Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Where have all the pseudo-intellectuals gone?

By Jim Heffernan
The Republicans running for president have been fueling suspicion of intellectuals, especially elite intellectuals like the Harvard faculty (as opposed to the first 500 names in the New York City phone book), and, of course, President Barack Obama, a former professor of constitutional law.

Newt “Big Ideas” Gingrich has been particularly hard on the intellectual elite, and also the mainstream media, especially those who bring up his matrimonial record.

Gingrich is almost of my generation, so I believe I understand him better than the other Republicans, although fairly youthful-seeming Mitt Romney is no spring chicken. Ron Paul, of course, is an old rooster.

I do not understand, however, why these conservatives are so resentful of intellectuals, knowing that they are old enough to recall when the real problem – at least it was when I was in college – was with pseudo-intellectuals. That leaves only Rick Sanatorium.

When I trod the halls of academe in the 1960s, such as they were at the Duluth “branch” of the University of Minnesota, pseudo-intellectuals – all male -- were hiding behind every pillar of higher learning. Everybody knew who they were due to certain universal pseudo-intellectual traits obvious to the naked eye as well as those who wore spectacles. This was the immediate post-lorgnette era.

The most obvious trait of a pseudo-intellectual, aside from thinking they were smarter than everybody else, was pipe smoking. No cool guy (i.e. a cigarette smoker) would be caught dead smoking a pipe. Pipe-smoking pseudo-intellectuals also wore horn-rim glasses, made a public display of playing chess and bridge, and – forgive me for this – had unkempt seemingly not recently shampooed hair. You know the hair.

They were also careless about their dress, eschewing the “cool” clothes worn by, say, fraternity men or athletes. Plastic shirt pocket protectors? You bet your ballpoint pen with the piggy back refill built right in. Slide rules were worn in holsters on belt, for quick drawing in discussions on the limits of pi. I hasten to add, though, that their mothers loved them.

I felt at the time it would be horrible to be branded a pseudo-intellectual and went out of my way not to seem like one. In hindsight, there were two ways to avoid being labeled a pseudo-intellectual (other than pipe smoking and the rest): Be an actual intellectual, so you could condescendingly look down on the pseudo-intellectual in the academic pecking order. This was not an avenue open to me because I hailed from Duluth’s western precincts, had never been crowned a Junior Rotarian and the academic achievement reflected in the grades I got were, um, not reflecting sufficient intellectual rigor, let us put it.

So those of us who could not claim to be actual, bona fide intellectuals but didn’t want to be branded a pseudo-intellectual put on a “regular guy” act or whatever passed for “cool” in the early 1960s. The late 1960s were entirely different, but I was well out of the academic environment by then.

Now that so many years have passed, I have been able to track the lifetime records of a few of those we regarded 50 years ago as pseudo-intellectuals. Most have given up the pipe and chess, but bridge might be a pastime that endures with a few. Some of them actually made intellectual status and enjoyed continued academic life on faculties while retaining many of their own (faculties). And a few made big bucks and have become philanthropists and pseudo-philanthropists with their names on college buildings.

As for me, I am writing a book I will call “The Old Man and the C”. You just read the introduction.

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