On Intellectualism

by Ben Mathew | 11/13/96 6:00am

Several columnists have turned their attention to the issue of intellectualism on campus. Claims have been made that Dartmouth students lack an interest in ideas and issues beyond the realm of everyday life. To a certain extent these claims are justified.

When I first came to Dartmouth, I expected to find far more people who are enthusiastic about pursuing ideas and who love to get into discussions involving ideas.

One can certainly find such people here.

But the fact remains that a great majority of students go about their lives involved in few things beyond more mundane activities like courses, jobs, resumes, partying, and so forth. The fact remains that the great majority of conversations do not involve ideas, but anecdotes. They consist of relating events -- what one did last weekend, what happened at the gym yesterday and so forth.

And yet one is not right in condemning such an attitude outright. There are those who are blind disciples of, for want of a better phrase, the cult of intellectualism. They place intellectualism on a pedestal and pay continual homage to it, frequently congratulating themselves on being one of the select few chosen to be high priests at this holy shrine, reluctant leaders whose fate it is to lead the masses. They are as lost as the followers of any cult and for the same reasons -- an inability to appreciate all aspects of the human experience and a fanatic belief in the accuracy of their beliefs.

I credit Brian Dalton's Oct. 31 column for putting intellectualism in the proper perspective -- intellectualism as an endeavor to improve the quality of human experience, subordinate to the overall human experience and not an end in itself.

There are better ways of thinking about the world, and arriving at them by intellectual effort improves the quality of our lives. Newton creating a theory capturing physical phenomena, Paine contemplating human rights, Frank Lloyd Wright designing a building, these are all instances of intellectual endeavors.

The only reason we indulge in these activities is that we believe they ultimately make us happier by enabling us to perhaps capture the forces of nature for our purposes more efficiently, or design a better system of government or live in better physical surroundings. The raison d'etre of intellectualism is that it is believed to be useful in everyday life.

In everyday life people gain pleasure from narrating what they did last weekend, playing pong in a fraternity basement, getting a well-paid job, buying a Jaguar and maintaining a family. They also gain pleasure from working at a job they love, walking along the river on a starry night, listening to Mozart and discussing the existence of God over dinner. This is the stuff that life is made of and the only value of intellectualism is its ability to help us live it a little more happily.

This is not to say that intellectualism can be in and of itself interesting -- like playing soccer.

It often is.

Intellectualism can contribute to the enjoyment of life both directly, as an interesting activity like soccer, and indirectly, as a means of improving human conditions like investment banking. Either way, it is subordinate to the goal of improving everyday life.

Intellectuals who attach greater importance to intellectualism would do well to train the much advertised intellectual faculties at their disposal at intellectualism itself.

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