“Hidden Intellectualism,” by Gerald Graff, is an essay in which the former English professor discusses the misconceptions of the ideas of intellectualism amongst society. He primarily focuses on the way adolescents view intellectualism as a negative trait that only “nerds” strive for. He also elaborates on his experiences in revealing his own hidden intellectualism, while in college in a literature class, after growing up in the “anti-intellectual” 1950s. However, through a method that Graff and an eleventh grade high school teacher are developing, they hope to make students think and debate argumentatively as intellectuals would. They do this in an attempt to have the students see their true potentials as intellectuals themselves. Throughout the piece, Graff cites works from several authors that relate to this topic and continuously examines the challenge of recognizing and accepting one’s own intellectualism. Although it is not widely acknowledged, there is great value in intellectualism of all types, yet unfortunately current society only focuses on the textbook, classroom intellectuals. However, through realizing that those we consider great minds today were not always seen as intellectuals and bringing intellectual opportunities in hidden ways into the classroom through progressivism educational methods, there could be a more auspicious future.
In his piece, Graff summarizes his own “anti-intellectual” adolescent experience in which he was more interested sports than schoolwork. At that time, the 1950s, smart girls were seen as “stuck up” and smart boys were thought of as “sissys.” As a result, to avoid getting beat up by the tough guys in school, he acted dumb. Unbeknownst to him though, the inquisitive discussions that Graff had with his friends at the time, away from the fear of cruel judgment, were actually training him to be an intellectual. In fact, it wasn’t until he read Michael Warner’s Voice Literary Supplement that he had an epiphany. This work covers Warner’s strict Pentecostal upbringing and how he felt that religion helped him develop argument, yet still held him back from achieving full intellectualism. Through growing away from his austere past, Warner is now a self-described “queer atheist intellectual.” This piece made Graff realize that he was just as intellectual as the rest of his classmates, but in a different way. For example, Graff writes that, “It was in arguing about toughness and other such concerns with my friends, I think, that I started acquiring what Warner got by arguing theology with his parents—the rudiments of how to make an argument, weigh different kinds of evidence, move between particulars and generalizations, summarize the views of others, and enter a conversation about ideas.” Graff then understood that his fascination with sports had also greatly paved the way for his intellectualism through debates about teams with other fans and comparing player statistics.
Similarly as Graff and Warner were alternatively intellectual, important figures throughout history have struggled with the same challenge, in most recent times is the late Steve Jobs. In life, Jobs often described himself as “never being a good student” in school; he even dropped out of college his first semester. However, he knew his true potential, stuck with developing the first personal computers, and eventually became the co-founder, chairman, and CEO of Apple Inc. (Zhao). Jobs’ elementary and high school teachers were most likely blown away by his monumental success because they did not take the time to see that his interests outside the strict curriculum could lead to more. Now that it is recognized that students interested in nonacademic topics can be intellectuals, not as widely as it should be but more promising than before, where can this idea be taken?
In his writing, Gerald Graff cites Deborah Meier who suggests that the violence that administrators believe to be brought in by outside sources can actually be building up inside students, in part, from the frustration of unreleased, yet present intellectualism. Graff recognizes her premise, and even quotes the following, “As Meier observes, ‘fighting with ideas’ would be a welcome substitute for fighting ‘with fists or guns or nasty sound bites.’” In addition, further in her writing, Deborah Meier explains that “schools, in small and unconscious ways, silence . . . playground intellectuals.” Graff adds to this proposal a rebuttal, that schools, even his own, don’t silence all the various types of intellectuals. They simply make it harder for students to recognize their abilities. Teachers and schools should channel the argumentative energy into clashes of ideas, such as in debates, or the bottled up energy can escalate into violence, but how do they go about doing this?
Graff, believing full-heartedly in this idea, created a lesson plan with an eleventh grade high school English teacher to make students familiar with intellectualism through exercises like debates on the pros and cons of becoming an intellectual and discussing the hidden intellectualism of the main characters in literary works such as Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. The purpose of these activities is to get the students to think like intellectuals in a hidden way, which, in turn, should prove to them that there is an intellectual inside of each and every one of them.
This method of education is reminiscent of the progressivism works of theorist John Dewey, who felt that students should be taught how to be active members of a democratic society through learning problem-solving and inquiry skills. Dewey saw schools as “little democracies” and believed that they should teach students material that would help them both outside the classroom and throughout their lives. He proposed this feat would be accomplished through a “child-centered pedagogy” and an “experience-based curriculum,” formed by both students and teachers. Teachers would take the knowledge of their students and use it to develop lessons that would both adhere to the academic requirements of the school and its standards while simultaneously satisfying students’ interest. Dewey’s main belief was, “Children, if taught to understand the relationship between thinking and doing, would be fully equipped for active participation in a democratic society,” (Guthrie 1933-34).
If applied to the discussion of schools revealing intellectualism, a similar strategy and outcome could occur. If teachers brought more outside influences into the classroom that their students enjoyed, not only would the students learn the material, but they would also know that they have the intellectualism to learn just as well as their nerdy peers. For example, in a physics class, a final project can be where the students have to relate a scientific topic that they learned to a real life situation. If a student who is passionate about skateboarding did a project on the potential energy as he rolls down a ramp, it could unleash the scientific talent within him, even if he never thought about science outside the classroom before. This type of example is exactly what Graff is referring to throughout his essay. The student involved in skateboarding would not normally be considered the prime candidate for an intellectual. However, if his interests are channeled in an effective way, his true intellectual potential can be revealed. The possibilities of this endeavor are endless, if used correctly.
“Hidden Intellectualism” explores a topic that is seldom discussed, yet highly important. Every student is an intellectual; he or she just needs the proper opportunity to expose it. Although Graff’s piece does not end in a concrete solution, it does give the reader many things to ponder in his or her own life. What is an intellectual? Am I an intellectual? When did I first identify as an intellectual or will I ever?
Guthrie, James W. Encyclopedia of Education: Second Edition. New York: Thomson Gale, 2003. Print.
Zhao, Emmeline. “Steve Jobs: What Students Can Learn From Him.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 06 Oct. 2011.Web. 08 Feb. 2014.