In a recent blog post, "Waging War on Higher Education," I wrote about the need to encourage students to think critically. The piece triggered a flurry of comments from Huffington Post readers. Most of the comments took on a populist, no-nonsense tone that I found all too familiar. Even so, I found some of the comments disconcerting. My discomfort stemmed not from the critical nature of the comments, but from their widespread disdain for critical thinking. Many of the commentators suggested that critical thinking was a kind of "pie in the sky" activity, a luxury we can no longer afford. In this sociocultural orientation to the world, thinking about fine points of philosophy, art or anthropology is often seen as a waste of time. In this narrative, if you go to college, which these days is a major investment of money, you do so to acquire the set of skills to get a good paying job -- end of story. Indeed, the root of my discomfort came from the fact that I've been hearing these anti-intellectual narratives my whole life.
Many people think that professors are members of the wealthy elite -- people who are disconnected from the economic and social trials of "real life." While it is certainly the case that some professors and other "intellectuals" come from privileged backgrounds, many of us grew up in more modest circumstances. I grew up in lower middle-class household in suburban Washington, D.C. My mother and father graduated from high school. Only a few of my maternal and paternal aunts and uncles had studied at a college. Most of my relatives worked -- and worked hard--in small family-centered businesses. At family gatherings they would encourage me to go to college to get a good job and find "the good life."
If you don't have what it takes to be a doctor or a lawyer, they would tell me, then study accounting -- it's a good profession. People always need accountants, they would advise again and again. In my family's view of the world, the world -- my world -- was filled with limitations. Accordingly, in life it was good to be pragmatic and make choices that would provide for your family. These pragmatic narratives compelled me to study political science with an eye toward law school. By my junior year in college, though, I knew that I wasn't cut out for law or medicine. When I announced to my parents, who only wanted the best for me, that I didn't want to be a lawyer or doctor, my mother cried. My father's unforgettable frown burned into my being.
"What are you going to do with yourself?" my father asked.
"He can always sell insurance like his cousin Ivan," my mother said reassuringly.
"I want to be writer."
"What!" My mother exclaimed. "There's no money in that. You're a dreamer," she said shaking her head. She turned to my father. "He could always work with you, I guess."
No one in my family could have ever imagined that I would spend seven years of my life in West Africa and learn to speak foreign languages, let alone become a professor who publishes essays and books. That narrative just didn't compute in my family. In my case, a perfect storm of circumstances -- the draft, the war in Vietnam, and the potential of a Peace Corps deferment -- propelled me to the Republic of Niger and eventually a life as scholar, a person who has spent a lot of time reading books, thinking about what's he's read, and then writing texts about those ideas.
"And they pay him for this," my mother would say in wonder. 'He could have done better in law or business."
Even after I had been teaching for several years, my parents did not understand what I did for a living. I felt -- falsely as it turned out -- that my career choice had profoundly disappointed them. Eventually they came to better understand what I did and read every one of my books, proudly showing them off to family and neighbors.
So what happened to steer me away from the narrow life path that the circumstances of my birth had shaped. For he, college had a profound impact on my life. I stumbled upon professors who took an interest in me. They became mentors who exposed me to the wonders of the world, who convinced me that my life was full of possibilities, and who told me that I had the potential to teach at a university.
You should at least try to follow your dreams, they advised. Maybe things will work out for you. Maybe they won't. But try to follow a different path. Who knows what you'll find?
There is a deep tradition of anti-intellectualism in American cultural and political life. It has a long history, spreading its messages into every nook and cranny of American social and political life. We are the "can-do" nation that values "common-sense" solutions to our problems. We are suspicious of "egg heads," dreamers and "pointy-headed" intellectuals who drive Volvos, like French food, and drink frothy cappuccinos. Such notions, of course, are gross fabrications that lead to a dangerous ignorance.
In the past, "can do" pragmatism was the fuel of America prosperity. But that pragmatism was reinforced with an abiding respect for knowledge and critical thinking. In the past we knew that it was hard to do anything in a place devoid of new ideas, a place where dreamers are discouraged from dreaming. That's why in the present it's important to combat the anti-intellectualism of the public sphere and support enlightened higher education, a space where mentors, to borrow from one of my readers, don't teach students what to think but show them how to think -- a skill that prepares them for a productive life in the world, a skill that moves all of us forward.