False intellectualism

While attending the all-campus debate, “Should Athletics Play A Strong Role in The Admissions Process?” I was pleased to observe the large number of students who showed up for a discussion on an interesting issue. I was soon disturbed, however, by the now common trend of students leaving such events early. Of course, I’ve left lectures early myself and Williams students have a habit of being unable to sacrifice more than 30 minutes of their time before they have to be somewhere else. Yet what bothered me was not that people were leaving, but that a large percentage of those attending left immediately after guest speakers Murray Sperber and Christine Brennan had finished their talks. The debate continued for a good 20 minutes more, but it was clear that their talks had not only been the main attraction, but for many the only attraction.

Williams prides itself on being an intellectual community and many students come here in hopes of finding peers just as interested in pursuing an academic discussion as they are. We pride ourselves on being scholars both inside the classroom and out of it. According to the admissions website, “Williams students take their scholarship seriously and to new levels? Discussions begun in the classroom often spill over into Williamstown.”

For the most part, I think Williams and Williamstown lives up to this ideal. Academics in the classroom are almost uniformly excellent and the numerous lectures students have to take advantage of show that our self-described intellectualism is not entirely a myth. Nevertheless, I think the behavior exhibited at the debate, while not particularly troublesome by itself, is indicative of a larger trend at Williams: a kind of false intellectualism that merits further examination.

What the behavior at the debate suggests is that it was not necessarily the debate itself that interested students, nor the topic of the debate, but the presence of “famous” or “renowned” experts in that particular field. Students there were not completely uninterested in the result or intricacies of the issue at hand, but it was clear that students were mostly interested in what the experts had to say. Once Dr. Sperber and Ms. Brennan were done talking, many students were done listening.

The most well-attended talks are invariably those with famous lecturers: people such as Stiglitz, Sedaris and Dees. Often such talks are some of the more interesting lecturers Williams gets and it is simply human nature to want to see people who are more easily recognized. Their fame may be indicative of the quality of their lectures; Stiglitz undoubtedly has more original insight and expertise about economics than most lesser- known economists. Yet this is not always the case. Talks from other lecturers are often equal in quality to those of more renowned speakers but yet fail to spark the same interest from the student body. It is certainly not bad that celebrated speakers attract the interest that they do but it is troubling that a lecture on the same subject by a lesser-known expert appeals to remarkably fewer people. Are students really interested in the topics of the lectures or do we just want to say that we heard Stiglitz speak?

I’d argue a similar situation exists in classrooms. While students are often vocal in the classroom and continue to approach professors well beyond it, I often wonder if it is merely a good grade that we are after. Surely many students are truly engrossed in their subjects, but just as many students are willing to take a good grade and move on.

Now I am hardly an illustration of matchless intellectual curiosity and I am often easily sidetracked from my own academic pursuits. But intellectualism is more than simply going to class with smart kids and good professors and then showing up at lectures. Before we pat ourselves on the back for pursuing intellectualism, let us be sure that we are actually doing so. It should not take well-known people to stimulate discussion on important topics or to give us a desire to hear what our peers have to say. Too often at Williams we are content to sit back and let our reputation carry us forward. If we want to continue getting the academic and intellectual opportunities we have, let’s do more than show up and show up because we truly want to.