Intellectuals - Form Rather Than Substance?

Thomas Sowell takes Nicholas Kristof to task for saying that with the Obama administration, the “the anti-intellectualism that has long been a strain in American life” will end. The only problem is with such a pronouncement is that it is wrong.

There has been little problem with intellectuals during the Bush Administration. The only “intellectuals” feeling the heat over the past 8 years have been the ones described by Sowell are those with “the form, rather than the substance.”

Intellectuals, according to Mr. Kristof, are people who are "interested in ideas and comfortable with complexity," people who "read the classics."

Adlai Stevenson was certainly regarded as an intellectual by intellectuals in the 1950s. But, half a century later, facts paint a very different picture.

Historian Michael Beschloss, among others, has noted that Stevenson "could go quite happily for months or years without picking up a book." But Stevenson had the airs of an intellectual -- the form, rather than the substance.

What is more telling, form was enough to impress the intellectuals, not only then but even now, years after the facts have been revealed.

That is one of many reasons why intellectuals are not taken as seriously by others as they take themselves.

As for reading the classics, President Harry Truman, whom no one thought of as an intellectual, was a voracious reader of heavyweight stuff like Thucydides and read Cicero in the original Latin. When Chief Justice Carl Vinson quoted in Latin, Truman was able to correct him.

Yet intellectuals tended to think of the unpretentious and plain-spoken Truman as little more than a country bumpkin.

And that's the problem. Far too many self-defined intellectuals believe that unless one has attended the proper schools and have made themselves part of specific social circles, there's no way anyone else could possibly be their intellectual equal. Harry Truman is certainly one example of how mistaken that belief is among them. There are plenty of others, Calvin Coolidge being yet another fine example.

[N]o one ever thought of President Calvin Coolidge as an intellectual. Yet Coolidge also read the classics in the White House. He read both Latin and Greek, and read Dante in the original Italian, since he spoke several languages. It was said that the taciturn Coolidge could be silent in five different languages.

He sounds like my kind of guy.

There are plenty of other examples showing us many of the faux intelligentsia have gotten it wrong over the years, taking positions so antithetical to American thought and common sense that one would think that they were the mental defectives.

I've had more than my share of run ins with folks like that, running their mouths and making obscure references to rare tomes or poorly reasoned philosophies in an effort to make themselves appear to be the intellectual superior to everyone surrounding them. While their command of such trivial knowledge may be commendable for someone wishing to compete on Jeopardy, it has little relevance to every day life and promotes nothing but that person's self-importance. True intellectuals are “doers”, not “sayers”. We have far too many of the first type and not enough of the second. Again, it's form versus substance. That's why intellectuals are held in contempt: too many of them aren't really intellectuals. They're poseurs. Unfortunately far too many of them are involved in government or academia.

Am I an intellectual? Not by a long shot. While I'd like to think I am more well read than many others, I am not so conceited to think that just because I've read books that others haven't even heard of that I have some special insight about the condition of mankind others don't. It just means I've read more books, that's all. A little less than half those books were either of a technical nature, science fiction, or history. Some few were the classics, but I read them for enjoyment, not for their quotability. There were even a few that were in French (my high school French served me well...as did a French to English dictionary). So what? It doesn't make me an intellectual. It just means I like to read...and write, as I do here.

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