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The Seams Are Showing on Intellectualism

November 7, 2016

When I was a bowl haircut headed kid, I did what nearly every kid did after school or on Saturdays: I watched cartoons.  The TV networks evidently felt like watching Optimus Prime beat Decepticons down didn’t add enough real value to my life so they interspersed short PSA segments called “The More You Know” throughout the programming.  These segments involved celebrities who were my heroes on television like Betty White (yes, Betty White – don’t lie to yourself and deny you feel the same way) or Will Smith telling me things that I needed to know for life to be ok.  They illustrate what was a common theme in my and every other kid’s life at the time:  you better get educated.  Education was the solution to everything.

Need a job when you grow up?  Educate yourself.  Want to make sure you can buy all the things you want?  Hit the books.  Want to make your dreams come true?  Know things.  

It even bled over into the moral realm.  Want to end racism?  Educate.  Want to save the planet?  Knowledge up.  End war?  Use your brain instead of your fists.  Almost anything could be solved through education.

By the time I hit high school, I unequivocally knew that if I didn’t go to college, I was gonna end up a failure.  I wouldn’t be able to afford a wife or family.  I wouldn’t be of use to many people.  In short, I would have screwed up my life and I would be a disappointment.  I was sure that what I knew would determine if I succeeded in nearly all aspects of life.  I agreed – “Yes, television and everyone else, it IS the more you know!”   And a perk was that I was on the same page as the Fresh Prince.  (Check these 30 second “The More You Know” PSA out and you too can be aligned with the Will Smith)

We are going through the usual turbulent election season.  I know it feels like this is a new kind of hell we are suffering but it’s really been like this in the U.S. (and likely in the world) since the beginning.  Two of our first presidents felt this way.  Jefferson hated newspapers because he believed they always published slander.  Adams created law at least partially so that he could prosecute the newspapers coming after him with what he considered outrageous lies.  It’s been nasty for a long time and both sides have decried the lack of objectivity since the beginning.  

That being said, I’ve noticed something a bit unusual through the process.  The seams are starting to show on the saving power of the new intellectualism and it’s driving people’s anger.

I’ve spent the last 20 years or so of my life working closely with young people.  At one of my last jobs at a coffee shop, we used to joke about how much college education and debt we had working behind the bar.  Often times it was 15 years, including master’s degrees, and over $100,000.  That made it better when customers implied that we couldn’t handle the complications of what made up their perfect latte’s.  Oh wait, better wasn’t the word I was looking for .. But, seriously, it was easy to see that people are feeling burnt by the advice that they were given.  That advice was exactly what i stated above.  If you educate yourself, you will be able to get jobs and have money and pay for relationships and all the rest.  You’ll be a success!  But, that obviously isn’t coming true.  They can’t afford anything.  Their lives aren’t happy or fulfilled by what they know.  They are barely scraping by in comparison to their parents.  It wasn’t lost on the people behind that barista bar that if they had taken the money they had spent on college and combined it they could’ve owned the shop they were in instead of scraping by on tips and $6/hour.  In short, knowledge alone hasn’t made them a success at all.  It was also not encouraging that the people that could afford $5 lattes multiple times a day were clearly not any happier themselves.  

Besides from that, education was supposed to save us morally.  Here I think lies the crux of the current matter and is the explanation for a lot of non-sourced frustration.  That knowledge hasn’t seemed to make anything better.  If anything, a lot of times it has made it worse.  There was a promise that getting educated was the key to fixing these moral issues of the human race, and now that they have educated themselves, the generations before quite often discount their educated opinion out of hand.  Now that they don’t have things or financial security, the thing they believe they can contribute is morality through their accumulation of knowledge and even that is being taken away.  That’s frustrating and it deepens their dissatisfaction.  

There’s no clear cut way of dealing with it.  I’ve seen many people just double down in one way or the other.  They keep going for higher and more degrees, getting deeper and deeper into debt, hoping that they will hit some qualification level that will get them out of the hole – either physically or emotionally..  Many try to dominate or take respect by out arguing their competition, mostly from behind a computer screen.  I’ve seen more unblinking charges of idiocy of other people in the last two or three years than I had seen at any point previously in life.  It’s a natural assumption, I guess, from this intellectualism mantra that’s been pushed.  If someone isn’t taking my side then they must be immoral or stupid.  Yet, High School graduation rates have been strong and growing for the last 40 years.  College enrollment for graduating seniors has increased steadily since the 50’s.  Enrollment for people over 25 has increased steadily.  People stay longer in college than ever before.  The reality is that most people living in the United States have valued education.  While it’s hard to gauge true competency,  the myriad of current claims that people are uneducated and don’t want to learn from whatever side you are on is not true.  People are trying to learn more than ever before.   Why, then, isn’t everything fixed?

Could it be that intellectualism alone isn’t our savior?  Could it be that what makes a nice world to live in and what solves problems isn’t fully wrapped up in our knowledge?  I know, I know.  I naturally kick against that question too.  In my head, Joey Lawrence is busting out of his The More You Know segment to try to convince me otherwise.  It’s been beaten into my head that what I know was going to qualify me in every phase of humanity.  Even in my faith, I have been repeatedly told from multiple sources that God was mostly a God of the intellect.  This is probably where I got the idea that terrified me as a kid that God wouldn’t let me into heaven if I hadn’t read the whole Bible first.  Pre-teen me panicked in Numbers.  

Yet, I read later that Paul, after a difficult stint in Athens, the cradle of some of the best philosophers the world has ever known, came to the Corinthians only wanting to know Christ crucified.  (Which I believe, by the way, is not really a simplification at all but is an attempt to place his mind in the ungraspable wonder of the Lord).  He says later that if he could fathom all mysteries but didn’t have love he would be nothing.  To Paul, love needed to be infused in our knowledge in order for it to be worth something.  So maybe my intellect alone wasn’t going to save me or the rest of us like I was continuously told.

Knowledge is a fickle thing.  We all know this but sometimes act like we don’t.  I would say that knowledge has a fullness to it.  That confounds things. Blaise Pascal once said something to the effect that with knowledge we should all imagine ourselves on one of those sloping roads that travel up and around strip mines.  When a person below on the road looks at something in the pit, they can accurately describe that – but only from that point.  Someone from higher up the pit, who could possibly see more of the scene, could explain more fully what was being seen.  He said we should all remember that what the person who is lower is describing is accurate to them, even if it is not fully correct because of their vantage point.  The only way we can help them is by leading the person up to our vantage point.  Arguing with them won’t convince them that what they are seeing from their vantage point is untrue because it isn’t.  How we convince people to come up to where we are then, isn’t knowledge, it’s mostly love.  That’s why he postulated that since knowledge of something exists on multiple levels that logic only exists to bring us to the understanding that there are things beyond logic and beyond our understanding.  It’s love that is the real power and if we are to follow logic, then we must follow the logic of the heart.  (He actually tried to form a book around the logic of the heart, not the head, which is pretty fascinating.)

I think many people in my culture have basically accepted that positional truth is a thing, whether Christian or non.  I thought people outside of God were doomed to its inevitable complete isolation.  I see this depression in so many around me.  However, there has been an odd shift lately that until recently I was having a hard time understanding based on that culture wide basic acceptance of positional truth.  I don’t know if it has changed the depression levels but is certainly is an attempt to move away somewhat from positional truth.  Many people say that our country has shifted from God.  The statistics support that in some ways.  What has been confusing is that I see more profession of absolute morality than I’ve seen previously in life.  These trends should conflict.  When I was a kid, one of the perks of going away from God was doing away with morality.  Many people told me this.  I once had a discussion my friends important psychiatrist dad telling me as a young teenager that morality was determined by culture.  When I asked him if sex with children was wrong, he told me only if the social compact the person lived in prevented it.  Pressing him, I said “Ok, the culture allows it, like several current cultures in the world do.”  He told me flatly that it then wasn’t wrong.  This was not irregular.  I had many people who told me similar things.

Yet, now I hear moral words like “good”, “bad”, “evil”, etc .. thrown around.  In this election, I’ve seen more people throw around arguments that amount to moral compulsion to vote one side or the other than in previous elections.  I wondered why people would want morality without God but what I’m seeing is that people realize that knowledge without morality just isn’t very powerful.  Adding morality to knowledge allows you things and power you couldn’t have otherwise.  In other words, you can tell people what they “ought to do”.  The problem being, up ’til now, for the most part, there was little room in those philosophical circles for “ought to do”.  In fact, it’s pretty hard to come to the conclusion that we have free will from that vantage point and a lot of influential people who think about this stuff have concluded that humans don’t.  Everything is subjective.  We can only process information from our unique circumstances and genetic make up and at that point it’s the chemicals in our body reacting to the uncontrollable series of events that previously happened to us, not us choosing.  

I thought this was a pretty big barrier but it seems now that the source of this absolute morality is ill defined but it doesn’t really bother people.  It’s located in some kind of nebulous intellectual zeitgeist that is perceived to be the “normal” thoughts and truths of the world.  I can’t find where this is quantified but it is accepted.  I think part of the attraction is that it ISN’T quantified.  It’s just this sort of hazy Brigadoonish place where the intelligence of our race roams about and you are either in it or not.  The other person does not determine if they are in it. You determine it. If you even bring up the word morality, mostly what I’ve seen is people say that there isn’t but then go about their lives acting as if there is.  Having no stated center provides cover from the messy fullness of knowledge or subjectivity/objectivity issues, I guess.  But, I say all this to say that this tenuous thing has somehow become the engine to authorize telling people what they “ought to do” while simultaneously protecting the premise that those that know the most are the most moral.  In the end, it’s attractive because we have created a place where we can defend any action and alignment to it is subjective to our interpretation. It allows for duplicity because it has the ability to morph at the drop of a hat.  This, most assuredly, is a recipe for atrocity and disaster.  

It’s becoming clear to me that politics is becoming the religion of both those abandoning God and many who follow God.  If that is you, please, turn back.  It is a dead end for you.  The history of the world teaches us that you will likely hurt others in the process.  Intellectualism as moral authority or the source of happiness has been tried and tried and failed and failed. Turn back from making politics your religion for the sake of us all.  Atrocity and disaster lie that way.

There is plenty to digest here but let me leave you with the opinion of a regular joe out here.  Let’s create a healthy distance from this idea we’ve been repeatedly told that our knowledge alone will save us  Look around.  The seams are showing on that bad philosophy.  We don’t have to follow it all the way to its bitter end!  Let’s remember that we are more than just mind – we are body, heart, and soul as well.  The mind divorced from these will lead us to frustration and possibly much worse.

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