are more germane to a Canadian context than, say, a British context, which occupies a significant portion of my educational background.

 

 

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