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OnWords: Intellectual


As recently as the 1980s, the word “intellectual” had real meaning.

As Richard Hofstadter wrote half a century ago, the United States has always loved to hate intellectuals, a fact that can be seen on prominent display in the current race for president.

But the U.S. has also produced some of the greatest intellectuals of the past two centuries, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to bell hooks.

30 years ago, the idea of being an intellectual still made sense: Smart people wrote complex pieces that appeared in popular magazines. People presented nuanced ideas while being interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS.

The idea of exploring a notion with depth and seriousness wasn't foreign then, and the prospect that people would be interested in what intellectuals had to say was not yet a non-starter.

Intellectuals have now been replaced by pundits or experts. The pundit's job is to reiterate an existing position, and the expert is called upon to provide useful information, not to present an original idea.

We use the word “intellectual” less because our current way of being won't support the kind of reflection and repose that intellectuals require.

That's too bad. The world could use more useless intellectuals and many fewer useful fools.