A New Democratic Intellect

By Cailean Gallacher

If the question for the student left is the radical renewal of further and higher education in Scotland, and what practical activity might bring this about, we could do worse than to look to the traditional educational ideology in Scotland. Start exploring Scottish educational or historical writing and you’ll soon find the paper trail attesting Scotland’s intellectualism. We are, apparently, a scholarly nation with a tradition of autonomous learning and intellectual application to work and life. Fostered by our comprehensive schools and a generalist tradition in universities, it is said to extend far beyond educational institutions, providing an egalitarian basis for critical understanding in society.

As with any national idealist myth, there is a dangerous tendency to suppose the ‘democratic intellect’ is already living in the nation; it suggests some determinism, some self-realisation, in the intellect of Scotland. We must not presuppose what we aim for, namely the democratic platform for our democratic pursuits, or else the existence already of the intellectual development we seek. This is implicit in Scottish radical writing: Henderson’s preface to his translation of Gramsci’s Prison Letters[1] compares the tradition of autodidactic working people in Scotland with that of Gramsci’s Sardinia, their erudition being a ready ingredient for making Scotland an intellectual democracy. More recently, Pat Kane claimed in his 1990 Glasgow University Rectorial Address that “Scottish education has always had a strong conception and practice of serving the community as a whole.”[2]

I admit the concept; what’s doubtful is its practice. We have in Scotland a tradition and concept that, while containing radical elements, just hangs aloft. The more the term is used, the vaguer it gets, and the concept gradually loses its meaning. It is a byword for Scotland’s intellectual ideal and is now used by activists, writers, academics and policy-makers.

Here, for instance, is an extract from the recent Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, which notes that “one particular strand of thought in Scotland has been the concept of the ‘democratic intellect’”. It continues:

A broader idea of the ‘democratic intellect’, suggesting that the pursuit of learning and scholarship is one in which society as a whole has an interest that should be reflected in the development of higher education, could be said to have taken root in Scotland.[3]

The definition is not very radical. Its focus is the obvious value to society of disseminated learning, and it fails to pronounce the real connection between a general comprehensive education and the democratic ideal. What is more important is in italics: the focus is on the ‘broader idea’, or ideal, that is said to exist in Scotland. Later the Review hints at an institutional realisation of the concept, of how universities might play certain roles to facilitate it – by elected Principles, student boards, outreach committees. But it gives no illustration of what it might mean for a democratic intellect to be developed by the universities, how it might be realised in practice.

I want to clarify these points with one way to think about the practical aspect of a concept or ideal like the ‘democratic intellect’. I consider there to be three aspects required for any use of a concept: the idea or ideal; its institutional embodiment; and its practical, active realisation. The first two aspects, the ideal and the institutional, are often as far as a concept ever gets. But whatever our ‘ideal’ conception of the democratic intellect (and I am not here investigating the concept), and however we might want to see it embodied or instituted (in colleges or universities, by way of quotas or elections or sovereignty of Senate etc.), I want to focus on the third aspect: what does it mean to bring it into practice?

Here is a suggestion of something along these lines, not from Scotland but from the South American educationalist Freire. He writes that in order to extend political decision making from experts to the public, a university should “place itself in the service of popular interests”.

This would imply, as well, in practice, a critical comprehension of how university arts and sciences ought to be related with the consciousness of the popular classes: that is, a critical comprehension of the interrelations of popular knowledge, common sense, and scientific cognition.[4]

In extending political participation (in the broadest sense) to people outwith educational institutions – along the lines of Henderson and, in some senses, Gramsci – and in highlighting the need to comprehend the importance of certain modes of teaching and understanding, he is dealing with the realisation of the ‘democratic intellect’.

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So lets return to the idea itself. The problems with the democratic intellect being invoked as an idea without any assessment of its practical realisation are on the one hand, a tendency to assume that elements of it are already realised; and on the other, an impotence in the concept itself. Even if the concept is one we all agree with, the convenience of the concept leads to a sort of uncritical complacency and, moreover, to inaction; there is no movement to make it practical, nor do we have any consensus on what our activity to make it practical would be like.

The agents of a new form of practical intellectual activity in Scotland will be new practical intellectuals. Gramsci speaks of new intellectualism: “The mode of being of the new intellectual [must] consist in… active participation in practical life”[5]. What I am suggesting is a specific kind of ‘new intellectual’ to whom it seems to fall to carry out this role: the contemporary Scottish student or graduate. This moment of student organisation and reflection following the activism of the past few years is the time for a new development, and a radical appropriation, of the democratic intellect.

In all of this we need to be aware of historical processes. To borrow another line from Gramsci: “It is worth noting that the elaboration of intellectual strata in concrete reality does not take place on the terrain of abstract democracy but in accordance with very concrete traditional historical processes.”[6] One process is marketisation in universities: reassignment of the values of courses and disciplines, while the government dithers over how to restructure universities, and how to ensure broad-based provision through the Scottish Funding Council. We might pay attention, too, to the major curriculum changes in Scottish schools, and the potential these offer for opening radical ways of thinking to a generation. Another context is the independence referendum, which provides a context or opportunity for developing a new kind of intellectual engagement in politics.

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The form this practical intellectual activity might take can be discussed, and many good things can be derived quite simply from the tradition of the ‘democratic intellect’, as well as from educationalists like Freire. We might start by developing a consciousness amongst ourselves, and promoting it in universities, as to how a general education relates to social understanding; why creativity in learning and its combination with extra-institutional activity has essential educational value; and how we might better use our education in order to develop ideals that can become practical.

We might also reappraise the resources of students, their power and role in a society the size of Scotland, and precedents of student activity impacting on the democratic or intellectual development of a nation. We might look at how higher education fits into the fabric of a democracy or socialist society in an ideal sense, and how we might make these ideals practical.

More immediately, we might look to how intellectual engagement can extend to the independence debate: both in how we can encourage political sentiment or engagement, sparking interest amongst those who are disillusioned, educating ways of becoming involved with the ideas or activity of a political moment, and developing ideals or ideas of how independence (or the status quo) might itself provide more opportunities for radical and intellectual involvement in a democracy.

One aim should be to draw up a manifesto – and elements of this have been done – on how to extend and reconstitute Scottish universities and colleges. The goal should not be narrowly constitutional, of winning democratic concessions, but in developing how to constitute an actively democratic institution. When we are making demands, we should not be led into thinking solely about how the institutions or written constitution should work. Any demand we make along these lines ought to have in mind how it is embodying an ideal, but also how the sort of activity or engagement will be realising the ideal, without any presupposition of activity apart from that which we are aware of.

It is perhaps no great revelation that in order to radically restructure universities and develop any form of radical democratic intellect, our activity must be much more practical and creative than that afforded to us by universities themselves, or by normal modes of operation as political activists. Rather than internal and reactive principles, we should develop our educational ideals with society in mind, helped by the radical reappropriation of a concept that, despite its problems, still has much to offer.

[1] Gramsci, A. Prison Letters, trans. Henderson, H.

[2] Kane, P. A New Generalism, A New Scotland, 20 Apr 1990

[3] Report of the Review of Higher Education Governance in Scotland, 16 Jan 2012

[4] Freire, P. Pedagogy of Hope, 1992, trans. Barr 1994 p.169

[5] Gramsci, A. Selections from the Prison Notebooks, (1971, London: Lawrence and Wishart) p.10

[6] ibid, p.11

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