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I noticed an ad for a conference. The theme: Where are the New Intellectuals? I mentioned it to my priest and he sent back an article from the 1950s asking the same question – bemoaning, in fact, the death of Catholic intellectuals. Not that I qualify as a New Intellectual, but, having, at least, an intellect, I thought I’d chew on this.
My response? Pish-tosh!
There certainly are Contemporary Intellectuals, and I think I know why you aren’t finding them. They are sitting around in Real Lives, not in universities that have the funds to send them to conferences like these. Lots of them are home educators – moms and dads who are discovering the holes in their educations and patching them up as fast as they can. Sometimes they’re just a few steps ahead of the Next Intellectuals they are raising.
Include, in the ranks of these auto-didacts, everyone who is actively reading and discussing books like G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, A.E. Sertillange’s The Intellectual Life (a blueprint for New Intellectuals, by the way), Fr. Schall’s The Unseriousness of Human Affairs, or Stratford Caldecott’s The Radiance of Beauty. Catholic magazines (and their readers) like First Things, St. Austin Review, Second Spring and Gilbert are full of NIs. In fact, if Joseph Pearce, Dale Ahlquist, Stratford Caldecott, Anthony Esolen, and Gregg Wolfe aren’t on your short list of NIs, you’re looking in the wrong place (still in academia, are we?).
No wonder you’re spending big bucks to investigate the crisis of the disappearing Catholic intellectual. I’d love to have been at this conference to hear the answers they came up with. I’m genuinely interested in learning what was said, who said it, and what they all thought we should do next. Meanwhile, here’s my advice to those who are searching for New Intellectuals:
- Look for people with a genuine interest in a wide variety of topics. The ability to be interested, to place myself into the essence of things, is root and fruit of an expanding intellect.
- Look for people who ask questions, especially questions that provoke you. The intellect must be able to focus on both ‘objects’ of study and on ‘positive absences’ (things noticeable for not being there).
- Look for people who enjoy and make time for conversation and who are capable of being influenced by those conversations. (Hint: a book can be read as a conversation with the author – notice whether you tend to ‘talk back’ as you read.)
- Look for people who respond to what they learn – write about it, talk about it, change behaviors, improve practices, dive in to learn more, create derivative works. The intellect must be a two-way street, or it’ll become a dead end.
I’m not exactly sure why you, or anyone, is hunting up NIs, but I hope these tips help you find a few. Meanwhile, if you’re wishing (for whatever reasons) there were more of ‘em, perhaps that’s your call to become one, or raise one, or both.