Geek anti-intellectualism: replies
My essay on “geek anti-intellectualism” hit a nerve. I get the sense that a lot of geeks are acting–quite unusually for them–defensively, because I’ve presented them with a sobering truth about themselves that they hadn’t realized. Consequently they’ve been unusually thoughtful and polite. This is quite new and startling to me–I mean, there’s something about this discussion that I can’t remember ever seeing before. Anyway, it must have seemed relevant, because it was posted live on Slashdot within minutes of my submitting it–something I’d never seen before–and proceeded to rack up 916 comments, as of this writing, which is quite a few for Slashdot. It was also well discussed on Metafilter, on Twitter, and here on this blog (where I’ve had over 160 comments so far). What struck me about these discussions was the unusually earnest attempts, in most cases, to come to grips with some of the issues I raised. Of course, there has been some of the usual slagging from the haters, and a fair number of not-very-bright responses, but an unusually high proportion of signal, some of it quite insightful. Reminds me of some old college seminars, maybe.
First, let me concede that I left a lot unsaid. Of course, what I left unsaid ended up being said, sometimes ad nauseam, in the comments, and a few points I found to be quite enlightening. On the other hand, I find a lot of geeks thinking that they understand aspects of higher education that they really don’t. I’m not sure I can set them right, but I’ll try to make a few points anyway.
I am going to do what I’ve always done, since the 1990s, when something I’ve written elicited a much greater response than I could possibly deal with: make a numbered laundry list of replies.
1. How dare you accuse all geeks of being anti-intellectual? I didn’t; RTFA. I know there are lots of very intellectual geeks and that geekdom is diverse in various ways. I’m talking about social trends, which are always a little messy; but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to discuss.
2. There’s a difference between being anti-intellectual and being anti-academic. Maybe the most common response was that geeks don’t dislike knowledge or the intellect, they dislike intellectuals with their academic institutions and practices. First, let me state my geek credentials. I’ve spent a lot of time online since the mid-90s. I started many websites, actually learned some programming, and managed a few software projects. You’ll notice that I’m not in academe now. I have repeatedly (four times) left academe and later returned.
I agree that academia has become way too politicized. Too many academics think it’s OK to preach their ideology to their students, and their tendency to organize conferences and journals around tendentious ideological themes is not just annoying, it is indeed unscholarly. Moreover, speaking as a skeptically-inclined philosopher, I think that some academics have an annoying tendency to promote their views with unwarranted confidence, and also to pretend to speak authoritatively on subjects outside of their training. Also, in many fields, the economics of academic advancement and publishing has created a tendency to focus on relatively unimportant minutiae, to the detriment of broader insight and scholarly wisdom. Also, I completely agree that college work has been watered down (but more on that in the next point).
Having admitted all that, I’m still not backing down; I knew all that when I was writing my essay. Please review the five points I made. None of them is at odds with this critique of academe. Just because some experts can be annoyingly overconfident, it doesn’t follow that they do not deserve various roles in society articulating what is known about their areas of expertise. If you deny that, then you are devaluing the knowledge they actually have; that’s an anti-intellectual attitude. If you want to know what the state of the research is in a field, you ask a researcher. So even if your dislike of academics is justified in part, it does not follow that their word on their expertise is worth the same as everyone else’s. Besides, most of my points had little to do with academics per se: I also had points about books in general, classics in particular, and memorization and learning.
3. Just because you think college is now a bad deal, economically speaking, it doesn’t follow that you’re anti-intellectual. Well, duh. I didn’t really take up the question whether the present cost of college justifies not going, and I’m not going to get into that, because I don’t really think it’s relevant. Let’s suppose you’re right, and that for some people, the long-term cost of college loans, combined with the fact that they won’t get much benefit from their college education, means that they’re justified not going. My complaint is not about people who don’t go to college, my complaint is about people who say that college is “a waste of time” if you do go and are committed. Maybe, for people who don’t study much and who don’t let themselves benefit, it is a waste of time. But that’s their fault, not the fault of college. I taught at Ohio State, which is not nearly as demanding as the college I attended myself (Reed), and I saw many students drifting through, not doing the reading, not coming to class, rarely practicing their writing skills. I also saw people who always did the reading, always came to class, participated regularly, and were obviously benefiting from their encounter with great writing and great ideas. Moreover, how college affects you isn’t “the luck of the draw.” It depends on your commitment and curiosity. This is why some partiers drop out and come back to college after five or ten years, and then they do great and finally enjoy themselves in class.
Finally, may I say again (I said it first in the 1990s, and also a few days ago), it is possible to get a degree by examination from programs like Excelsior College? This way, you bypass the expense of college and pick all your instructors for a fraction of the cost. This entails that you can get intellectually trained, as well as earn a real college degree, without going into debt. This would be my advice to the clever ex-homeschoolers who claim that it is college that is, somehow, anti-intellectual. Put up or shut up, home scholars: if you really are committed to the life of the mind, as you say, and you’ve already got experience directing your own studies, why not get a degree through independent study with academic tutors, and then take tests (and portfolio evaluations) to prove your knowledge and get the credential?
4. The people you’re describing are not true geeks; they are the digerati, or “hipsters,” or leftist academics who were already anti-intellectual and then started doing geek stuff. Uh, no. I mean, you’re probably right that some anti-intellectual thinkers who weren’t geeks have started talking about the Internet a lot, and they have a big web presence, so now they might appear to be part of geekdom. But they aren’t really, by any reasonably stringent definition of “geek.” Besides, if you look at my article, you’ll see that that’s what I said (such people fall into the category of “digerati”). My point is that claims (1)-(5) started circulating online among geeks, and they are, each of them, commonly spouted by lots of geeks. Take them in turn. (1) Anti-expert animus is a well-known feature of the geek thought-world. Wikipedia became somewhat anti-expert because of the dominance of geeks in the project. (2) Of course, the geeks at Project Gutenberg love books, but all too often I see comments online that books went out in the 20th century, and good riddance. One of the leading idols of the geeks, Clay Shirky, essentially declared books to be a dying medium, to be replaced with something more collaborative. (3) It is obvious just from the comments here on this blog, and elsewhere, that some geeks find the classics (that means philosophy, history, novels, epics, poetry, drama, religious texts, etc.) to be a waste of time. They don’t have the first clue about what they’re talking about. (4) The first time I saw the idea discussed much that Internet resources mean we no longer have to memorize (and hence learn) as many facts was among Wikipedians in 2002 or so (when it was totally dominated by geeks, even more than it is now). (5) The whole college-is-a-waste-of-time thing is a not uncommon geek conceit. It’s not surprising in the least that a founder of Paypal.com would spout it. It’s easy for computer geeks to say, because they can get well-paying jobs without degrees. In many other fields, that’s (still) not true.
5. But I’m an intellectual, and I know that learning facts is indeed passe. The things to be learned are “relationships” or “analysis” or “critical thinking.” Oh? Then I claim that you are espousing an anti-intellectual sentiment, whether you know it or not. I’m not saying you’re opposed to all things intellectual, I’m saying that that opinion is, to be perfectly accurate, a key feature of anti-intellectualism. Look, this is very simple. If you have learned something, then you can, at the very least, recall it. In other words, you must have memorized it, somehow. This doesn’t necessarily mean you must have used flashcards to jam it into your recalcitrant brain by force, so to speak. Memorization doesn’t have to be by rote. But even if you do a project, if you haven’t come to remember some fact as a result, then you don’t know it. Thus I say that to be opposed to the memorization of facts is to be opposed to the learning, and knowing, of those facts. To advocate against all memorization is to advocate for ignorance. For more on this, please see my EDUCAUSE Review essay “Individual Knowledge in the Internet Age.”
I know that this is an old and common sentiment among education theorists–which is a shame. Indeed, the educationists who say that it is not necessary to memorize the multiplication table are implying that it is OK for kids to be ignorant of those math facts. (No, it’s not OK. They should know them.) Anyway, it might have started with misguided educators, but it is becoming far too common among geeks too.
6. The Internet is changing, that’s all. Most people are anti-intellectual, and they’re getting online. No doubt about it, the Internet has changed greatly in the last five to ten years. And it might well be the case that the average netizen is more anti-intellectual than in the past, in the very weak sense that more stupid people and uneducated people are getting online. This might have been clever to say, if my point had been, “Folks online seem to be getting anti-intellectual.” But that isn’t at all what I said or meant. If you will review the evidence I marshalled, you’ll see that the people I’m talking about are not the great unwashed masses. I’m talking about geeks and the digerati who presume to speak about geeky things. And their influence, as I said, has been growing.
7. Americans are anti-intellectual. Geek anti-intellectualism is just a reflection of that. Think about what you’re saying here; it doesn’t make much sense. I claim that geeks are increasingly anti-intellectual, or increasingly giving voice to anti-intellectual sentiments. This is a trend, which many people are discussing now because they recognize it as well. American anti-intellectualism, a well-known phenomenon, goes back to colonial days, and was rooted in our distance from the erstwhile European sources of intellectual life as well as the physical difficulty of frontier life. The pattern of anti-intellectualism I discern is a relatively recent phenomenon, which has grown up especially with the rise of the Internet.
8. Conservatives never were the anti-intellectuals; it was always the liberal lefties! Glenn Reynolds linked my post, and so some conservatives grumbled about my line, “Once upon a time, anti-intellectualism was said to be the mark of knuckle-dragging conservatives, and especially American Protestants. Remarkably, that seems to be changing.” Well, I hate to wade into politics here. I used the passive voice deliberately, because I did not want to endorse the claim that anti-intellectualism is the mark of “knuckle-dragging conservatives” (I don’t endorse this phrase, either). All I meant to say is that this is one of liberals’ favorite things to say about American fundamentalists. I was about to, but did not, go on to say that actually, among the home schooling crowd, liberals and libertarians tend to go in for “unschooling,” which is relatively (and not necessarily) hostile to traditional academics, and it is conservatives who go in for uber-academic Latin-and-logic “classical education.” I didn’t say that, because I knew it would be distracting to my point. So I’m kind of sorry I made the remark about conservatives, because it too was distracting to my point. Suffice it to say that there are plenty of knuckle-draggers, so to speak, everywhere.
9. Are you crazy? Geeks are smart, and you’re calling geeks stupid by calling them anti-intellectual. You didn’t know that “anti-intellectual” does not mean “stupid,” apparently. There are plenty of anti-intellectual geeks who are crazy smart. They aren’t stupid in the least. You also must distinguish between having anti-intellectual attitudes or views, which is what I was talking about, and having anti-intellectual practices. There are plenty of intellectuals in academia who are anti-intellectual. (There are Jewish anti-Semites, too.) Just think of any progressive education professor who inveighs against most academic work in K-12 schools, describes academic work that involves a little memorization and practice as “drill and kill,” wants the world to institute unschooling and the project method en masse, has nothing but the purest P.C. contempt for the Western canon, advocates for vocational education for all but those who are truly, personally enthusiastic about academics, wants academic education to be as collaborative as possible rather than requiring students to read books, which are “irrelevant” to the fast-changing daily lives of students, and channeling Foucault rails against the hegemony of scientists and other experts. Well, such a person I would describe as an anti-intellectual intellectual. The person might well write perfectly-crafted articles with scholarly apparatus, read classics in her field, and so forth. It’s just that her opinions are unfortunately hostile to students getting knowledge (in my opinion).
10. But the liberal arts are a waste of time. Studying Chaucer? Philosophy? History? The vague opinionizing is pointless and facts can be looked up. If you believe this way, then I have to point out that virtually any really educated person will disagree with you. Once you have received a liberal education, your mind expands. You might not understand how, or why it’s important, but it does. That’s why people devote their lives to this stuff, even when it doesn’t pay much, as it usually doesn’t. If you haven’t studied philosophy, you can’t begin to understand the universe and our place in it–I don’t care how much theoretical physics you’ve studied. There are aspects of reality that can be grasped only by critically examining the content of our concepts. Similarly, if you haven’t read much literature and especially if you are young, then you are very probably a complete babe in the woods when it comes to the understanding of human nature and the human condition; that’s why people read literature, not so that they can sniff disdainfully at others over their lattes.
11. What you call “anti-intellectual” is really “anti-authority.” You’re merely defending the prerogatives of snooty intellectuals whose authority is on the wane. This is one of the most common and often snarkiest replies I’ve run across. But it’s also a very interesting point. Still, on analysis, I’m going to call it flimsy at best. I’m going to spend quite a bit of space on this one. Feel free to skip to down to the end (“In Sum” before “Conclusion”).
Let’s distinguish between being opposed to knowledge in its various forms, on the one hand, and being opposed to the prerogatives of intellectuals, on the other. I claim that the path many geeks are headed down really has them opposed to theoretical and factual knowledge per se. I think the evidence I offered supported this reasonably well, but let me try to make it a little more explicit.
Consider point (1), about experts. (“Experts do not deserve any special role in declaring what is known.”) That certainly looks like it is about the prerogatives of experts. If for example on Wikipedia I encountered people saying, for example, “Experts need to prove this to us, not just assert their authoritah,” that would be fair enough. That’s not anti-intellectual at all. But going farther to say, “You merely have access to resources, you don’t understand this any better than I do” and “You’re not welcome here” is to fail to admit that through their study and experience, the experts have something more to contribute than the average Joe. If you can’t bring yourself to admit that–and I submit that the stripe of geek I’m describing can’t–then your attitude is anti-intellectual. (Some people are refreshingly honest about just this.) Then what you’re saying is that specialized study and experience do not lead to anything valuable, and are a waste of time. But they lead to knowledge, which is valuable, and not a waste of time.
Point (2) (that books per se are outmoded) also, admittedly, has a little to do with intellectual authority–but only a little. One of the reasons that some geeks, and others, are welcoming the demise of books is that they resent a single person set up as an authority by a publisher. They say that publishing can and should be more like a conversation, and in a conversation, there shouldn’t be one “authority,” but rather a meeting of equal minds. So perhaps those who are pleased to attack the medium of books couch their views as an attack on authority. Perhaps. But when I defend books, I really don’t care about authority so much. Of course, when thinking adults read books, they don’t read them it in order to receive the truth from on high. They are interested (in argumentative books, to take just one kind) in a viewpoint being fully and intelligently canvassed. As some of the geeks commenting do not realize, and as some people don’t realize until they get to graduate school, it frequently requires a book–or several books–to fully articulate a case for some relatively narrow question. Scholars should be praised, not faulted, for being so committed to the truth that they are willing to write, and read, discussions that are that long. The fact that publishers have to pick authors who are capable of mounting excellent arguments at such length doesn’t mean that their readers are supposed simply to accept whatever they are told. At bottom, then, to oppose books as such is to be opposed to the only way extended verbal arguments (and narratives and exposition) can be propagated. An indeterminately large collaboration can’t develop a huge, integrated, complex theory, write a great novel, or develop a unified, compelling narrative about some element of our experience. If you want to call yourself intellectual, you’ve got to support the creation of such works by individual people.
Point (3), about the classics, has almost nothing to do with the prerogatives of authority. The shape of the Western Canon, if you will, does not rest on anybody’s authority, but instead on the habits of educators (school and university) as an entire class. You’re not rebelling against anybody’s authority when you rebel against classics; you are, if anything, rebelling against the ideas the classics contain, or against the labor of reading something that is demanding to read. In any case, anybody who comes down squarely against reading the classics is, to that extent, decidedly anti-intellectual. Face it.
Point (4), which has us memorizing as little as possible and using the Internet as a memory prosthesis as much as possible, has absolutely nothing to do with authority. If you’re opposed to memorizing something, you’re opposed to learning and knowing it. That’s quite anti-intellectual.
Point (5) concerns college, and on this many people said, in effect, “I oppose the stupidity of an overpriced, mediocre, unnecessary product that rests on the alleged authority of college professors.” Then it looks like you’re criticizing the authority of professors, and so you think I’m defending that. Well, to be sure, if college professors had no significant knowledge, which (as I think) gives their views some intellectual authority, then there would be no point in paying money to study with them. But I can defend the advisability of systematic college-level study (I choose these words carefully) without making any controversial claims about the authority of college professors. I do not, for example, have to assume that college professors must always be believed, that they are infallible, that we should not be skeptical of most of what they say (especially in the humanities and social sciences). After all, most professors expect their students to be skeptical and not to take what they say uncritically; and only a very dull student will do that, anyway. If you didn’t know that, it’s probably because you haven’t been to college. So, no. I am not merely defending the authority of college professors. I am personally quite critical of most scholarship I encounter.
In sum, I know that libertarian geeks (I’d count myself as one, actually) love to rail against the prerogatives of authority. You’d like to justify your anti-intellectual attitudes (and sometimes, behavior) as fighting against The Man. Maybe that is why you have your attitudes, maybe not. In any case, that doesn’t stop said attitudes from being anti-intellectual, and your issues don’t mean that I am especially concerned to defend the prerogatives of authority. I am not.
I think I’ve hit most of the high points.
One thing I didn’t discuss in my original essay was why geeks have become so anti-intellectual, especially with the rise of the Internet. Here is my take on that. Most geeks are very smart, predominantly male, and capable of making an excellent livelihood from the sweat of their minds. Consequently, as a class, they’re more arrogant than most, and they naturally have a strong independent streak. Moreover, geeks pride themselves on finding the most efficient (“laziest”) way to solve any problem, even if it is a little sloppy. When it comes to getting qualified for work, many will naturally dismiss the necessity of college if they feel they can, because they hate feeling put-upon by educators who can’t even write two lines of code. And the whole idea of memorizing stuff, well, it seems more and more unnecessarily effortful when web searching often uncovers answers just as well (they very misguidedly think). What about books, and classics in particular? Well, geek anti-intellectual attitudes here are easily explained as a combination of laziness and arrogance. The Iliad takes a lot of effort, and the payoff is quite abstract; instead, they could read a manual or write code or engineer some project, and do a lot more of what they recognize as “learning.” The advent of new social media and the decline of the popularity of books are developments that only confirm their attitude. It doesn’t hurt that geek is suddenly chic, which surely only inflates geek arrogance. If they admit to themselves that there is something to philosophy, history, or anything else that takes time, hard study, and reflection to learn, but which does not produce code or gadgetry, then they would feel a little deflated. This doesn’t sit well with their pride, of course. They’re smart, they think, and so how could they be opposed to any worthwhile knowledge?
So it shouldn’t be surprising that some (only some) geeks turn out to be anti-intellectual. This is no doubt why many people said, in response to my essay, “This is just what I’ve been thinking.”
About the author
I call myself an "Internet Knowledge Organizer." I started Wikipedia.org, Citizendium.org, and WatchKnowLearn.org, and ReadingBear.org. I write about education and the Internet from a broadly philosophical point of view.