Beware of the anti-anti-intellectualist

Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, has recently argued his perceived increase of anti-intellectualism among geeks. By denouncing anti-intellectualism, he turns into an anti-anti-intellectualist. However I don’t like his picture of “intellectualism”, here’s why.

By “anti-intellectualism” Sanger means: 1) disrespect towards the role of experts 2) disinterest in books as vehicles of knowledge and interpretation 3) disinterest in “classics” as witnesses of culture 4) belief that learning can be replaced by search and 5) high-level education is overrated. Read his essay for the fine print, it is well written and easy to digest.

His essay stirred the geek population; it was discussed and commented upon extensively in multiple places over the interwebs. Sanger subsequently published a summary of the 11 most used arguments in reaction to his first essay, together with his answers to those arguments. To summarize, the consensus between Sanger and his reader is that intellectuals are people who respect and nurture knowledge; and that the anti-intellectuals geeks he denounces are devaluing individual knowledge, in favor of community-managed, online knowledge repositories equipped with automated query tools and the individual skills to use these tools.

While reading the first essay, I was personally interested in Sanger’s opinion about why anti-intellectualism is on the rise among geeks; this he answered at the end of his replies summary:

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 […]. 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?

His interpretation resonates with my own experience and that of people around me; including people I praise for their practical, non-intellectual take on their achievements and planned future career.

The motivation for Sander’s rant against anti-intellectualism is to defend the acquisition of knowledge and education, including in domains without immediate application like philosophy or literature. His proposed principle is that studying and learning, per se and regardless of topic, causes people to gain an “open mind” and think better in general. Extrapolating from his argument, from a purely utilitarian perspective I see it may thus be desirable to promote intellectualism, as a way to keep a productivity/resilience advantage against our ever changing and ever increasingly complex environment.

While I agree with his recognition of a trend towards geek anti-intellectualism, and his implicit distaste for a society where such anti-intellectualism prevails, it is not so clear to me as to how to avoid it.

By reverting his statements and extrapolating a little bit, I deduce he implicitly suggests to geeks to reinstate respect for intellectuals, promote teaching of topics that may not have immediate practical applications so as to foster interest in study and learning in general, reward the exercise of such study, and subsequently promote the study and continuous acquisition of “background cultural knowledge” as a mental hygiene for the masses instead of an obsolete luxury reserved to declining elites.

It all seems well but the details are tricky to get right. It appears instead that promoting only the continuous acquisition of knowledge may yield “smart apes” able to reliably reproduce and talk about learned concepts, without understanding them or inductively apply them to unforeseen circumstances. Knowledge, on its own, seems to me to constitute only half of the story; some methods of rationality should probably apply as well, and so should the ability to creatively abstract and apply knowledge to new contexts. Unfortunately, the abilities to reason and to create are not intrinsic parts of Sanger’s definition of “intellectuals,” whom he seems to see mostly as receptacles for knowledge.

From this point I hesitate to interpret his view: is Sanger implicitly assuming that geeks, by virtue of being geeks, already possess the required skills in rationality and creativity and thus only miss the knowledge traits he captures behind “intellect”? Or does he implicitly assume that the acquisition of knowledge, and by extension intellect, are impossible without reason and creativity?

These assumption should be clarified somehow. In the former case, the assumption seems wrong to me, since at least some well-recognized geeks clearly miss the creativity required to abstract and transpose knowledge to new situations. In the latter case, the assumption runs against the case of widely acclaimed “intellectuals” who are little more than walking libraries, not able to speak of what they know outside of the conceptual framework where they personally studied.

My personal interpretation of the situation is that intellectualism is not the proper alternative to Sanger’s perceived trend of anti-intellectualism. Anti-intellectualism is undesirable because it depreciates the acquisition of knowledge; it is not undesirable merely because it disfavors the possession of knowledge. The key distinction here is that it is the learning process, and not the acquired knowledge that results, which trains people to think better. Individuals do not have an “open mind” by virtue of knowing more; they have it by virtue of having learned more, ie. spent more effort learning in a challenging environment, ie an environment where creativity and rationality were key to overcome obstacles.

This vision in turn justifies my interest for people who spend endless hours reading random articles on Wikipedia and other information sources as part of their creative process of designing solutions to practical problems. Although they may subsequently be unable to recall the specifics without access to a search engine, and although the learning was contextualized by an immediate application, the process keeps them intellectually sharp: the regular quest for new information (rather than ability to memorize), the need to apply the knowledge in ways not previously recorded, and the cause-effect relationship between the actions undertaken and the problem at hand, provide the ideal learning environment. In my opinion, this environment is not endangered by the currently growing geek anti-intellectualism such as described by Sanger.