Keeping the balance between intellect and pretension

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April 4, 2008

1:37 AM

If there is one word humanities majors love to use, it’s “pretentious.” Accusations of pretentiousness abound in academia.

When wielded in the proper circles, the word is damning; to call a student, professor, artist or idea pretentious is the ultimate dis. But in this, the last full month of my undergraduate career, I’m not so sure I know what it means.

As Susan Jacoby attests in her new book, “The Age of American Unreason,” our nation has a rich history of anti-intellectualism. Jacoby’s claims echo those of Richard Hofstadter, whose “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” was published in 1963 and remains widely read ­­— at least, as widely read as can be expected of a 1963 intellectual tract. I, for one, haven’t read either book, though both sound pretty enjoyable. Both authors attempt to disassociate intellect from elitism — a distinction that ought to make its way into the College’s classrooms.

Easier said than done, though. I’ll be the first to grant that genuine pretension exists on this campus, perhaps in spades. In nearly every course I’ve taken, there’s been That One Kid.

You know this kid. He or she is perennially vying for the limelight, eager to air garish, indefensible opinions on any and all subjects. This type is unstoppable. I want very badly to slap them and their parents. They are, by almost any standard, pretentious.

In upper-level humanities courses, the line between pretension and authentic intelligence grows blurrier still. Is it possible, in courses with names like “Philosophy of Mind,” “Literature, Art and Reality” or “British Aesthetic Tradition,” to conduct a conversation without it devolving into namedropping and jargon?

As Thomas Pynchon puts it in his novel, “V.,” discussion is in some ways “little more than proper nouns, literary allusions, critical or philosophical terms linked in certain ways. Depending on how you arrange the building blocks at your disposal, you [are] smart or stupid.” (I actually did read that book.)

It’s not that the concepts introduced in these courses are insipid or highfalutin — far from it. But academic language is so specialized, so fraught with argot, that we must inspect our every word to avoid becoming That One Kid.

With every raised hand there’s the concern that our comments are trivial, ostentatious or pedantic. I care about what my classmates think of me, even if their opinions are radically divergent from my own.

More still, I care about what my professors think of me. This might not be the best way to live — but to claim otherwise would be lying. And here’s where things get weird. To be labeled pretentious is tantamount to being labeled fraudulent — it means people think you’re trying to be something that you’re not. I happen to have a bona fide interest in postmodern literature, existentialist philosophy and other such impractical pursuits. I have no way of proving this to you; for all you know, I’m faking it in hopes of coming off as brainy and cultured.

To a broad swath of the American populace, my knowledge of the word “postmodern” makes me automatically pretentious — I am, to them, That One Kid. I know a couple of big words. I can identify Iraq on a map. By extension, I’m a holier-than-thou prick.

Like many others, then, the word is defined and applied subjectively. Insofar as objective meaning is concerned, it seems the best we can do is agree that it’s a bad thing to be pretentious.

Nevertheless, America’s trend of anti-intellectualism is worrisome, and college campuses aren’t exempt from its cultural influence. It does seem to me that perfectly well-intentioned students are often labeled pretentious just because they prefer, say, books to television.

That’s a shame, because eschewing the mainstream is not, in and of itself, pretentious. To me, That One Kid would lie about having read “The Age of American Unreason.” He would quote Pynchon where Pynchon need not be quoted, or he would misquote Pynchon entirely.

It’s not pretentious to be “an intellectual,” i.e., to tend toward the highbrow. It’s pretentious to claim these tendencies when you don’t honestly have them.

__Dan Piepenbring is a senior at the College.__

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