Thoughts about….Thought

Posted: 15th September 2011 by traumaturgist in Uncategorized

Reading (as I often do, for better or worse) the cavalcade of political e-pinions has gotten me to thinking about the rather insipid anti-intellectualism that has persisted in North America since the Me Decade (the 1980s, for those of you born later).  It’s funny the way this plays out in pop culture…leaving aside all the movies that lampoon naive graduate students and professors of the “Ivory Tower” supposedly disconnected from “real life”1, I’m thinking about how a liberal arts eduction is engaged with by people outside the academy.  When I was an undergrad and an MA student I was told that my education was valuable – people just couldn’t tell me why.  Tell them you’re in English: you’ll inevitably have “teacher” and “journalist” thrown at you as two of the only jobs in the “real world” one can get with an English degree.

Apart from this, though, is the way intellectuals tend to be received in public debate in my experience.  We’re pretentious; we place ourselves above others; to some, we use lots of big words in an effort to disguise our lack of knowledge.  Now all of this might be true in certain cases…but I wonder if the anti-intellectualism of the current age  isn’t mired in its own materialist limitations.

See, a non-plumber or non-welder wouldn’t dream of visiting an online forum on plumbing or welding and start telling plumbers or welders how to do their job.  The reasons why are obvious – we, as non-plumbers/welders, don’t have the training and experience possessed by those within the trade.  No one scowls at plumbers or welders for thinking they’re better plumbers or welders than others.  My question: why should this be different for liberal arts and thinking…or, as I’ll call it for the sake of argument here – the “trade” of thinking?2  Not all of us can or would want to go through the hassle of training to be a plumber or welder; but here the crux lies.  Not everyone’s a welder or plumber; but everyone can think and voice an opinion.  This leads a lot (and I mean a lot) of people to assume that just because they can think their opinions and insights are as “worthy”3 as those of “intellectuals.”  Somehow, because thought lacks the materiality of trades such as welding or plumbing, the playing field is levelled and everyone’s opinion is just as right as the other.

The crucial flaw in this argument lies in the fact that thinking is a trade acquired by study, training and apprenticeship, just like plumbing and welding, and this remains unrealized by a hell of a lot of people out there.  Liberal arts academics such as myself train.  And we train hard in an unfriendly and overly competitive culture.  In this we have it much worse than a lot of people in the so-called “real world.”  Where people quote website after website and (cringe) Wikipedia to corroborate their opinions, we are trained to go to libraries and research.  To compare and weigh competing arguments and synthesize them into an original work that contributes to the field in which we write.  In the course of a project we will often change our viewpoints and arguments as we go, because you often don’t know what you think about a topic until you’re relatively immersed in it…and at the end, the project you hold in your hands is never anything like the phantasy you entertained in your mind when you began.  Real academic research isn’t about voicing your opinion and defending it against infidels and lesser-thans; it’s about judging the integrity of the argument and being as critical as possible of yourself and others in an effort to find the truth.  It’s about having your ideas criticized – sometimes too harshly – be peers in your field who may, at any given time, know more than you on your pet subject.  It’s about having to assimilate these viewpoints and admit that you might not know everything you thought you knew.

And yes, I know what I just said.  “Truth.”  What I mean here is really the process of truth.  And yes, this is an idealist vision of what scholarship should be, and I am well aware that it’s rarely like this.  But at least scholarship, in principle, keeps open the space in which this process can flourish, however frustrating and demoralizing it can sometimes be

This should be remembered.  And this is why I consider myself a better thinker than a lot of people in the so-called “real world.”  I train for it every day.


  1. And what is this thing you call “real life” anyway?  Hate to tell you, but as a graduate student I live in exactly the same world as “the rest of you” – I just do it on several hundred dollars less per month, thank you very much.  Now that’s a dose of reality…
  2. This label isn’t so far off the mark in the information age anyway – at my doctoral orientation sessions they made a lot out of our shift away from being “consumers” to being “producers” of knowledge.  A naive binarism, yes, but it gets the point across.
  3. I put “worthy” in quotes here to make this point: all opinions are worthy of being voiced; not all opinions are as “worthy” as others in terms of thoughtfulness and articulation.