Friend, I urge you to ready your soothingest voice, because I think I will end up ranting. This has been a week for me to speak more vehemently than might be appropriate. I chewed out my book group yesterday, because they began what I thought was an insipid and self-congratulatory discussion about politics, full of "them" and "us" language. I should bite my tongue more, but one of the many things I like about my book group is that there are a lot of women who don't, so we are okay with vigorous disagreement. But usually I sit back and enjoy the vigorous disagreement while it crackles from other quarters, and this time I was the one calling someone out. It felt good while I was speaking, and then I felt like a bulldozer, and sat quietly, and then I apologized.
Anyway, today in the carpool I started ranting. So I figured it was a good time to settle in and admit my shameful secret: I am an anti-intellectual. I think this is probably bad for me, so I'm accepting suggestions for improvement. Today I invited a professor to lunch; I think I will begin a pretty vigorous campaign of professor-befriending, so I can overcome this prejudice I have. I think ill of professors as a group, and I am ready to have this mindset changed. But below the fold, all of my biases will be revealed. I recognize in myself the dangerous habit of gathering evidence that supports my view while neither looking for nor crediting evidence that refutes it.
Here is what I believe: Professors are mean. They are small-minded and petty, preoccupied with internal politics, fixated on elaborate rituals for categorizing and designating who's in and who's out. They are cruel and dismissive, first of their colleagues and aspiring peers, second of their students, and third of the whole rest of the world. They are smug. They believe that they are right about almost everything. They believe that the small area of their expertise is, in fact, the most interesting subject in the world. They are not good listeners. They are not curious about the subjects they don't know much about. They prefer and seek out situations in which they'll get props for being smart. They think intelligence can be gauged by credentials.
Hmmm. As I write this, I'm already losing steam a little bit. Maybe that's because I think this rant could apply pretty equally well to other heirarchical professions: big firm law partners come to mind. In both cases, there's a structure of incentives and measurements that creates this kind of culture and rewards a certain set of behaviors. To succeed, you've got to play and be good; pretty soon you end up with a lot of people willing and interested in playing a certain way.
I don't hate smart people -- in fact, I really like them. I look hard for them, and when I meet them I befriend them whenever I can. But I hate a couple of things. I hate smugness. And I hate exclusivity, snobbery, barriers. I don't hate specialists -- I think people who are endlessly, passionately curious about a small section of the world are quite wonderful, and I'm grateful that they're out there. But the ones I admire are the ones who invite me in, who have figured out how to make their area of passion more broadly understandable, who can translate and cross-reference what they do. I think a lot of experts only want to talk to other experts; they want to leave people out, to keep their work highly specialized, and I don't admire that at all. I admire the popularizers, and I hate that it's a pejorative term.
There's more. I admire cheerfulness. I admire friendliness. I admire practicality. I admire empathy. I admire collaboration and social purpose. I admire people who can use their bodies, who acknowledge the primacy or at least the strength of emotion and sensation in their lives. I learn mostly through stories, and I admire people who can use stories to convey information. All of this pulls against the image and culture of the intellectual.
Is there another word or another way to be a lifelong learner, a curious and engaged person, a contributer and a learner, a playful and disciplined mind? Can you be a friendly and encouraging intellectual? Am I only against academia, or am I against intellectuals? Have I created a straw man that doesn't really exist, a caricature of an intellectual that is only a figment of my imagination? And how can I fight this chip on my shoulder?