What responsibility do intellectuals and teachers have to their community? As I finish up my Master’s degree and search for teachings jobs at community colleges across the country, this is something that’s been on my mind. To what activities should I devote my attention as an aspiring teacher/intellectual myself in the coming decades? In the words of Noam Chomsky, from his influential essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” (1967), “On what page of history do we find our proper place?” (section 1 paragraph 3). For Chomsky, always the relentless critic of U.S. imperialism and foreign policy, intellectuals have a very clear and very strong responsibility.
“Intellectuals are in a position to expose the lies of governments, to analyze actions according to their causes and motives and often hidden intentions,” Chomsky writes. They enjoy “unique privileges” of education and status and, especially in the United States, heightened “access to information and freedom of expression” (sect. 1 para. 2). It is their responsibility to use these privileges wisely and for the benefit of their society.
For the next 20 pages of his essay, Chomsky outlines ways in which the intellectuals of the 1960s most certainly did not do this. Well-respected scholars, even the director of graduate studies in international relations at Yale University, used their education and privilege to spread misinformation and disingenuous ideas that rationalized and legitimized the United States’ outrageous involvement in the Vietnam War. We now know, furthermore, that for decades, intellectuals at the Rand Corporation shaped much of the dangerous and nonsensical ideas which escalated and prolonged the Cold War. Intellectuals quite literally caused the deaths of thousands, perhaps even hundreds of thousands or millions of people, during the 20th century. For Chomsky, it is the responsibility of intellectuals to counter false and dangerous ideas like these and to spread the truth to the public, no matter how uncomfortable.
With a much different tone, Carl Sagan writes in The Demon-Haunted World (1996) that intellectuals (for him, scientists, rather than foreign policy junkies like Chomsky) are obligated to spread the information they learn. Sagan is concerned here, in his final book published just months before his death, with pseudoscience: alien abductions, astrology, reincarnation, etc. For Sagan, critical thinking, knowledge of science, and the truth are absolutely crucial for the functioning of a healthy democracy. His fear of misinformation seems prescient of many of today’s issues (though they were of course incubating already in the 1990s).
One’s success in school is dependent on a number of factors. We know, for example, that those from more wealthy households tend to do better in school. They have comparably less to worry about than children in poverty, are able to devote more leisure time to intellectual activities like reading, and have more access to books and to other sources of learning. To perform well in school, and especially to go on to graduate school, to be able to devote one’s entire career to the pursuit of knowledge, is a tremendous privilege that most people do not have. Therefore intellectuals and teachers do have a responsibility to spread that knowledge, as widely as possible, to people who didn’t have the same opportunities.
Carl Sagan, along with a team including his wife Ann Druyan, created Cosmos, the most popular series ever aired on public television, as well as the bestselling popular science book of all time. He had a tremendous impact on U.S. society, but was shunned by many of his colleagues. Some thought that it was a waste of time to publish books for the regular layperson rather than to conduct serious, academic scientific research. But this is precisely our responsibility. It is a deep privilege to receive a doctoral degree in astronomy as Sagan did, and he felt that he should spread as much knowledge as possible to those without the time or money to get such a degree. If that abstract obligation were not enough, spreading scientific literacy would create clear benefits for the country.
Many scientists feel that they have nothing to add to the public discourse. Not everyone can make Cosmos, after all. But we shouldn’t confine ourselves to one little box. Noam Chomsky, don’t forget, was a linguist by trade, perhaps the most important in history. But in the bigger picture, it was his writings on U.S. foreign policy that had a more direct impact on so many people throughout the world.
This, I believe, should be the responsibility of intellectuals and teachers:
- To spread knowledge, as widely as possible: in the classroom and in accessible popular outlets like books, magazines, and television. It is our privilege to have such easy access to information, so we should spread it as much as we can.
- To fight disinformation: in Chomsky’s words, not everyone can conduct a research project on every issue, and so intellectuals have a responsibility to help level the playing field in this respect.
- To do both of these ethically and earnestly, toward the betterment of our local community, our country, and the world.