That venerable American Thomas Jefferson was an intellectual. That means he liked to think, and to ponder the thoughts of other people, both alive and dead. Now I’m going to skip way ahead to Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s Vice President who called reporters a bunch of effete intellectuals. But here’s the irony — in today’s world, about forty years later, his use of the word “effete” would seem too intellectual to many Americans.
American anti-intellectualism has gone downhill. It used to be a disdain for Frenchie men with their noses in the air and English fops with tights on. It used to respect the common man and his raccoon skin cap and corn cob pipe, sitting around discussing the common wisdom of things like dogs and marriage. My dad spouted some of that wisdom: “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas” — that’s one of my favorites. It’s true, depending on the dog, of course. Mark Twain was a great one for putting down European elitist bullshit and promoting down home smarts.
But Daniel Boone, Mark Twain, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) even Spiro Agnew would be too intellectual in today’s anti-intellectual parade of proud dumb-asses, who would be pissed off at someone using a word like “effete.”
As a teacher, I see anti-intellectualism at work in students who think reading a book or knowing history is a waste of time that could be better spent collecting “friends” on Myspace. Okay, they’ve been raised on television. They’ve been coddled by advertisers who do not benefit from anyone being intellectual. Advertisers rely on dumb asses who like shiny objects. If people were to think, to study history and culture, my God!!! – they might realize they don’t need a new car every five years or that drinking three Cokes a day just isn’t, you know, healthy. And then where would the economy be?
Worse than students not wanting to think is fellow teachers and educational administrators who are hostile, and arrogantly so, against intellectualism. The very word sounds like something elite and nasty. I have been in meetings — which are a condensed version of the dumb ass parade — in which the term “ivory tower” is used smugly. It’s a sad little cliche to indicate the privilege and idiocy of college professors who study useless stuff and impose their findings on the rest of the world that is just trying to figure out how to record their favorite reality show on tv and pay for a tank of gas. Yes, many of my fellow college teachers are clowns with vocabulary and attitude, and they do give intellectualism a bad name. They say “utilize” when they could say “use.” But is this any reason to celebrate a lack of knowledge? Is this any reason to consider ignorance a good thing?
I tell my students this: Ignorance is not good. Knowing stuff is good. Read. Think. Don’t let the idiot voices of high school, the ones that put all their mental energy into trying to make smart kids feel like losers, continue to keep you from being as human as possible. And those students in my classes who despise the idea that humans are related to apes — well, I say, the best way to assure that you are different from an ape is to read and think. Apes do not identify themselves as intellectuals. We’ll discuss the dumb ass disdain for Darwin another time.