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Why is intellectualism looked down upon?

Do you ever ask yourself questions like “Why?” and “What if?”

Do you enjoy reading and discovering diverse viewpoints, especially those to which you have not been exposed?

I do. Often. I love to explore options, delve into ideas, and pursue opportunities, if only in my mind.

What I discover when I do this is that there are perspectives and thoughts beyond those which I have previously known. These things stretch me. They enable me to better understand what others think and feel. They provide for me an opportunity to go beyond what I already know and hopefully better myself, my methods for doing things, and perhaps my world.

How many people are actually like this?

I’m not sure, but it seems to me that people who want to be aware of things outside of their personal circle of the known are quite rare. I wish that were not the case, but I’m convinced that it is. In other words, I am either wonderfully unique or exceptionally weird, depending on your personal perspective.

Most of the time we as a human species will listen to friends or radio talk shows, read newspapers and web sites, and watch television programs which reinforce the opinions we already have. Rarely will we endure, much less consider the opinions of “those others” with whom we disagree.

People who are willing to do so are scoffed as being “so open minded their brains leaked out” or as people who “think instead of act.” I disagree. I think people who are willing to listen to and truly consider viewpoints with which they may not agree are healthy. They certainly tend to make better decisions, decisions which benefit a wider set of people in more ways, and they usually show great deference and respect to others, which in and of itself is a rare gift.

What got me thinking about this today was a web page I stumbled across with an article by Steven Dutch from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in which he asks the question Why is there Anti-Intellectualism? and explores a possibile answer that I find both plausible and kind of sad. I hope you read it, it’s worth the time and effort, because he says things I haven’t heard elsewhere, at least not in the same way.

The bottom line is that we tend to default to an attitude of “if it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” coupled with an innate distrust of what we do not know or understand, with a bit of “I need an answer that I understand” mixed in. We are not good with ambiguity, with not knowing, and listening to or seeking out ideas we have never had before involves getting past that discomfort and learning to be comfortable with not completely understanding something while exploring the options.


  1. After I posted this, I got to thinking about how this idea reveals itself in communities of faith. I also thought about the idea of faith; believing in something you cannot see.

    It seems that a person who believes in God should be more secure and therefore willing to explore the unknown, rather than less, because they should know that what they believe will either be proven true or that they must have made a misstep somewhere that can be adjusted (making them better followers).

    I wonder why that isn’t what is most often seen and whether this says more about flawed people as followers than it says about their religious beliefs.

  2. You’re not alone. Reminds me of a favorite quote of mine:

    It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.
    – Aristotle

  3. Tarraguña

    No, you are not alone in your pursuit. Although it may not feel like it sometimes. there are other people out there learning new stuff. I know it seems as if everyone just wants to talk about their fantasy football league and drink every weekend but there are some out there who stay up late geeking out. I love expanding my horizons and trying to see the big picture only to then reach for an even bigger picture.

  4. nnonix

    Intellectualism is it’s greatest enemy. I believe it is because many Intellectuals are not really Intellectual. Let me explain.

    It’s one thing to think, study, reflect, speculate, or ask and answer questions about a wide variety of different ideas. It is another thing to do so without attacking people’s beliefs. To use religion as an example. It is not Intellectual to say “God does not exist” and anyone who says it, regardless of how smart they are (or think they are), is not an Intellectual. It is Intellectual to say something like “I don’t believe in God because I find science and evolution to be more probable”. You will find many hard-line atheists who do attack others beliefs (and think it’s their duty to do so) who are just SURE they are Intellectuals. They are not. Often they’ve just jumped from one side of the “ignorant fence” to the other.

    In short, Intellectualism suffers from posers. Those claiming to be (or who are believed to be) Intellectual but do not really fit the description.

  5. Lee

    It’s very simple really. Intelligence is bad, if not moderated (nay, motivated) by wisdom and compassion. People get that intuitively, therefore using intelligence otherwise rubs them the wrong way. Use it to relate to people, improve lives, and heal people’s pain, and they’ll love you for it, which is kind of what you’re talking about, but not clearly distinguishing.

  6. Derek


    This is a great little post, and so true.

    I feel similarly, and especially so in the case of personal development. It frustrates me the number of people that never get over insecurities or ineffective behaviours and attitudes they’ve learned in childhood and teenage years. There are so many middle-aged adolescents out there, and I believe a good deal of them are running the world, pushed forwards not by concern for the well being and advancement of humanity as a whole, but instead for their own ego, or need to satisfy some emptiness within them that they never bothered to really consider why it is there.

    You might be interested to check out, homepage of a project that looks at alternative societal models. There’s all kinds of wonderful inventions there that are based upon common sense approaches to technology and psychology, which supercede all personal motivations.

    I’ve just joined the linux community and I love this air of free thinking that surrounds it all!

  7. anonymous

    I am sorry to say this but this seems to be a question only a american will seriously ask.

  8. Ronald Devins

    Actually, there are reasons intellectualism is looked down on. It comes from intellectualism itself:
    (1) Intellectuals commonly take common sense like “We all have prejudices that colour how we see the world” and turn that into nonsense suck as “None can understand anyone and when we read books we have absolutely no idea what the author meant, so we can make our own meaning” (i.e. post modernism)
    (2) Intellectually often have passionate and divisive arguments over trivial irrelevances such as whether two squirrels running around a tree really run around the tree or run around each other.
    (3) Intellectuals often suffer from the problem Socrates noted, “Genius Technicians in one area think they are geniuses in all areas”.
    (4) Sophestry often springs from intellectualism. It’s possible to convince someone that white is black and sugar is sour if you know the right intellectual handwaving.
    (5) As “The Smart Talk Trap” ) points out that a company with a lot of “smart sounding MBAs” can convince themselves of anything.
    (6) As Mark Twain once noted, Intellectuals often produce an enormous amount of speculation (which they treat as fact) based on a minimal amount of fact.
    (7) Intellectualism tends towards abstraction, so you it hides the humanity. It’s easy to see a battlefield as a chess board and forget that there are real people down there dying. It’s easy to (as C.S. Lewis pointed out) see milk as an excretion, no different than urine, and not see what nature meant for nurishment and what nature meant for waste.
    (8) Intellectualism tends towards elitism, even in the best of people. Read Plato’s Republic and ask yourself if you would like to live in such a place governed by Philosopher Kings who obviously deserve to rule over the unwashed masses.

    Note, I am an intellectual myself and love knowledge (I devour hundreds of audio books and podcasts a year), so I’m not speaking as accuser, I’m speaking as someone that constantly needs to keep the above in check because intellectualism is both a blessing and a curse that constantly needs to be kept an eye on.

    If intellectuals as a whole, saw the curse in their blessings, then anti-intellectualism wouldn’t have a leg to stand on.

    Just my 2 cents.

  9. oliver

    Your post got me thinking about recent events at work where I was kind of accused of “resisting change”… I see myself as being quite curious, but over the years my curiosity and the use of unexplored ways has receded quite a bit. I think that’s mainly because besides expanding own knowledge (which I like to do) there are also the dull tasks that just need to be done and that are put at risk when being coupled with creative and unexplored ways.

    So to stay with Stevens article, while I think it was cool that the Phoenicians sailors got so far away, it was also necessary for some Phoenicians to stay at home and build reliable ships. And if the shipmakers had created every ship in a unique, creative way, who knows how many ships would have been lost at see due to ship design errors?

    Of course I also appreciate creative ship design, but that should be done with experimental ships that are then tested in known waters first. Meanwhile, the other “production ships” must still be built and repaired, and _someone_ has to do that dull job so that others can explore, no?

  10. Oliver, I think your overall point is valid.

    I do, however, see a bit of a false dichotomy in the idea that making sure that production of things that work well might eliminate the possibility of personal growth on the part of the builders. Couldn’t the builders continue their education and learning without being also forced to modify existing designs? I think so.

    I’m not advocating a push to always make things in new ways, merely suggesting that it is beneficial for us all to at least understand that other ways exist and what their benefits and costs may be.

    Great comments so far everyone! Thank you!

  11. I have never considered that species of people a rare species. But on the other hand, I’ve studied dead languages and medieval history before finally turning to the business and economics at the mature age of 38. 🙂

  12. David

    This is a beautiful discussion, so thought provoking. I think I’ll just play devil’s advocate and throw in this idea:

    Many of the above comments, and especially the main entry, seem to hail intellectualism, in its “true form,” as being something that requires open-mindedness and curiousity, without resorting to something of a polemic.

    At the same time, intellectualism must be put to use in the everyday world — and as such, why shouldn’t it be done in a variety of forms? For instance, let’s say someone releases an article in the NYT that advocates some kind of welfare reform. In order to advocate effectively (and to reach the public) it might have to derail the staus quo welfare legislation. The article should support its own case well, and might even bring up some good points regarding the status quo, but it should also attempt to refute it. Sometimes, especially in the political arena (where intellectual discussions often reach their critical, if slightly less sophisticated, level), ideas should become somewhat harsh, even if on the verge of a polemic. I just wouldn’t rule that out, because when push comes to shove, the point must be made.

    Granted, polemical arguments may not be considered intellectuality in its “purest form,” but this is the real world, and as long as the argument is thoughtful and does not promote gross generalizations, hatred, etc., I don’t see why it cannot fall under the umbrella of intellectualism.

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