The duty of intellectuals


One of the most celebrated debates/dialogues of modern times took place at our university in the Auditorium in 1972, where Noam Chomsky and Michele Foucault spoke about ‘human nature’. Now, 51 years later, I want to use two of their ideas, because I think they are highly needed. From Chomsky I’ll take ‘the responsibility of the intellectuals’, and of Foucault the concept of ‘episteme’.

Chomsky, one of the participants in that famous debate of 1972, writes that because intellectuals enjoy a privileged position where they have the freedom and resources to seek ‘truth’, they also have the responsibility of using this position to expose the lies from governments and institutions and unveil the truth from ideology and class interest.

And by episteme we understand that which comprises the set of subconscious ideas which for a historical a-priori, exist during a ‘scientific era’.

We are currently facing the existential contradiction of ‘infinite economic-growth’ and ‘climate stability’, which are fundamentally incompatible, as they violate physical principles like conservation of mass and energy. We cannot continue to push the myth of infinite economic growth in a finite-resource-based system, like what our earth is.

Our university is not shielded to this absurd myth, as it is embedded in the globalized culture. An example of its presence is when the president of the Executive Board of our university says at the opening of the academic year 2022-2023 that “we need to increase the production of talent for the Brainport region.” As if students are mere tools for the infinite growth machine.

We must dare to question the unquestionable, to challenge authority when they push ideas which are absurd. We must overcome the current episteme, because the current one which assumes that infinite growth is possible, is incompatible with justice and sustainability.

This path is not trivial nor soft, it will entail struggle with authorities, as it has been seen at our campus when a year ago ‘student colleagues’ were brutally treated as criminals when protesting against the fossil fuel ties of the university. 

We’ve already seen the impact of organized, peaceful protest, as the Executive Board issued an apology in the meeting with the University Council as a ‘first step’. Followed by opening the dialogue during the December climate-inspired occupation. These are steps in the right direction, but we ought to increase the science-based action. We must dare to answer the question of how can we have a truly sustainable future, when the whole system - including the educational system - is based on depredation of nature and accumulation of wealth of a few? This path will not be easy, but it ought to be done, it is our duty as Chomsky once said.

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