My new book, How to Become an Intellectual, is meant as a tongue-in-cheek exploration of the intellectual lifestyle. Comedy aside, it also makes a serious effort to refute the cliché of the intellectual as someone who spends their every waking moment writing obfuscatory articles for obscure journals and calling detractors inflammatory names.
Indeed, the book lists 100 broad maxims that define the well-rounded thinker -- including a desire to read nearly everything (Maxim 6); a willingness to embrace a few choice eccentricities (Maxim 3); and never succumbing to the temptation to employ Latin in casual conversation (Maxim 80). The true intellectual should also aspire to hate at least one classic author (Maxim 19), if only to perk up otherwise-dull dinner conversations.
Each maxim includes three parts: an introduction, a theory-into-practice section, and an "inevitable footnote." The following excerpt deals with taking pride in one's formal education, no matter what the circumstances:
Maxim 2: Embrace Your Alma Mater, Even If It's Not Harvard
A party attended by intellectuals sometimes descends into the verbal equivalent of a thermonuclear war, one in which the combatants seem determined to transform their rivals into stammering, apologetic poseurs before the hors d'oeuvres are even served. One of the most destructive ICBMs fired during these conflicts is the announcement of one's academic pedigree: where you went to school, what subjects you focused on, which degrees you obtained, and which famous people you studied under.
"Well, when I was at Harvard," one scholar might opine, hungering to target that missile straight into his opponent's command-and-control center, "I studied with [insert Nobel Prize winner here], while he was at the absolute height of his powers."
"Well, when I was at Oxford," someone else will retort, and the war will escalate from there. The irony is that formal academics aren't the sole (or even the most important) measure of intellectual capacity. Many of history's finest thinkers never attended a prestigious institution, or promptly dropped out to do something else. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg both left Harvard without obtaining a degree, and they're no idiots.
Theory Into Practice
As with so many other things in life, a formal education is only worth the amount of effort you put into it. True, a fancy degree can provide the root of a fulfilling, absurdly well-paid career. But Ivy League graduates also serve as some of this nation's finest baristas. The urge to learn and the discipline to become a true autodidact are what constitute the basis of the intellectual mind.
The next time a missile stamped "Well, when I was in the doctorate program at Yale" hurtles toward you, refuse to launch back -- especially if you have the credentials to do so. Instead, smile and nod and ask a question about their field of study. Tell yourself that you can learn something new from such a fine mental specimen. And smile. You just won the war.
The Inevitable Footnote
For very specialized professions, degrees do matter. Let's keep our "nuclear war" metaphor running here, and posit that, in the course of your daily activities, you just happen to stumble across a real thermonuclear weapon. If someone steps forward and says, "I can handle this; I have the most advanced degrees in nuclear engineering from MIT and trained in defusing weapons of mass destruction during my stint in the U.S. Air Force," then you step aside and let them debate over whether to cut the blue or red wire. In certain cases, especially in those that involve a chance of death, often the best fallback is to acknowledge a superior brain--and exit the immediate area as quickly as possible.
Nick Kolakowski is an editor and freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He has written for The Washington Post, McSweeney's, Playboy, eWeek, Carrier Pigeon, and Trader Monthly.