A couple of years ago, the death of a public intellectual, such as the philosopher Mary Warnock, who died on Thursday, would be marked by reflections on whether we have seen the death of the public intellectual as a phenomenon.
In 2019, when an academic psychologist can do sell-out lecture tours off the back of YouTube success, there’s less reason to believe that the public is repulsed by big ideas, unfussily presented. Unfortunately, that psychologist is Jordan Peterson and his “big ideas” are a mush of homily and conservatism, making it tempting to wish that public intellectuals really weren’t a thing any more.
But Peterson isn’t the only flavour of brain out there influencing the public sphere and social media hasn’t only been a bad thing for the life of the mind. Classicist Mary Beard has more than 200,000 Twitter followers; physicist Brian Cox, more than 2m. Both are willing to roll up their sleeves and get involved in issues of the national interest. Both have also fronted ambitious television projects that have popularised forbiddingly abstract ideas and sit in the tradition of the golden age of the public intellectual. (Cox’s work bears the clear influence of Carl Sagan, while Beard co-presented Civilisations, a revisiting of Kenneth Clark’s landmark Civilisation.)
The difference between these figures and Warnock, though, is that Warnock’s public contributions were not made primarily through the media: they were made through politics. Selected by Margaret Thatcher to lead an inquiry into the education of children with disabilities in 1974, Warnock created the framework of mainstream inclusion and “statementing” that to this day underpins special educational needs teaching. In 1979, she joined the government’s advisory committee on animal experiments, applying her analysis to deep questions of consciousness and responsibility; her initial concern for the animal subjects was eventually accompanied by the “highest opinion” of the scientists she encountered through the committee.
Her landmark contribution, however, was her chairing of the committee of Inquiry into Human Fertilisation and Embryology from 1982 to 1984. In this role, she had to grapple with technologies that are, even now, not fully realised, as scientists explore the potential of gene editing and ever-more-detailed screening. Her recommendations informed the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, which laid the legal basis for IVF, surrogacy and experimentation on human embryos, the last of which has led to profound medical advances.
It is, in fact, difficult to overstate the extent to which Warnock has shaped the ethical life of the modern world.
And the word “ethical” is the significant one. An expert on existential thought, Warnock’s commitment to the belief that we are all responsible for creating meaning in a meaningless world clearly influenced her political work, which eschewed conventional moral authorities (she was criticised for excluding “pro-life” voices from the fertilisation and embryology committee) in favour of incisive accounting of the costs and benefits to human life. She never stopped interrogating her own conclusions: in 2005, she published a pamphlet revisiting the subject of SEN, where she felt that inclusion had become overused and the statementing process abused by local authorities that sought to evade expensive responsibilities.
Recent significant committees have tended to be led by barristers and civil servants, and on the subject of events that have happened, rather than on what could be – Chilcot, Leveson, Grenfell. The idea that politics has a responsibility to prepare for the moral eventualities of the future has fallen out of fashion, with a tendency to devolve reasoning to either the bloodless certainties of technocratic “evidence-based” policy or the reckless conviction that history has a right and a wrong side that can be easily divined from where we currently stand. At its very worst, you have Michael Gove fulminating against “experts” as a class.
Politicians are not by definition immoral people (despite what your most cynical instincts tell you), but Westminster, with its daily rumpus, is badly placed to think seriously about anything beyond the immediate, with MPs hyper-conscious of both the 24-hour media cycle and what their constituents will have to say on the doorstep and at the ballot box. Faced with heavyweight ethical questions, they can too easily choke.
But if established power bases are guilty of turning away from thinkers, some thinkers (or at any rate, those who reckon themselves thinkers) are guilty too of turning away from the “establishment”. The pompously self-labelled “intellectual dark web”, for example – a loose gathering that features Peterson alongside the atheist and neuroscientist Sam Harris and the podcaster Dave Rubin – represents itself as a bulwark of resistance to the groupthinky mainstream. Nothing, one suspects, could be more wounding to their egos than chairing a committee where it was necessary to listen to what other people think and even to change their mind.
Baroness Warnock belonged to a different, more deferential era than our own. She was of a time when the public and politicians could look to academics for moral authority, but also a time when being invested with such authority was more likely to produce an impulse to exercise it diligently in the national interest. She was admirably immune to both easy grandstanding and legacy-building. (Remember, one of her late public acts was essentially an attack on her own legacy.)
Her inheritors are out there. Popular appetite for ethical thinking is evident, even if it is liable to fix on vainglorious and deficient practitioners of lobster-based reasoning (that’s you, Jordan). From the galloping innovations of Silicon Valley to the looming nightmare of global warming, the need for serious thinkers to take on the problems of the future is obvious. It’s up to politicians to bridge that gap, accept their own limitations and embrace their own strengths, and look for the Warnocks of this generation to help build a world that is fit for the next one.
Sarah Ditum is a writer on politics and culture
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