The Incredible Shrinking Intellectual

The Libyan National Transitional Council flag flown from a communications tower in Bayda

What has happened to all the Thomas Paines — the revolutionary thinkers who provided intellectual substance and inspiration to every revolution in history beginning with our own in 1776?

They seem to be conspicuously missing in the recent Arabic uprisings, reports the New York Times.

To be sure, much of this absence may stem from factors unique to the Arab experience — as New York Times reporter Robert Worth observes, the intellectual’s perennial challenge of combating brutal repression and religious orthodoxy simultaneously.

Moreover, many Arab intellectuals, exiled for decades, have lost touch with the day-to-day struggles of their compatriots.

Then again we live in a post-ideological era.  There seems to be less demand than ever for “unifying doctrines or grandiose figures who provide them,” Worth conjectures, adding that the kinds of intellectuals in the forefront of the epic ’89 revolution s have been relegated to microblogging and street organizing in the present-day Arabic  struggles.

Yet, perhaps some bigger factor is at work — something I’ve discerned a time or two in my own work.

Could it be, as Worth observes, that “the ideological platforms of earlier revolutions are obsolete, given the speed of communications and the churn of new perspectives?”

Could it be that the late-20th century vanguard model is simply not generative enough?

One expert quoted in the article, Peter Harling of the International Crisis Group, thinks so.

He contends that the recycling of new perspectives in these revolutions simply have proven to be “too fluid, too fast-moving, too complex” for intellectual vanguards to supply an over-arching vision — a new paradigm.

I find the article fascinating because it strikes at the heart of something I’ve observed in my own work as a Cooperative Extension communications professional.

The revolutionaries of 1989 were struggling with bandwidth limitations.  There was a critical need for intellectuals such as Czech dissident Vaclav Havel to serve as information brokers, people who were not only equipped to provide an overarching rationale for their nation’s grievances but who also could serve as bridges between the discontented, isolated masses and the western media.

New media have essentially resolved the bandwidth problem.  Now more than ever rank-and-file revolutionaries are as much equipped to articulate their grievances as they are to demonstrate how these kaleidoscopic views are playing out within their ranks.

To put it another way, emerging media have empowered rank-and-file revolutionaries to learn, share and articulate on their own — without the acute need for the kinds of professionals who spearheaded earlier uprisings.

Is there a lesson here for Cooperative Extension?  Yes, in two notable respects: first, by demonstrating how new media have enabled ordinary people to leverage their own intellectual assets and, second, by confirming the awesome generative power of these new media.

Simply put, ordinary people no longer require the active intervention and participation of experts as they once did.

New media are enabling them to build their own learning and sharing platforms — platforms that have largely large superseded the need for experts, whether these happen to be revolutionary intellectuals or professional educators.

Yes, as I have steadfastly maintained, there is still a place for professional educators but only if we understand our new function within this drastically altered communications landscape.

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