If You’re an Intellectual, Act Like One
In seventh grade, my history teacher asked if anyone knew what the huge, fancy, painting-like carpets covering the walls of the Palace of Versailles were called. His question was met with silence and puzzled faces.
Eventually, I raised my hand and said: “Gobelin.” My teacher was thrilled. So was my neighbor. “Ooooh, go-be-liiiiin, Mr. I-know-everything.” The class erupted in laughter.
There’s something to be said here about shaming intellectuals and about a system in which being fun is cooler than being smart, but at 13 I was oblivious to both of those things — so I too erupted in laughter. If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, right?
This worked well for me all throughout high school and, to be fair, I had a mostly positive experience. I learned early on that being diplomatic and adapting to others bodes well for intellectuals, which, thankfully, spared me from getting shoved into any lockers.
Still, I always wondered why I got along so much better with older people, and why I often thought the most interesting conversation in the room was to be had with the teacher, not one of the students.
I thought all of this would change in college, and while it definitely improved and I absolutely found the limits of my intelligence just a few short weeks into the first semester, there still seemed to be an odd, anti-nerd kind of vibe in the air at times, which, if the only people around you all seem to be nerds already, feels kind of ridiculous.
Germany is a country of thinkers. Home to some of history’s greatest engineers, mathematicians, writers, and composers, many a Nobel prize laureate has emerged from our midst. In short, it’s a country of intellectuals.
You’d think in such a country a person would be praised for giving an answer to which half the room barely understands the question, but even at a prestigious engineering college, you’ll see the majority of eye pairs rolling when “the nerd shows off.”
Meanwhile, the nerd is only vaguely aware of what “showing off” means, and even if she is, what drove her to give the answer was her curiosity, not status. She wanted to progress the conversation not to look good but because she feels a nagging, never-ending desire to understand the world, and in her quest to finally quench that thirst, each answer is only a tiny step forward as it sets up the next question.
If intelligence is belittled at the very institutions meant to cultivate it, it is no wonder we now live in a world where the man holding the most powerful political office does not believe in science — and if the trend is any indication, 2020 will only be a small preview of how humanity might pay for creating this world in the first place.
Alas, about halfway through undergrad, I realized I was not only an intellectual but also a creative. Two years later, I started writing — the supreme discipline of intellectuals — and, to my surprise, found myself stuck on the smart-shaming merry-go-round once more.
The most common piece of writing advice is “keep it simple.” It is also the most overrated.
The advice is so pervasive that, even as someone who struggles with its validity, I’ve given it myself countless times. While it does make sense while transmitting information or trying to convey a focused lesson, simplicity is not the answer to everything. Often, using only 3,000 of the 171,000 words in the English language will be to the reader’s detriment rather than her benefit.
Tolkien could not have given us the vast, detail-rich universe that is Lord of the Rings with lines like “The hobbit sits on a chair.” The fact that Bilbo Baggins sits in an old, neatly upholstered, curvy armchair while smoking his pipe and taking notes with a quill made from a near-extinct bird’s feather tells us much about who Bilbo Baggins is — simplicity won’t always cut it.
“Bilbo is old. He collects stuff. Bilbo loves fancy things.” These lines somewhat capture what Bilbo’s chair and quill naturally convey to us, but they’re blunt and wholly uninspired. Yes, the armchair is only a symbol, but it’s part of the story, part of Bilbo’s story, and humans can understand this at an almost molecular level — no dry descriptions needed.
Similarly, when I say “Gobelin,” that word unlocks a whole number of memories, ideas, and experiences for anyone who also knows that word and what it stands for, and it does so in a way that “tapestry” never could.
Composers don’t want to write jingles. They want to write symphonies. But just like pop culture is now inundated with songs where the lyrics consist of 20 endlessly repeated words, “pop writing” has become centered around eighth grade reading skills, short sentences, and plenty of white space.
This isn’t to say there’s no place for catchy rhymes or concise, straightforward writing, but we’re now not just celebrating those things as the holy grail of creativity, we’re also bullying the people who don’t. The cool kids are, once again, making fun of everyone else — and it’s time to stop this nonsense, not just in the arts but everywhere.
The great irony of the intellectual is that without his contribution, the world would not have the means to persecute him at large.
Intellectuals discovered electricity. They learned how to channel it, how to make it accessible, and how to use it for many of life’s modern comforts. Intellectuals write the books and film the movies and sing the songs we enjoy with the excess time created by those comforts, and they also built the tools with which we now organize, communicate, and connect — often to mock the very people who created them. Intellectuals figure out humanity’s most pressing problems while the rest of the world continues to go about its day, and while very few of them receive the distinction they deserve, almost all of them face ridicule and isolation along the way.
Not every great breakthrough is made by an intellectual, nor will not being an intellectual diminish your human experience — but humiliating, ridiculing, and discriminating against intellectuals will definitely diminish theirs.
Intelligence is one of our most malleable traits. It is available to anyone who wants it and works hard enough to attain it, and even if there is some inborn propensity towards it, by and large, how educated we are is a result of the traits and behaviors we choose to acquire.
If you’re not an intellectual but would love to be one, study. Learn. The world is at your fingertips. Nothing and no one is stopping you, and there are millions of other avant-garde thinkers who can’t wait for you to join their ranks.
If you’re not an intellectual and don’t care to be, that’s wonderful. Not everyone needs to want to change the world, and you owe no explanation to anyone as to why you might want to just live and enjoy each day as it comes and goes.
Do recognize, however, that neither need your smart friends justify why they’ve chosen to pursue whatever lofty quest they’re on — it is their life to live and theirs alone, just like yours is yours. Don’t make fun of your smart friends.
Most importantly, if you are an intellectual, act like one. It is long past time we come out of hiding and stop tolerating the bullying. No more brain-shaming. No more joining the laughter.
When someone belittles your wits, call them out on it. When someone dumb-stamps your initiative, prove them wrong. And when duty calls for thought and reason to get the job done, step up and make a compelling case for it.
Most of all, never hide your intellect. Stop lurking in the shadows. Stop adding a filter for society’s convenience but at your happiness’ expense.
If you’re an intellectual, talk like an intellectual. Use words like “pedantic” and “uncorrelated” and “quintessential” for fun. Take the puzzled looks with a smirk, but never set off without explaining for those who truly want to understand.
If you’re an intellectual, write like an intellectual. Geek out over grammar and synonyms and style to your heart’s content. Write long paragraphs. Layer ideas subtly. Build a maze of metaphors and flowery prose. Make your reader spin and search and wonder in amazement — only to emerge enlightened at the end regardless.
If you’re an intellectual, do what your intellectual heart tells you to do. Read books, listen to classical, study on weekends, build an app, write poetry for fun. It might not add up immediately, and you’ll definitely need help along the way, but eventually, embracing your intellectualism just might change the world.