Nussbaum on Intellectualism and Mass Culture

Symposium: Martha Nussbaum
Martha Nussbaum
January 8, 2010

What relationship American intellectuals should have toward mass culture—television, films, mass-market books, popular music, and the Internet—will vary as much as the people themselves.

I think that it’s good if there are some intellectuals who get deeply involved with these media, because this will help intellectuals keep contact with a wider public. It’s much harder to do that now than it was formerly, given the decline of print journalism. But I hope not too many will become starry-eyed about these media and forget about the habit of slow reading, which is such a large part of good thinking. Sometimes the new media can help reading: for example, I now listen to novels on my iPod while I am running, and I “read” a lot more Trollope and Eliot than I used to. Often, though, the new media discourage people from reading books. I see this in many of my students, and it distresses me. We need to remind them that thinking is slow and rigorous, and that it does not always go well with the fast pace and the flash of popular culture.

On balance, the academy is a great help in furthering the engagement of intellectuals with American society When we think of the political philosophers of the fairly recent European past, most of them had to struggle to make ends meet, because their radical ideas made it impossible for them to hold tenured academic positions or to be protected by the deficient standards of academic freedom that then prevailed. Rousseau’s books were banned, and he was not employable in a university. Kant held a university appointment, but he always had to fear, and sometimes encounter, the suppression of his writings. Bentham and Mill published, but they were not employable in universities because of their atheism. Think of how much more Mill could have written had he not had a day job. Even the highly respectable Sidgwick had to resign his fellowship because he found that he could not support all the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. (The rule was changed, and he resumed his fellowship, but he still had to conceal his sexual orientation, as Bart Schultz’s biography now shows us.) Closer to our own time, both Bertrand Russell and John Dewey encountered significant problems of academic freedom, though they kept their positions. The U.S. university system is not perfect, and we must always be extremely vigilant about potential denials of academic freedom. During the Vietnam War era, in particular, there were abuses. It is, however, better than most systems have been in most times and places.

Of course, these protections may lull intellectuals into ignoring issues of their time, and that is bad when it happens; but it is still better that the protections be there, in the strongest possible form.

Martha Nussbaum