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Apathy toward intellectualism damages our culture

By Pau DaSilva
On March 2, 2014

In contemporary culture, there seems to be a pervasive apathy for intellectualism, and this has yielded unfortunate consequences. Striving for intellectual enrichment is often perceived as a futile exercise, deemed a waste of one's time.
This is demonstrated by examining the fundamental purpose of a collegiate education. Most students attending college in the present-day will undeniably admit the principal reason they have chosen to go to college instead of seeking employment directly from high school is so that they can acquire a job someday that will pay reasonably well. The hope of future employment where pay is superior to a position that can be obtained without a college diploma should not be considered an entirely unjust motivation for attending college. After all, the average American will spend tens of thousands of dollars pursuing such an education. But it is disconcerting to me that an aspiration for enriching the mind is not more ubiquitous among today's college students.
I see this dynamic first-hand as a college student. Most of my friends and fellow classmates believe it is unnecessary to, for instance, complete every assigned reading, since this is superfluous to achieving their overriding goal of earning a satisfactory enough grade to get a diploma. What is the purpose of going above and beyond and reading the fifty page optional chapter when an equal grade can be received without reading the chapter? This is an incredibly unfortunate mindset, since it is inherently contrary to the historical intention of higher education: to explore myriad academic disciplines while increasing one's ability for higher-level thinking.
The first institutions of higher learning, dating back to ancient Greece with the Platonic Academy, were created with the purpose of maturing the mind and acquiring wisdom. Over time, and particularly over the past few decades, post-secondary education would be expanded to include the masses and would focus less on trying to create Renaissance men, but instead on forming curricula that would provide necessary knowledge for future employment. This phenomenon can be credited mainly to a natural cause, namely, the growth in demand for jobs which require a more focused education beyond grade school. But that necessity for a larger percentage of the population to attend college did not have to bring with it the negative side effects that are playing out today.
One can look beyond the collegiate environment to provide further evidence for the notion that we, as a society, fail to celebrate and encourage intellectual achievement. Our political leaders, for example, purposely speak in simple terms, in sharp contrast to the diction used by our earlier leaders. There is a fear that if a politician makes use of a strong vocabulary they would be condemned as "elitist." This is concerning, that somehow speaking intellectually is shunned by the public, instead of being embraced and celebrated. For further evidence of this phenomenon, The Guardian conducted an analysis of the reading level of each president's State of the Union adress since Washington, and there is a notable negative correlation between the year of the speech's delivery and its reading level.
President Obama's State of the Union Addresses from 2010-2012 were determined to be at an eighth grade readability level, according to an analysis published by the University of Minnesota's SmartPolitics blog.
People often wonder why the rhetoric of our earlier presidents seems to be so much more refined and eloquent; why they made use of an elevated vocabulary, as opposed to presidents today, who though they may possess the ability to use elevated diction, choose to speak in language that would be perfectly comprehensible even by the most poorly educated Americans.  

Apathy for intellectualism can be described in terms of college students' motivations for attending an institution of higher learning and by the notion that has been advanced by political communication strategists: in public speaking, politicians should essentially talk to the lowest common denominator.
It appears that this trend is destined to continue, and likely get worse, considering already, for instance, the increasingly popular push for schools and universities to rethink their liberal arts-based curriculum.
 


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