Timberlake: Are you an intellectual?


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Opinion: Timberlake 10/5

Ian Timberlake

“That men do not learn very much from the lessons of history is the most important of all the lessons of history.”

That is one of my favorite quotes of all time. Truer words than these by Aldous Huxley are rarely uttered. In his book “Brave New World Revisited,” Huxley also wrote, “Unlike the masses, intellectuals have a taste for rationality and an interest in facts.” The accuracy of this statement about a lack of intellectualism in the masses makes the first quote remain true.

What I do not understand is why the word “intellectual” even exists. Using that concept creates two distinct groups: intellectuals and the people who oppose to them. Normally, the opposition is characterized by standing upright and proud in their ignorance, not by valuing rationality and facts.

Using the word “intellectual” to describe people lumps them into identities rather than considering them in terms of how they act and argue. It could stem from everyone’s desire to follow the crowd, to enact “populism.” To those within the populace, a fish that swims upstream can come off as elitist and/or arrogant.

To call someone an “intellectual” is ultimately to reduce yourself — to belittle your own capacity to rationalize and learn. Intellectualism is valuing rational thinking and reason in everyday life, provided you don’t already believe yourself to be an intellectual. It does not mean to actually be intelligent, though, most whom are, are in fact what you might call “intellectual.”

Chided by a friend on Facebook in a comment about some of the articles I write, I was told I needed to, “…spend less time trying to be a high intellectual…” if I wanted to be taken seriously. This led me to thinking about how peculiar such a statement was. Isaac Asimov once said, “Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’”

Intellectualism has colloquially lost its value, and it seems this isn’t a recent occurrence — or maybe, rather, was never valued to begin with. Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth were founded, in part, to combat anti-intellectualism by people such as Puritan John Cotton who wrote a book in 1642 denouncing the “intellectual.”

Every human being on Earth should strive to be an intellectual. All it takes is the value of thinking for yourself, critically, and having a desire to learn. It also requires the ability to converse within the taboo. Breaking the taboo is a must. Ignorance might be bliss, but knowledge is power, and it should be valued — especially here at a prominent university (or any university for that matter).

Albert Einstein wrote, “Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions which differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions.” “Equanimity” is synonymous with “mental calmness,” and with that, Einstein was voicing his opinion on the taboo as well as likening the majority to sheep.

To be an intellectual, you must be willing to doubt, doubt anything and everything. Run a respectable experiment yourself or accept only that which has gone under considerable objective scrutiny by other so-called “intellectuals.”

Einstein said, “No amount of experimentation could ever prove [my theory of general relativity] right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.” Feynman, the acclaimed successor to Einstein, said, “We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress, we must recognize the ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, none absolutely certain.”

You also must be willing to go against the crowd and in many cases fight the taboo. The quickest way to solve societal problems and overcome difficulties is to detach yourself from what you believe to be true and instead focus on logical education.

At a university such as Iowa State, we already have a high ratio of intellectuals in comparison to society. Being redundant, this is not to say that intellectuals must go through university, but that university seems to be the hub for intellectual thought. The act of being an intellectual is no more than maintaining the status quo of the success of humanity. To do anything less would be subverting the human species one profound thought at a time.

The idea of “intellectualism” needs to go away. It creates an unnecessary dichotomy within society: the “thinkers” and the “non-thinkers.” Or stereotypically, the “snobs” and the “normal.” It disenfranchises people’s ability to advance society and makes room for actual elitism.

People, regardless of level of education attained, should not only think of themselves as an intellectual but should actually be intellectuals. And the funny thing is that everyone has that capacity upon birth. They only lose it through many years of intellectual devaluing.