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The silent intellectuals

Edward A. Larkin | Tuesday, November 16, 2010

What defines an intellectual? Popular culture would conjure images of bespectacled professors talking Renaissance art, ancient literature and economic philosophy in the same breath. This image has remained static for a long time — as fitting in 1810 as 2010. The question thus arises as to whether it is relevant in the 21st century. Jonathan Coravos, a student at Bowdoin College, in his article “Defining Modern Intellectualism,” refutes the charge that Bowdoin students lack intellectualism. Interestingly, this claim has sometimes been levied against Notre Dame students as well. Initially, one might come up with many reasons why Notre Dame students are viewed as lacking intellectual vigor. Sports are a major part of the culture at Notre Dame, and the football program is arguably the most visible aspect of the University at any given time. Also, the fact that Notre Dame is a Catholic institution may lead outsiders to assume that Notre Dame students lack the questioning spirit that often accompanies intellectual curiosity. However, Bowdoin students have also been charged as lacking intellectualism, so major sports and religious affiliation can’t be the whole story. Also, the criticism is oftentimes levied within the Notre Dame community itself. So, is the problem (as Coravos argues) due to the antiquated notion of intellectualism, or are modern students indeed intellectually lacking?

 Intellectualism, in a broad sense, involves an embrace of learning and the life of the mind. This embrace is not simply cursory — it involves enjoying learning for learning’s sake, and actively seeking it out. A close analysis of the modern age reveals that common notions of intellectualism are indeed in need of major changes. First of all, our idea of an “intellectual” is firmly rooted within the tradition of the humanities. Centuries ago, when science was on much more unstable footing than it currently is, this definition was understandable. However, in the modern era, science is an exhilarating area in which to focus one’s fundamental curiosities about the way the world works. Indeed, many of the great ancient Greek philosophers were actually aspiring scientists, and while their explanations of the movements of the heavens fall short of our modern standards, they certainly found science to be within the intellectual tradition.

While science today is much more specialized and less understandable to the uninitiated, the exploratory spirit that is present in the act of original research is as much an intellectual quest as ruminating on the works of Milton or Chaucer. Given such specialization of knowledge in the modern world, the idea of intellectualism could benefit from being defined more vertically than horizontally — knowing a lot about a few things, rather than a lot about a lot of things. The amount of knowledge in the world makes the latter almost impossible, whereas it was completely attainable centuries ago. Many students do research here at Notre Dame. This is certainly a valid intellectual endeavor, while not traditionally conceived as such.

As Coravos points out, our methods of engaging the world have changed drastically in the last century. Learning used to be a much more interpersonal endeavor — other people were often a fundamental source of information. This isn’t necessary anymore — if you want to satiate academic curiosities or learn for learning’s sake, you can easily do it on the Internet. Gone are the days of Socrates, when men talked philosophy at dinner parties. Even the physical act of going to the library to research topics can be done easily in a dorm room with a computer and a WiFi connection. It is quite possible that intellectuals haven’t become extinct; they’ve simply become invisible. This silent intellectualism was enabled initially by the printing press, but it has rapidly expanded with the onset of the Internet. The most efficient way of learning, questioning and communicating is now an online experience.

Thus, the problem appears to be with the definition itself, rather than students being fundamentally uncurious. However, the idea that we are disengaged does contain some truth — and it is a major problem for our generation. Back in 2007, Tom Friedman labeled us “Generation Q” — the quiet generation. The type of communication that once defined public intellectual activism now takes place on blogs, internet forums and Facebook. Someone could theoretically be engaged in all sorts of intellectual pursuits without ever leaving their room or speaking a word. The world needs leaders and bold thinkers to convert ideas into the reality; people who are willing to engage the world on the outside to affect change.

This task may be difficult from our generation — translating our learning, our debates, our ideas and our passions from the cool liquid of the Internet into the world at large. David Brooks of the New York Times wrote a column a few months ago lamenting the fact that while the world among college students has become more meritocratic, there is a greater feeling of institutionalization — everyone wants to stay inside the neatly defined lines rather than boldly venturing out. We are all great at getting A’s, but when was the last time you saw a student really grill a professor in class? I see this as a symptom of our predicament – we don’t lack ideas; we simply aren’t as confident showing them in a world where it is seemingly not necessary.

College students today are intellectual when viewed through a more appropriate modern prism (though few of us could meet the high bar Urbandictionary.com sets for an intellectual: someone who has found something more interesting in life than sex and alcohol). However, the fact that we are intellectual isn’t enough. We need to translate this intellectualism into productive outlets in the real world. The changing nature of information gathering has made it much easier to maintain an insulated intellectualism. The challenge of our generation is maintaining the dynamic and crusading spirit of previous great generations in order to espouse the ideas of our time, despite the increasing ease with which we can slip into the silence.


Edward A. Larkin is a senior with a double major in Biological Sciences and Classical Civilization. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not

necessarily those of The Observer.