02/12/2014 09:52 am ET Updated Apr 14, 2014

On the Passing of a Black Intellectual

Stuart Hall died on February 10th, 2014. That will not mean anything to most of you, but many people around the world not only recognize his name but also know his work. He was a trailblazing sociologist and cultural studies scholar in England. He was also an important black thinker, which I emphasize here because he often explored the difference race makes in culture and politics. He wrote a number of essays that helped me, as a humanist, see the world differently.

Learning how to see the world differently is profoundly important to me as a black person. But everyday, I see people asking, should it be? More often, they flatly say it isn't.

Our president recently singled out art history as something less useful in the job market, and certainly, it is not a degree that transparently leads to many jobs. For many decades the humanities were perfectly acceptable as career preparation, because skills in critical thinking, analysis, and writing were considered important assets on the job market. Traditionally, philosophy majors have had fairly high salaries fifteen years after graduation, which should not be surprising. Creative, rigorous, analytical thinkers would clearly do well in the workforce.

But the market has shifted, and the path to economic prosperity through a college degree is more complicated (although still a necessity for many people). And what role does the humanities play? Moreover, black people are often asked what role the humanities plays in addressing the wide variety of social ills still impacting not only the U.S. black population, but people of African descent in many parts in the world. When I used to teach a theory and philosophy class, my students would often ask, what does this obscure/old/European influenced/hard essay have to do with anything? As Hall once framed the argument in a discussion of his own field, "against the urgency of people dying in the streets, what in God's name is the point?"

On the one hand, I can't help but pause over the fact that this question is being asked in the twenty-first century, a question that was asked in the days of Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois. When Anna Julia Cooper ran the M school in Washington D.C. in the early twentieth century, people thought her college prep curriculum was impractical. Certainly, the people concerned about the humanities today are not suggesting that all black people should be in trade or technical schools, but the ghost of the question is there--should black people even participate in certain kinds of education?

I will cede that many students (but not all, depending on their interests) would fare better on the job market if the humanities was a second degree or a minor, or just part of their general education. But when I see and hear outright historical inaccuracies I struggle to imagine a world where people aren't trained by rigorous historians--it is this bad now, how would it be without them? When I see arguments riddled with fallacies, I think people should have written more. When I see people failing to understand the complexity of discrimination, I wish I could have them in a Gender Studies or African American studies classes (which contain humanities and the social sciences). And some encounters just make me believe that if people had more experience with the sublime, they might treat each other differently (although books like The Reader suggest that a humanities education is not a cure against atrocity. But isn't that question worth exploring?)

Do we really want a world without people who put into words what you felt but could not name? Should we devalue those who can reframe our points of reference--historical, allegorical, cultural--and forever transform how we understand something in our day-to-day lives? Is it of no societal value to have that experience? Are only people marked with the now pejorative labels "academic" and "college professor" left believing that these things are valuable or that a humanities education should not end with high school?

Certainly, one can be an intellectual without being a professor. However, it does take time to read a lot of things, be aware of new scholarship, and produce work that a few people may find useful. I am but a tiny cog in the intellectual trenches, accepting the idea that my students learn, but living for the few moments when a class or idea really transformed them. I am indelibly moved by the rare moments when someone I don't know tells me that a piece of my writing was meaningful.

I often read blogs or article responses online that just accuse college campuses of leftist indoctrination (and I suspect that will be the case here), but I do want to lay out what I think should be a non-partisan question--what does it mean to eliminate the intellectual as a societal good?

And that particularly concerns me as a black person. As Stuart Hall once argued, "there is all the difference in the world between understanding the politics of intellectual work and substituting intellectual work for politics." Being an intellectual does not stand in place of marching in the streets and legislative transformation. But with black history month upon us again, I think it is important to remember black thinkers who battled valiantly against naturalized narratives of racism, and to honor lesser-known teachers and writers who opened their students' minds to worlds they had not imagined.

Which brings me to my favorite quote from Hall, whose work on popular culture is some of the most important scholarship in the field. In the essay "What is this 'black' in black popular culture?" he says that popular culture is not "the arena where we find out who we really are." Instead, it is "where we discover and play with the identifications of ourselves, where we are imagined, where we are represented, not only to the audiences out there who do not get the message, but to ourselves for the very first time."

In contrast, extraordinary intellectual work in the humanities can be a place where we find who we really are. It has also been, particularly for people of color, a place where we have been profoundly misrepresented. Such scholarship has caused some amazing thinkers to give us language to defend ourselves against abuses and articulate visions of better worlds. And then when we see ourselves for the very first time, have something that had previously been lost or opaque revealed, or gain language to describe something that gets to the core of who we are. . . well, that is the extraordinary gift proffered by the exceptional intellectual. Most of us cannot reach that level of generosity. But we continue to strive for that ideal. And isn't the world better for it?