A crisis of confidence: Distant cousins of anti-intellectualism lurk in College’s classrooms

Increasingly, news sources tell us that the U.S. has entered an age of anti-intellectualism. The public sphere – the government and the media, both liberal and conservative – is dominated by a brand of distorted, gut truth. Columnists in The New York Times frequently write about this phenomenon and quote from the recent book, The Age of American Unreason, which is about anti-intellectualism in America. We see this pattern in the obituaries, too. The deaths of William F. Buckley, Arthur Schlesinger Jr. and Norman Mailer, public figures standing for intellectualism, seem, in some twisted way, quite timely.

At a school like Williams, it is easy to believe that we are outside or even above this trend. We uphold the ideal of the balanced intellectual. One of the main reasons I applied to Williams was to pursue this image. I wanted to challenge and develop my mind and my thinking. After just a year and a half, I already feel that I approach problems more directly and maturely, balancing my schoolwork with the other facets of my life. I’ve developed and I’ve certainly been challenged.

In almost every homework assignment, every reading, every lecture, Williams daily bucks the trend of anti-intellectualism. We smack of intellectualism. However, even at Williams, I’ve perceived a relative of the nation’s anti-intellectual movement. It’s more like a distantly related, grotesque cousin than a brother or a sister, but it’s a relative nonetheless. At Williams, I’ve been confronted by two intellectual limitations I’ve never before encountered. The first is the scholarly world of greater academia, with all its conferences and papers, enlightenment and pretenses. The second is the shadowy undercurrent of intellectual intimidation that pervades campus.

The scholarly world is not primarily a limitation. For many, its discovery is a revelation, unlocking new, sweeping intellectual vistas – vistas like those first few journal-filled aisles at Sawyer or Schow. This is what higher education is all about. I am fascinated by this world, its breadth and unending novelty. But, at the same time, I am frustrated by its conventions. I find at the undergraduate level we are too often rewarded for uncreative thinking. For example, when I write lab reports, I feel like I’m writing poorly to conform to academic standards. This gripe against the academic establishment is far from original. Nevertheless, as far as intellectual limitations are concerned, it is not my main gripe.

While I believe Williams has successfully helped me accomplish my goals and continues to do so on a daily basis, it has simultaneously restricted me by deflating my intellectual confidence. In other words, I often doubt that I’m smart (and for a long time, being smart was part of my identity). This confession is not some “poor, poor, pitiful me” sentiment. Instead, unless I’ve completely misread the campus culture, many students feel the same way. We need to get over it. It’s good to be humbled and not be coddled, and it’s good to be competitive, challenged and pushed. But we have to accept this and stop doubting ourselves to the point where we stop taking risks.

Over spring break, I was cleaning out my desk at home and discovered some papers I had written during senior year in high school. Reading through them, I came to two conclusions. The first was that they weren’t as bad as I thought they would be. As a sophomore in college, I had taken for granted that my writing and thinking had drastically improved, but, in fact, these papers were pretty good. As I continued reading, it dawned on me that I wouldn’t have been confident enough to express a number of the ideas I had penned in high school in a paper at Williams. The ideas weren’t juvenile or silly, but they were more colorful. One of the papers was a defense of a play our class had read and disliked. The paper was written with more feeling than I’ve put in all but one or two of my frequently formulaic Williams papers.

Class discussion similarly suffers from this lack of confidence. There are several reasons why some of my more discussion-based classes had poor discussions, but one of them is an unwillingness on the part of the student to go out on a limb and share that creative idea or disagree with someone else’s original idea. We’re afraid to engage and leave ourselves vulnerable. I’m guilty of this for sure. I’ll raise my hand, but only to give simple, conservative answers to simple, conservative questions.

We shouldn’t let intellectual doubts get us down. Everyone can add to class and actively engage with the material. Even if we don’t think we’re as smart as that guy sitting next to us in math class or that dude who wrote the book we’re reading in philosophy, we should be confident. An attitude shift away from doubt, past acceptance and towards confidence can do much more for our education than playing it safe and going about business as usual.

Alex Beecher ’10 is from Morristown, N.J., and lives in Bryant House.