Anti-intellectualism (or, I think you’re really smart)

While I was in school, and especially in the period of getting-my-sea-legs post-college, I waffled around quite a bit in how I thought about study, theory, intellectualism. Over the course of my time at an elite/ist university–one of the most expensive/exclusive in the country, one that has gotten even less accessible to anyone outside the white upper class in the time since I  left–I got pretty clear on the fact that most of the educational institutions we have are, by design, not sites of critical learning, and not places that most people in the U.S. have meaningful access to. (When I say meaningful, I mean that most people are explicitly or implicitly excluded because of some combination of factors like cost; discrimination; failure to account for diverse learning styles; alienation from subject matter and education style; bureaucracy; oppression and violence within educational settings; and people’s basic needs going unmet, making schooling a low priority.) There’s a much longer, more complicated conversation about the academy to be had, but that’s for another time.

When I left college I felt pretty done with academic study that is detached from on-the-ground work. I was also spending more and more time in organizing spaces where most folks in the room had been really alienated or shut out by school, and I was trying to figure out how to transition from campus organizing to other kinds of organizing without the post-college arrogance that many of us bring with us. Recently I’ve been realizing that a lot of my good intentions actually ended up, mistakenly, playing out as anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism has plagued Left/social justice organizing in the U.S. for a long time. In fact, the Right has worked hard to plant and grow anti-intellectualism as part of the fabric of U.S. culture to try to defeat peoples’ natural hunger to understand their circumstances. What the Right remembers, and the Left often forgets, is that everyone is capable of learning, studying, creating, and responding intelligently to the world we live in, and that movements need to be in a serious habit of doing all of these things to be effective.

I’ve noticed that when I’ve perpetuated anti-intellectualism the most is when I get unclear about the difference between intellectualism and elitism/classism. I think of intellectualism as a commitment to carefully study our surroundings and our histories, to not be satisfied with shallow answers to complex questions, to push ourselves and each other to make moves that are based in our intelligence (emotional, intellectual, embodied, and spiritual) and not our knee-jerk responses. Elitism/classism, though, looks like validating only certain forms of study and knowledge (mainly institutional education); throwing around language that is alienating to many people without being able to discuss the ideas beneath the jargon; and calling people “experts” when they have no lived experience with something but have been validated for their academic work in it. There are intellectuals in every society and in every social position. But in the U.S., elites/people with class privilege and formal education tend to be white, and middle- and upper-class. In my slow process of unlearning elitism and classism, I think I’ve sometimes stumbled into anti-intellectualism.

We are in a generations-long struggle to end a dehumanizing system, and we are combating a very serious alignment of forces. Willie Baptist, a long-time leader in national anti-poverty movements, has been known to say that David can beat Goliath but “never in history has a dumb force defeated a smart force.” More than once, facilitators in the Anne Braden Program have asked: “Who does anti-intellectualism benefit?” When we do not rigorously and reverently study history; when we do not take the time to assess the place and moment we are working in; when we avoid digging deep into a question about strategy or next steps, because we want to avoid conflict: in all of these moments, we end up serving the status quo, because we aren’t using our own power and creativity to insert ourselves into history with the intention of changing it.

For example, a number of times I’ve been in a meeting where there’s a key concept that would help make sense of a conversation or a decision. Maybe, for instance, we’re talking about social services, race, and the economy, and being able to use the concept of “neoliberalism” would make everything a lot clearer. In situations like this, I’ve seen myself or others either carelessly use the word neoliberalism in a way that alienates others who don’t know what that word means, or avoid bringing up the concept altogether because I want to speak in a way that’s accessible to everyone. The first option strikes me as elitism/classism, like a subtle way of flaunting knowledge without sharing it. The second option seems like paternalism: simplifying/dumbing down a complicated reality because we assume that other people cannot understand it. The thing is, in both of these situations, there’s a moment when a group of people could together deepen their understanding of a complicated idea, but that opportunity often gets missed, and that knowledge is never dispersed beyond those who already have it. What if, instead, we believed that it is a responsibility for all of us to redistribute whatever knowledge we have, to throw it into the center of the room so that together we can make sense of whatever we’re facing? We all have some combination of book learning, knowledge from our mentors, expertise from our experiences of oppression, survival, and resistance, and grounding in the teachings that come from our ancestors and traditions, and we can’t afford not to bring it all along with us into the work we do.

Study is not a luxury. It’s a myth that we can’t take time to strategize or dream or sort through political disagreements because there is too much real work to do for us to. Really, the times we are in are so serious that we can’t afford not to be smart. Throughout history and around the world people have taken the intellectual work of their struggles much more seriously than many of us in the U.S. are right now, and so we need to shake any illusions we have that it’s a first-world privilege to learn. That said, classism/elitism will keep surfacing. We need to move carefully, be rigorous with each other in a way that comes from love and not perfectionism or ego, work through the harm we’ve experienced in other learning environments, and study in ways that are humanizing instead of competitive.

what do you think?


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