the central, unspoken facet of contemporary post-collegiate American culture: an anxious, troubled relationship to being and appearing intelligent. Our culture is written, for better and worse, by the college-educated striving class. Today’s media is still made up disproportionately of graduates of elite colleges, even after the digital revolution. That means it’s also made up of people who have spent their lives preoccupied by the need to be among the smart kids, even as anti-intellectualism and hatred for snobbery are endemic to American life. Meanwhile, the definition of cool as a kind of showy apathy prevents people from being straightforward in their desire to be smart and be seen as smart. This all leads to a mercurial attitude toward the trappings of an intellectual life. You are expected to be well read, but not to un-self-consciously represent yourself as a reader. You are meant to stay informed, but to display a casual, disdainful jokiness toward the news you absorb. You are meant to be an enthusiast, but not a scholar. You are meant to be smart, but never an intellectual. It’s a culture where you can apply manic analytic effort to any type of pop culture you prefer, but where professionalizing such research impulses by going to grad school is seen as pathetic. As is typical of 21st century life, we have a far clearer picture of how to be a loser than we do of how to be fulfilled and happy.To which I shake my head. Why all this angst? Are there really very many people who worry this much about how cool they seem? How many people are there, really, who would not read a book they wanted to read because it seems too snobby, or who would read it and then deny it? Could that actually be a major phenomenon in the 21st century?
As for me, my relationship to appearing intelligent is anything but troubled. After all, appearing intelligent is the only way I have ever gotten a date. Or a good job, or just about anything else. It is certainly true that anti-intellectualism has long been a big part of American life. But, you know, we have always had intellectuals. Somehow people from Thomas Jefferson to Neil deGrasse Tyson have manged to thrive despite the stigma of intellectual snobbery.
To all of this crap I offer this, from Albert Camus, a man not afraid to take unpopular, even dangerous stands:
An intellectual? Yes. And never deny it.