If there’s one thing that drives me nuts about this culture, it’s that choosing to actually use one’s mind is often ridiculed.
Don’t believe me? Try casually mentioning in conversation that you’ve been learning, just for fun, ancient Greek or economics. Or try taking a book on differential equations to the beach. Every face will curdle. Some will sympathetically ask, “are you reading that for a class?” The implication is that if it’s not for a class (or some other darn good reason) you have no business reading it. Learning something difficult has no intrinsic value in itself.
Now I understand that not everyone will find interesting the same things that I find interesting. What pains me is the intense reaction against anything not categorized as “easy” or “fun.” The unstated assumption seems to be that mental effort ought to be avoided wherever possible. And that a reasonable person’s long-term goal — once all their pesky educational requirements are finally checked off — should be to think as little as possible. Any effort beyond that gets an eye roll.
Note carefully that being smart isn’t what’s being shamed here; it’s wanting to use those smarts. Being smart is considered desirable, actually, but in a stroke of irony its value is conceived mostly as a way to get out of thinking. “Ah, you’re one of the smart ones. It must be nice to not have to study much.”
And it breeds, and it breeds. In a mad race to the bottom, everyone who expends some amount of mental effort is shamed by those who expend less, until eventually we get a country full of lazy minds who can’t imagine things being any other way.
How did we get here?
I think the ridiculing part can be explained in terms of comparisons. If Joe wants to turn off his brain, then his colleague Betty’s choosing to use hers draws attention to Joe’s choice and by comparison shames it. Joe feels threatened, so he lashes out and condemns Betty for expending what he sees as unnecessary effort. (This is like how everybody disdains the guy at the office who actually works hard, because by doing so he’s making everyone else look bad. His very existence proves that it’s quite possible to get a lot more done than what the average employee is getting done.) Nobody likes to feel shamed, hence the intensity of the reaction.
What I find more confusing is why most Joes want to avoid thinking hard in the first place. Why is this the norm? Is it because thinking requires effort? But why is expending effort undesirable? Lots of things — gardening, craftsmanship, working crossword puzzles — require effort, and they are not similarly ostracized. If someone is building a deck in the hot sun, they are considered normal, and even praiseworthy. Only if they are interested in studying the equations that govern deck-building are they anathema.
Much of my day-to-day teaching activity comes down to attempts to reverse this trend among my students. In order to actually learn, the mind has to be willing to learn; and it’s a lot easier to be willing to learn if you don’t think that learning is something abnormal or repellent to others.
It gets tiring. I try to model by example — boldly insisting, torpedoes be damned, that I will read my Plato and my Mandarin Chinese and enjoy it, by gum. I try to rub off on my students my enthusiasm for subject matter, my tone of voice declaring that this stuff is super cool and worthy of taking the time to understand. But overcoming the near-unanimous voices of a culture dead set against nerdiness is a losing battle.
I’d like to think this phenomenon wasn’t/isn’t true among all times and places, but I don’t really know. I can’t use as evidence the great books produced in other eras, because they were all by definition produced by willing thinkers, who may have been outliers in their time just as I am in mine. Maybe everyone rolled their eyes at Thoreau and Cicero, too, and muttered, “what a nerd!” But maybe it’s something in our society gone wrong. Why, and how to correct it?
(Hopefully this post doesn’t come across as arrogant. I don’t claim my brain is a thousandth as smart as Plato’s or Thoreau’s were. But I do claim — stubbornly, in the face of criticism from many angles — that I want to think as much and as rigorously as my brain is able to, to fathom as much beauty as I can in this world, and to attain whatever heights are within my reach. Why wouldn’t everyone want to do this?)