Narrowing of 'allowed opinion' within public arena, conference told


ARTISTS, ACADEMICS and intellectuals are contributing ever less to the public sphere, despite rising education levels in the population, a conference on challenges facing public intellectuals has heard.

In recent years, there had been a narrowing of “allowed opinion” in the public sphere, Prof Declan Kiberd, chair of Anglo-Irish literature at UCD, told the symposium organised by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA).

He said it was paradoxical that journalists and politicians were now dominating public life, given that the country has never had more graduates or a better educated workforce.

Tom Garvin, professor emeritus of politics at UCD, said the views of Irish intellectuals had traditionally been despised, ignored and denigrated in times of tranquillity or prosperity. Anti-intellectualism had long historical roots and liberal intellectuals were valued only when the country became unstuck, as at present.

Ireland’s crisis was driven by greed, and a disregard for ordinary intelligence. Deeply anti-intellectual “foolishness” had got the country into the mess it was in.

Prof Garvin said the value of education had never been truly recognised in Ireland. He launched a scathing attack on the way modern universities are run. Knowledge as an end in itself was despised and the result was a loss of wisdom and the growth of “silliness”. There was, he said, a “commerce-driven” loss of respect for blue-skies thinking in the universities.

Researchers were required to specify what they would discover before money was made available to them, while debating societies were being eclipsed and their tradition would be lost within five years.

Prof Brian Lucey of TCD said he and other economists who had opposed Nama had saved the country “a couple of billion” but had failed ultimately to stop it going ahead. He said they had been failed by the political system, including the tendency of opposition politicians to put their sectoral interests first.

However, their failure to build a wider consensus against Nama might also have reflected an element of academic elitism, he said.

Prof Liam O’Dowd of Queen’s University Belfast said the co-ordinating rationale for contemporary Ireland was the market. The crisis, by displaying the limits of the market, had created a crisis for Irish public intellectuals. He claimed the ubiquity of the market principle and commodification of everything in life had been “naturalised” by Irish intellectuals.

Prof Francis Ruane, director of the ESRI, said there was an absence of a strong tradition of media engagement by academics in Ireland over the past 20 years.

She suggested the reasons for this included increasing specialisation in many academic fields and a national climate of complacency during the Celtic Tiger years.

However, intellectuals had also made effective interventions; she cited economist Morgan Kelly’s use of international data to query accepted thinking on a soft landing in the Irish property market.

Donncha O’Connell of NUI Galway criticised the “undoubted bias” of universities towards natural science and engineering when seeking funding, which only served to confirm the weakness of the humanities.

He said the colleges had bought into the concept of added value research and risked becoming the “RD wing” of the State.