Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 2 comments

Well–the issue isn’t how many members of the working class/lower class/immigrant population become intellectuals, but how many intellectuals started out as members of those classes, and how many are “privileged.”

John says that “most” children of immigrants take practical university training in things like computer science and engineering, but so do “most” university students of any background. 

And I’ve never read the Wolfe novel, although I’ve heard about it, so I’m not sure what it says and can’t comment.

I can say, however, the it doesn’t take a degree from a first tier university–or any university at all–to become an intellectual.  The more I read about Harry Truman, the more convinced I am that the man qualifies on at least some levels–this was a person who read Cicero in Latin for fun and relaxation–but he never studied at any university and did not have a university degree.

In my own family, we have my father and his brother, both the sons of immigrants, one of whom studied history before law school and the other who majored in philosophy and theology.  We also have my late husband, the son of a man who worked all his life on an assembly line in a vacuum cleaner factory, who studied literature. 

In my department, the faculty contains the first-generation-American (parents were immigrants) sons and daughters of people from Poland, Nigeria, and Vietnam. 

On the public intellectual front, we’ve got Bill O’Reilly, brought up in Levittown and graduated from Marist College, a small working-class school in Poughkeepsie, NY, that has nothing like a “name,” and really didn’t when O’Reilly graduated from it.  There’s also Susan Jacoby, middle class graduate of Michigan State, now author of books on everything from freethought to…intellectualism.

And all I’m doing right now is going through the stuff I know without having to bother to look it up.

If you look at actual intellectuals in the United States, you do not find a little knot of “privileged” people mixed with a few “brilliant” ones of other backgrounds.  You find a fairly ordinary mix of fairly ordinary American stories.

This may be changing, because the schools have become so antagonistic to the life of the mind–well, all right, they always were, to some extent–

But the schools have ceased to provide the necessary background, the organized study of history and literature and mathematics and science that used to form the core of the public school curriculum and now does so only in a few places. 

I think that part of the problem here is the underlying assumption that the life of the mind is an extra, a luxury, and some people do not see any reason why anyone would pursue it except as a sort of hobby, which they could indulge in if they were rich enough not to worry about having to make a living.

But that is not what it is.  In my own life, to the extent that I’ve been able to achieve it at all–and next to somebody like David Bentley Hart, say, or even William F. Buckley or Lionel Trilling, I’m an amateur–it’s been a kind of driving force.

When I was growing up, people used to accuse me of reading the books I read only to “show off.”  I didn’t actually like any of that stuff.  Probably, when I went home, I secretly spent all my time in front of the television set.  I was only carrying around whatever it was that week so I could look down my nose at them.

The truth was that I read the books I read because the pleasure of reading them was actually a physical sensation.

I’ve tried to describe this for people on and off over the years, and mostly I don’t get anywhere.  But let me try again.

My physical brain inside my skull feels differently when I read certain things.  Actually having to work at the ideas in a book–not having to strain and stuggle, but having to work–has a physical feeling, and the feeling is absolutely great.  I love it. 

I do not get this physical sensation in any other way–I don’t get it from movies, or television, or music.  It’s something directly connected to reading.

And my guess is that I would have gone on reading the kind of book that gave me that sensation no matter what my circumstances were.  I would have ended up being me one way or the other.

People who opt for the life of the mind don’t do it as a hobby.  They do it as a compulsion.  Sometimes they do it while making the bulk of their income doing something else.  Liebniz ground lenses for eyeglasses for a living, but we don’t remember his lenses, we remember his philosophy.  And Liebniz was, no mistake about it, an  intellectual.

I am myself, and I can’t be anybody else.  Part of being myself is an inability to understand how anybody lives any other way–how anybody can go through a day without reading the kind of thing that gives me that sensation, how anybody can see books and art and music as anything less than fundamentally essential to life. 

When we were going through God knows what financial problems when Bill was sick, my mother used to get indignant when she found that Bill and I would buy books anyway, having spaghetti instead of something “better” for dinner to do it if we had to.
“After all,” she’d say, “food is a necessity.  Books are just a luxury!”

But no, for me, they’re not.  And I don’t understand how they were for her. 

I never understood my mother at all, really.  She never read a book, not even one of mine.  She never read anything but short, extremely simple newspaper and magazine articles, and then only when she knew in advance that she would agree with them.  She was extensively acquainted with particular works of art–paintings and operas, especially–but she really knew little or nothing about either painting or music, and didn’t seem to care to learn.  

And the sight of me reading made her angry.

We get into discussions here every once in a while about reading for “entertainment” and “relaxation,” and they always make me nuts.

I guess that when I hear people say those things, it sounds to me as if they’re saying “I read to turn my mind off.”

But I read to turn my mind on.  I don’t think I could survive any other way.

That being said, I have started reading the Sowell. 

And I think that the unfortunate thing about this book is that he actually has a point–the group of people he’s talking about are a distinct group, and his analysis of the way they work is very interesting, but their salient characteristic is not that they’re “intellectuals.”

And that’s too bad, because we could use a sane public discussion of the way in which we want to accept, reject, or consider “expert” opinion, and we’re not having it here, because Sowell is spinning his wheels trying to get his group to fit his vocabulary.

What he really wants–and, I think, what  Robert really wants, and maybe some of the rest of you–is a group that will include Noam Chomsky, Ward Churchill, Michael Moore, Janeane Garofolo, Eric Foner, and Mary Daly.

And, like I said, I think there is such a group.  I just don’t think that group is “intellectuals.”

Written by janeh

February 27th, 2010 at 12:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Saturday'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Saturday'.

  1. Please remove those particular words from my mouth. I already have a perfectly good word for that group. Actually, I have three, depending on the desired degree of contempt: “left-wing nutcases,” “leftists” and “progressives.” I would never in my life call Moore or Garafolo intellectuals. Neither, from your description, would Sowell. I’ve said this before. Do my comments not register if they conflict with your prejudices?

    [Please note no expression of contempt for Garafolo as a political type should ever discourage anyone from viewing THE TRUTH ABOUT CATS AND DOGS, MATCHMAKER or even MYSTERY MEN. She’s a perfectly capable actress. Fortunately for her, in 50 years no one will care about the politics, and the movies–the first two, anyway–will still be worth watching.]

    As for books, I can’t remember who said “When I have money, I buy books. Then if there’s anything left over, food.” It strikes me as a perfectly valid set of priorities. Mom understood, but to Dad reading a book was not “doing something” the way a game of “catch” was, and so was more prone to parental interruption. This is what we get for mixing DNA instead of engaging in parthenogenesis.


    27 Feb 10 at 6:19 pm

  2. The word would be “ideologues,” if you ask me.

    Some of them are also intellectuals.



    28 Feb 10 at 4:58 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 246 access attempts in the last 7 days.