Search Results

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Error of Anti-intellectualism

{In the interest of keeping a rate of content happening, you can expect some of these longer, unfocused articles for awhile - I'm attempting to get a product out in time for the Christmas rush, and that's occupying most of my attention. Editing and proofreading is taking a back-seat. Ironically, this means that any comments you make on these articles may actually be integrated into the articles as ideas (with references, of course) before they are finalized. Enjoy the roughs.}

I would like to say that the 2008 campaign marked the death-throes of the American anti-intellectual movement... but I don't really believe it. The problem is partly that for all that University-goers feel that the hatred leveled their way is unjustified, the reasons for that hatred are not entirely without merit. The argument gets a little confounded, however, because the people who hate intellectuals also happen to lack the educational grounding necessary to understand the reason they hate who they hate, and the people they hate aren't actually the people they should be hating, because the people they should be hating don't exist.

The example I feel like exploring today is family values. There's been this tug-of-war going on between intellectuals and "family values" for years, and neither group is making much progress because the arguments used by both sides are irrelevant to the issue at hand. The right says "You hate families!" the left says "you're a liar!" and both groups are technically in the wrong. The right isn't lying, they're just mistaken. The left doesn't hate family values... far from it! The left longs for family values in a powerful, visceral way. We all do.

The only way to really understand what I mean is to go through university yourself. In your first year, you are torn (if you're part of the majority) out of a relatively comfortable home, one that probably has functional heating and cooling, a stove, and a bedroom that isn't doubling as the living room, kitchen and dining rooms. You are torn out of a family which, even if they fight a lot, at least understand each other and have grown accustomed to living with one another. You tell yourself that this is what you want, that "getting away from X" is the order of the day.

Then one day, you wake up and realize that you're living in a forced triple with two other men, both of who work out more regularly than they do laundry. Your life is mostly confined to a two-foot-square plot of land (where your desk chair is) and a repugnant cot you never take the sheet off lest you discover exactly how many generations of students bled, fucked and pissed in their sleep on that mattress before you came to town. You're never alone, the people around you are still acquaintances at best (though friendships form fast in that sort of arrangement... it's hard not to get to know people you live that close to), and you share a bathroom with twenty people, only some of whom flush.

You are surrounded by people, and totally alone.

The backlash reaction is interesting to watch. People start forming "family" groups among their peers, and I'd bet my left big toe that if you did a study of students who felt like they'd found "close friends" in college and graphed their academic performance against those who felt "alone," you'd notice a drastic correlation. Either way, however, by the time you graduate, you have become accustomed to separation from your family for extended periods of time. Siblings graduate and settle down thousands of miles away from each other and their parents. Everyone in a family might end up going to a totally different school in a totally different part of the world. They connect at holidays and chat sometimes over the phone. The family bond is still there, usually, and sometimes familial relationships even become more pleasant (it's harder to find things to fight about when you're distant and your daily activities can so easily be lied about). But they do not become more close. Distance increases.

The University system is the bane of traditional family values. But it has nothing to do with intent, and everything to do with an accident of design. It is simply the case that people going to University to obtain their education are consciously making a trade. The place where they grew up is being given up in favor of a brighter future, or in trade for knowledge they need to do whatever it is that they want to do. "Roots in the community" are great assets for a politician, but for an Engineer, teacher, Physicist or Economist your birthplace is about as relevant as your astrological orientation. Ever seen a "we hire only Cancers" sign? Didn't think so.

That exchange is more unpleasant than you can possibly imagine, and some students compensate by joining up with Fraternities or Sororities which give them a structure that college intrinsically lacks. Other students dedicate themselves obsessively to clubs or sports or other activities where they spend enough time around a specific group of people to form close bonds. Some students isolate themselves, and these usually wash out.

Students by and large have a few things in common. At any respectably ranked University, the majority of the students are all living in generally slum-like conditions for four (or more) years, racking up enormous debt and slaving away 60+ hours per week for zero pay. Meanwhile, they are constantly tested, criticized, bullied (not all professors are good professors, and not all students are friends), robbed (meal plans are essentially high-class pickpocketing and monopoly profiteering in one go), and generally treated like human chattel, the theory being that this kind of abuse builds character. In reality I'm fairly sure it's one of those "well, I put up with this when I was your age, so bend over and pick up that soap" things, but what do I know.

My point is that anti-intellectualism is cruel. These kids are not (mostly) sitting around in delux, furnished studio apartments with catered bars and slaves to do their bidding. They're sitting around in student tenement housing, crouched over a bunch of paper-work trying to draw Ven diagrams around the pot they're using to catch the water dripping through the ceiling. At night, the squirrels fight with raccoons in their ceilings, and if you can hear yourself over the heater's clogged fan, you're probably about to lose your voice.

I lived like that my last year, and let me tell you... I will take that over a dorm any day, any time. Besides... we got what we paid for and the roommates were amazing.

When people finish undergrad and move on to graduate school, they discover that their circumstances have not improved in any meaningful way. They may be receiving a stipend, but an annual stipend tends a) to have tuition taken out of it and go into the negatives (you still have to pay taxes on it) or b) be equivalent to waaaaaaaay under minimum wage. Living conditions tend to improve slightly (after all, you may be earning zero, but at least you're not earning negative forty thousand), and if you're working a side job you might even be able to split an apartment with only one roommate and still have a roof.

When someone graduates from these circumstances and goes on to get a job, they expect two things. First, they expect that the last however-many years made them a better person than they would have been had they opted to not undergo that particular brand of torture, and second, they expect to be paid more than someone who opted not to undergo that particular brand of torture, mostly so that they can pay off the several hundred thousand dollars of debt hanging over their heads. Incidentally, barring engineering and computing students, graduates generally end up making pretty shitty salaries for quite a few years after graduation. It makes you wonder why we do it.

Why do we do it?

Well, the answer to that is complicated. We do it to learn stuff. We do it to better ourselves and our understanding of the world around us. We do it because our minds do not fare well without a challenge. We do it because we're smart. We do it because we like to associate with certain kinds of people and college is a great place to meet them. Some few do it for the money, but much fewer than you probably think.

Many of us do it because our parents did it and believe it made them better people, stronger people, and smarter people. So they want us to do it to. Now that I've done it, I honestly do think it made me better, stronger and smarter myself.

I'm broke, mind you, and pretty soon I'm going to be broker as the student loans start coming due, but I had a free ride, so those mostly covered living expenses and are consequently manageable. But I honestly believe that my life is better, more manageable and more enjoyable for having done it. The people I call friend are better people, stronger people, and smarter people for having done it. The things I read are more complicated and the rewards they offer deeper. The intellectual resources I have to draw upon are vast, and most of them are even legal. I speak two foreign languages, one poorly, one terribly, but enough to find the bathroom, order coffee and ask where the nearest police-box is.

But still, you sometimes run into people who see the pride of having made it and think they're seeing arrogance. These people make me slightly ill. They remind me of the people who roamed the hallways in middle school beating up anything that looked like it might not have failed the last math test.

Intelligence has always been a liability. It is not human nature to easily comprehend that someone might literally be smarter than you.

I can personally list at least four people I know personally who I know are smarter than me, and I found this out through observation and conversation. Tiro is one of them, incidentally. My sister is another.

The ability to identify minds that are superior to your own (in one way or another) is an important skill and one you can only obtain by pushing the limits of your own abilities and keeping an eye out for those whose limits are farther out. If you've never found the outer limit of your capability, you will find that admitting to yourself that someone you know is smarter than you is hard. It is really, really hard. You will always find yourself thinking "if ____ I'd be ____ too," and it might even be true. But ____ didn't happen and you aren't ____ so you'll never know.

Actually, that might be the purpose of colleges and universities, really, when you get down to it. Pushing your limits and seeing how far you can go. If you find those limits, even if you're disappointed with what they are, then you have gotten out of higher education exactly what you needed to.

You may not like your place, but you learned it.

No comments: