Monday, August 16, 2004

Championing the Intellectual

I stole the phrase above from my friend J., an old college homie who stayed at me and H.'s place this weekend while he attended a big sociologists' conference downtown. An ABD sociology Ph.D candidate at USC who grew up working class, J.'s an interesting and funny character. The term "championing the intelletual" came up when while we were politickin' late last night, talking about his life as an academic, the isolation of the left, and the right-wing origins of the term 'politically correct', among other topics.

I told J. I was thinking about going into an MFA program in creative writing. He started laughing hysterically, expressing shock and amusement that I would even consider graduate school. "You are the most anti-academic intellectual I know," he stated between laughs, reminding me how I always ranted about hating school when we were at Cal.

That had to be one of the best compliments I've ever gotten. Really.

I used to be a much more vitriolic anti-academic intellectual; I've always loved reading, writing and debating about politics and society but hated the snobbish conformity of the ivory tower. My introduction to community and labor organizing in the mid-1990's only strengthened my dislike for higher education--as it exists in the U.S., anyway--by exposing me to brilliant grassroots leaders, mostly poor people of color who may not have even graduated high school let alone college. Many of these folks blew my college-educated peers out of the water when it came to critical analyses of society; they weren't just parroting back social change theory they'd read about in some book, but had formed their analyses based on their own experiences as oppressed people.

And these folks weren't snobbish about their knowledge. I've always been disgusted by the elite attitudes of college-educated folks, especially people of color, who should know better. Years ago I went to dinner with a (highly educated) couple I know well, accompanied by a man I was dating who happened to lay tile for a living. I marveled at the utter condescension that the couple displayed towards my date--gossiping about friends from college and discussing politics in a name-dropping, exclusionary way. And these are folks that consider themselves liberal if not progressive.

I've always prided myself on the fact that, although I am an intellectual, I strive to value and vaildate different kinds of intelligence, from street-smarts to artistic skills to scholarly logic. I wish other folks who have had the privilege of a college education would learn that that's exactly what it was: a privilege that comes part-and-parcel with a responsibility to use it in a way that's not just self-congratulatory, but beneficial to the greater community--including those not lucky enough to get to college.

J. and I agreed that folks on the left need to reclaim the term "intellectual" in a way that isn't elitist or exclusionary, but in a way that values critical thinking as a cornerstone of a vibrant and inclusionary democracy.

And these days, with legacy-Yalie Bush Jr. as "President" and a media that panders to the market more than to the mind, we need to reclaim our smarts often and with pride.

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