Melvyn Bragg on the rise of the ‘mass intelligentsia’

Last weekend I had a piece in the FT on the rise of philosophy clubs, which included some great quotes from Melvyn Bragg, one of the leading arts commentators in the UK. I thought readers might like to read the whole interview with him, so here it is!

JE: In your TV show on class and culture, you used this great phrase ‘the mass intelligentsia’. What do you mean by that phrase?

MB: There’s now evidence that over the last 30/40 years, a very substantial minority is prepared to put time and effort into subjects that used to be the preserve of a very small minority. That highly educated minority has grown enormously.

JE: Why?

MB: Three main reasons: the expansion of education, the rise of intellectual leisure activities among the elderly, and mass broadcasting, particularly via the internet.

Firstly, the huge expansion of people going to university. Saul Bellow once said he only wrote for people who went to university, but in the US that’s 30 million people. In the UK, back in 1960, only 5% of people went to university. Now it’s 40%. So it’s something like a 900% increase. It’s colossal. That’s the foundation. It’s one of the reasons the UK is so good at theatre – because we have brilliant theatre schools. So we now have an enormous number of well-trained minds. There are huge sections of the population willing and able to take on ideas. It’s a massive shift.

Secondly, the trend of using your leisure for intellectual activities has gained traction and purpose. It started with older people, who, upon retiring, decided that rather than sweltering on some beach in Spain, they’d rather go to a book festival, or do a course at the University of the Third Age. It started with the elderly and then spread to other age groups and became cross-generational.

Take the growth of book festivals for example. There are now over 300 literary festivals in the UK. When I went to the Edinburgh book festival in the 1960s, around 4,000 people turned up. Now, it’s more like 250,000. People come from all over the world. You also have Cheltenham, Hay, and many smaller festivals which still attract good crowds. We started a festival in Keswick 12 years ago. Initially it attracted perhaps 2,000 people. Now it’s more like 40,000.

And now you’ve quite rightly identified this new phenomenon of ideas clubs and philosophy clubs, which reminds me of the great literary-philosophical societies of the 19th century. People come because they’re interested in ideas, and also to meet other people. It’s a form of community, like going to church. It becomes part of people’s social life.

Then, finally, the third reason for the rise of the mass intelligentsia is the internet and mass broadcasting. I’d like to identify in particular the strange case of Radio 4. I became presenter of Start the Week 21 years ago. Back then, there would be 9 people on it, mainly from the theatre. We completely changed it. We bought in lots of scientists and historians. And the audience went up and up. Then, in 1998, we launched In Our Time, with the aim of providing a platform for public intellectuals at an accessible time. Including scientists in particular – 37% of the contributors were scientists. We were given the Thursday morning slot, called the death slot. And the audience went from 500,000 to 2.5 million. The programmes also went onto a website archive, and have since been downloaded over 20 million times. And I hear from many ideas clubs around the country who use it as a resource for their discussions. The Open University has also used new technology like the internet to reach a bigger audience. It’s one of the great world successes – the leading open university in the world.

So something is going on – I think it’s the rise of a mass intelligentsia. But the government is completely unaware of it. It has no grasp that this is going on, and that it’s not accidental, but built on the expansion of higher education. Our country’s two great success stories are our world class universities and one of the greatest creative economies in the world. And the government is not helping them grow.

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  • Sean Walker says:

    Thanks for this article. I have often been amazed at the subjects discussed on his show and how he ever got it on the radio. Now I know and more power to him for it.

    Your book has started me looking at the aspects of ‘positive philosophy’ for a future society and also the balance in a modern society between libertarian ideals and paternalism. Thanks!

  • Me Too says:

    I don’t wish to be unkind but this article is mostly hyperbole, and the information it provides is merely circumstantial and cannot be said to support Mr Bragg’s premise. The universities point especially is redundant. While university is a normal, mainstream part of everyone’s life now, the reasons for that are not strictly ‘intellectual’, as the modern university provides professional and vocational training and, in the case of undergraduates, stops short of producing experts and ‘intellectuals’. The modern university environment produces ‘finished people’ capable of dealing with the complexities and demands of modern life at undergraduate level, and experts at various postgraduate levels. It is a different model from the author’s, in which one is simply chosen by the gods to go to Oxbridge (although these days Oxbridge demands excellent A-levels, it was not always so), where one takes a bachelor’s degree and is a ‘made man’ and a certified ‘intellectual’ for the rest of his life. No, that model is very much redundant. The universities including Oxbridge all provide advanced degrees now for those wishing to take part in intellectual life.

    What’s more, the idea of the ‘well-trained mind’ is itself antiquated. Universities are mostly exam- and results-oriented now. It’s not about the rather romantic idea of a weekly chinwag with the wizened old don. I think it’s long overdue that we rethink just how meritorious the idea of Plato’s academy really is. Why do these outmoded ideas persist? The bedrock of our society is a functioning system, and successful institutions must all adapt to that rather than adhere to silly and obsolete ideals. For the most part, British universities are highly adaptable and have responded well to the needs of industry and other organisations to produce efficient people. That’s the greater part of their actual function Mr Bragg. Intellectualism is an old-fashioned idea and it survives, but in reality is a rapidly diminishing luxury of the developed world, even at universities.

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