For some the term intellectual is derogatory. I think the negative feeling so many have for the term comes from its misapplication to people who, in reality, are anything but. Sort of like someone calling themselves a muffin just because they happen to have spent time in a bakery.
I do not take it negatively. I really can’t, given that so many people describe me with that and related terms on Facebook, and even to my actual face. Although I suppose it’s possible that they’re just being sarcastic. Or trying to be insulting.
My wife and I were recently discussing the process of raising children so that they grow up to be interested in learning new things, and remain open to changing their minds about what they believe or think. I ended up sharing some incidents that may have contributed to the way my mind works, and why I have an enormous hunger for learning and why I remain open to challenges and why I accept the fact that I can be wrong (since I often actually am).
Before I went to kindergarten, I enjoyed drawing pictures. I used ordinary pencils and crayons to create pictures of the world around me. I learned how to accurately depict trees, houses, animals, mountains and hills and rivers.
When I got to kindergarten, the teacher passed out crayons and pencils for us to use. I was excited until I saw that they were enormous fat things, at least twice as big around as the crayons and pencils I was accustomed to. I asked where the normal crayons might be. The teacher told me that these big crayons were the right size for my little hands. I protested that since my hands were little, why give me enormous crayons? Later on, my mother complained to the teacher (since I’d told her about my frustration). But the teacher did not relent and I was forced to use the cumbersome, hard to control monsters.
At another time, in a different class, we got to paint pictures on large sheets of paper using poster paint. At a parent-teacher meeting a few weeks later, I was excited to show my mom what I had created. To my dismay, the teacher had written words all over my picture: next to a tree was the word “tree” and next to a house, the word “house” and so on, for each thing in my picture. I was mortified. “Why did she write all over it? Now it’s ruined.”
My mom questioned the teacher about it. The teacher explained that she wrote on the pictures to identify the objects. That way the parents would know what their children had painted. “But you can tell what he painted,” my mom protested. “His tree looks like a tree, his house looks like a house. What’s the point?”
“I know that,” said the teacher. “The other children paint badly and their parents need the help. But I can’t make an exception just for him. I have to treat all the children the same.”
In that same class, I noticed that my classmates—every last one of them—painted a blue stripe along the top third or quarter of their pictures.
“Why do you do that?” I asked.
“That’s the sky,” they said.
“But the sky doesn’t look like that.”
In my pictures, I brought the blue all the way to the horizon, carefully painting around whatever trees or houses or mountains I might have already made.
“No,” my classmates would insist. “The sky is up.”
I would take them outside and point at the sky. “Look, the blue goes all the way down to the horizon.”
They still refused to get it and continued to paint the sky as a thin blue stripe at the top of their sheets.
And then, in first grade my teacher was teaching us about astronomy. She wrote out the names of the planets on the board, but she didn’t put them in the right order. Not even close. I raised my hand and told her that wasn’t the right order. Then I told her what the right order was.
She told me I was wrong. I disagreed and found an astronomy book and tried to show her what the order was. She didn’t want to look and told me to sit down and stop bothering her.
She refused to acknowledge her error.
So what did I learn from these and other, similar experiences? I learned the things that turn someone into an intellectual—of the real kind, not the “I’m educated—look at my degrees—and you aren’t, so shut up” kind.
I learned that just because you’re older than me, or just because you’re in a position of authority, or just because you’re educated, it doesn’t mean you’re right. Facts are facts. They are not dependent on who said them. Truth trumps authority, power, and credentials.
Second, I learned not to accept what I was told until I had checked it out for myself. No matter how much I liked a person, no matter how reliable they usually were, it was still important to verify their information. I needed to find references. I learned to hunt for all points of view on any given topic. I tried to disprove what I thought I knew. One source, one point of view, proved nothing. If nothing made sense, then I kept looking and thinking until I figured it out.
And finally, I learned that just because everyone agrees, everyone might be wrong. Facts trump the majority, and even if I’m the only one who sees it, the sky still goes to the horizon. It’s not just a blue stripe on top of the picture.