Goodman: Moving Intellectualism Forward

by Douglas Goodman | 3/1/15 7:24pm

Amidst the many proposals from the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” presidential steering committee on housing arrangements, choice of alcoholic beverage and fraternity parties, I was happy to finally see a heading — albeit far down the list — dealing with the College’s central mission of education. The report suggested increased rigor, deflated grades and early morning classes.

Many students have reacted with disgust to the implication that they are not working hard enough and the possibility that this is why extreme behaviors occur. The proposals reflect a one-sided view of intellectual engagement and a misunderstanding of how much students at the College already work. The report’s view of intellectualism was described in Richard Hofstadter’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, “Anti-intellectualism in American Life,” as one of the most powerful strains of anti-intellectualism. Hofstadter described this anti-intellectualism as unfailingly practical, oriented toward doing and concerned with schedules, measurement and evaluation. Rather than anti-intellectualism, we can call this the intellectual as workaholic.

Opposed to this workaholic orientation is an alternative view that sees intellectual engagement emerging from the unrestricted play of curiosity, fed by late-night bull sessions. They produce a mind that ponders and imagines, does not shy from complexity and, most importantly, values time that is reserved for thinking and free from the demands of doing. This is the intellectualism that is the key to solving the problem of extreme behaviors.

Which view of intellectualism dominates our professors’ lives, I leave to the reader. Simply ask a professor when was their last free-ranging intellectual discussion — and if it was over hard alcohol. For our students, I have no doubt about the type of “intellectual” engagement that we are encouraging. These students entered kindergarten as standardized testing became the national mania. Their youth was dominated by a schedule of tutoring, practices, homework, “volunteer” occupations and whatever might help the child get into an Ivy League school. Never learning how to play or relax, they come to Dartmouth ready for the manufactured, alcohol-driven “play” of the college party. “Work hard, play hard,” is the motto — not the play of the child or the intellectual play of ideas, but the play of the workaholic. The greater the pressure to conform, the more they need the chemical release and even the oblivion of an alcoholic stupor.

College was not meant to be a boot camp for workaholics. It was founded upon the idea that the most powerful and significant transformations emerge from contemplation, freedom from pressing demands and the serendipity of unscheduled encounters. This kind of intellectualism doesn’t respond well to power, proscription and punishment. Might we try education instead?

Professors begged the committee to support classes that address the issues of extreme behavior. These classes can be more than a countervailing requirement against the temptations of intemperance. They can be the incubators of solutions.

In the class that I teach, for example, we analyze the social construction of a “play hard” culture. We look at hard drinking as a "central activity" that shapes our lives and fits well or ill with the central activities to which we once aspired. We study the "pharmacological fallacy" that attempts to prevent abuse by the prohibition of a class of chemicals.

My students use these concepts to analyze Dartmouth’s policy to predict problems, suggest improvements and generate innovations. In their papers, they offer novel ideas for transforming intellectual life, limiting the centrality of alcohol and disconnecting alcohol and sex. What is missing is an institutionally sanctioned way to put these ideas into action.

At the heart of our efforts should be a place where students are introduced to the history of these problems, where they are provided with concepts to give them new ways of understanding and where discussion and writing can produce innovations — in other words, a classroom. And this classroom must be connected to student-driven experiments addressing these problems. If we believe that the College can be the wellspring for entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s problems, then let us start here by putting education at the center of our current endeavors.

I call on College President Phil Hanlon to put education at the center of “Moving Dartmouth Forward,” to provide funding for classes that address these extreme behaviors and to establish institutional ways for student-driven proposals to be evaluated and implemented.

Douglas Goodman is a professorin the sociology department.