Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Intellectuals and the Persisting Significance of Race

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Intellectuals and the Persisting Significance of Race

Article excerpt


The Ideal of the Intellectual Community The intellectual subsociety hypothesis formulated by Gordon (1964) maintains that American intellectuals "interact in such patterned ways as to form at least the elementary structure of a subsociety of their own" (p. 224). As Gordon further claims, this subsociety "is the only one in American life in which people of different ethnic backgrounds interact in primary group relations with considerable frequency and with relative comfort and ease" (p. 224). This simple but elegant concept has shaped much of the subsequent discourse about ethnicity and intellectual group membership.

The term "intellectual" has few competitors for the number of definitions supplied by the scholarly literature. Therefore, the present study, rather than make a heroic (but likely futile) effort to reconcile the many and varied definitions of the term offered by scholars, artists, and lay persons, adopts Gordon's (1954-55) definition as an operational anchor. Gordon identifies as intellectuals "people for whom ideas, concepts, literature, music, painting, the dance have intrinsic meaning" (p. 518). In his model, the particulars of ethnicity, gender, class, or national origin have no legitimate bearing on an individuals' standing as an intellectual. Gordon acknowledges the pull of ethnic concerns on some thinkers whom he describes as "actively" or "passively" committed ethnic intellectuals who blend ethnic concerns to varying degrees with their passion for intellectualism. However, he surmises that such individuals are a distinct minority within the ethnic intellectual population, and claims that the large majority of ethnic intellectuals operate as "marginally ethnic intellectuals." These persons, in Gordon's view, finding ethnic communality unsatisfactory, wear their "ethnicity lightly" (p. 228).(1) Accordingly, what binds this subsociety or community of intellectuals together is not ethnicity or other sentimental features, but a commitment to ideas, universals, and the place of reason in the affairs of humans.

Shils (1967) affirms the idea of an intellectual community, concluding that "in its territorial scope and its criteria of admission" it is "the most universal of communities" (p. 2). While his views parallel those of Gordon, Shils rejects the place of what he calls "primordial properties"--that is, kinship, locality, tribe or territory--as qualifications or disqualifications for intellectual standing, and tactfully concedes that the ideal of the "universal" intellectual community is but myth. As Shils notes,

Of course in practice, primordial membership and properties are sometimes operative in governing admission to membership in particular corporate institutions, but those who apply them know they are contravening the rules of the intellectual community. (p. 2)

Institutions that recruit and train American intellectuals--namely, colleges, universities, and other training centers-tend to be committed to the universalistic ideal advanced by Shils and Gordon. Consequently, aspiring intellectuals matriculating at these institutions frequently find their attachments to ethnicity, region, and religion challenged and undermined by the universalistic ethos. Shils approvingly notes the process, and reasons that the emphasis on universalistic values in higher education produces a group or class that is separated from the bonds and sentiments of their precollegiate experience. He further hypothesizes that as intellectuals complete their training and go on to work in academic settings, they find themselves in contact predominantly with persons who have undergone the same process, and such peers become their new community or reference group.

The premise that intellectuals should be detached from group affiliations was challenged by Gramsci (1977), who maintains that social groups could and should generate their own distinct intellectuals. Unimpressed with the abstract quality of much that passed for intellectualism in modern Europe, Gramsci claims that "groundedness" is necessary for some groups to ensure the relevance of their intellectual work (p. …

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