Beware the Rise of the Pseudo-Intellectual: Tom Wolfe’s Boston University Commencement Address
“We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion.”
By Maria Popova
Few things bypass our culture’s codified shell of cynicism more elegantly and powerfully than the commencement address — that singular mode of intravenous wisdom-delivery wherein an elder steps onto a stage and plugs straight into what Oscar Wilde called the “temperament of receptivity,” so elusive in all hearts and doubly so in the young. History’s greatest commencement addresses — masterworks like Joseph Brodsky’s “Speech at the Stadium” and David Foster Wallace’s “This Is Water” — deliver not vacant platitudes but hard-earned, life-tested insight into the beliefs, behaviors, and habits of mind that embolden us to live good, rewarding, noble lives.
That is what celebrated writer Tom Wolfe (b. March 2, 1931) delivered when he took the podium at Boston University in 2000 with a magnificent address included in Way More than Luck: Commencement Speeches on Living with Bravery, Empathy, and Other Existential Skills (public library).
Wolfe begins by putting in perspective the value — the gift — of an education:
As someone who grew up in the Great Depression of the 1930s, I know that a commencement is a family triumph. Forget money. Aside from love, the cardinal virtues, and time, there is no greater gift parents can give a child than an education.
And yet much of the true value of education, Wolfe argues, is being eclipsed by what he calls “pernicious enlightenment” — our idea-fetishism, continually fueled by the challenge of finding wisdom in the age of information, which leads us to mistake surface impressions for substantive understanding. Wolfe writes:
We live in an age in which ideas, important ideas, are worn like articles of fashion — and for precisely the same reason articles of fashion are worn, which is to make the wearer look better and to feel à la mode.
He examines the role of the middle class in the dissemination and uptake of ideas:
The truth is that there is a common bond among all cultures, among all peoples in this world … at least among those who have reached the level of the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush. And that common bond is that much-maligned class known as the bourgeoisie — the middle class… They are all over the world, in every continent, every nation, every society, every culture, everywhere you find the wheel, the shoe, and the toothbrush, and wherever they are, all of them believe in the same things. And what are those things? Peace, order, education, hard work, initiative, enterprise, creativity, cooperation, looking out for one another, looking out for the future of children, patriotism, fair play, and honesty. How much more do you want from the human beast? How much more can you possibly expect?
I say that the middle class around the world … is the highest form of evolution. The bourgeoisie! — the human beast doesn’t get any better! The worldwide bourgeoisie makes what passes today for aristocrats — people consumed by juvenility who hang loose upon society — look like shiftless children.
Perhaps with an eye to Virginia Woolf’s legendary rant against the malady of middlebrow, Wolfe notes:
We writers spent the entire twentieth century tearing down the bourgeoisie! … We in the arts have been complicit in the denigration of the best people on earth. Why? Because so many of the most influential ideas of our time are the product of a new creature of the twentieth century, a creature that did not exist until 1898 — and that creature is known as “the intellectual.”
The true enemy of the assimilation of substantive ideas, Wolfe argues, isn’t the middlebrow person but the pseudo-intellectual or, even, the “intellectual” — for anyone who describes himself as an “intellectual” (to say nothing of a “public intellectual”) already implies the “pseudo” by the very act of such self-description. (You know the type — perhaps he has an exaggerated “European accent” of unidentifiable Germanic origin, perhaps he quotes Voltaire excessively, perhaps he slips one too many French words into ordinary speech where a perfectly good English option exists.) Wolfe makes an important distinction:
We must be careful to make a distinction between the intellectual and the person of intellectual achievement. The two are very, very different animals. There are people of intellectual achievement who increase the sum of human knowledge, the powers of human insight, and analysis. And then there are the intellectuals. An intellectual is a person knowledgeable in one field who speaks out only in others. Starting in the early twentieth century, for the first time an ordinary storyteller, a novelist, a short story writer, a poet, a playwright, in certain cases a composer, an artist, or even an opera singer could achieve a tremendous eminence by becoming morally indignant about some public issue. It required no intellectual effort whatsoever. Suddenly he was elevated to a plane from which he could look down upon ordinary people. Conversely — this fascinates me — conversely, if you are merely a brilliant scholar, merely someone who has added immeasurably to the sum of human knowledge and the powers of human insight, that does not qualify you for the eminence of being an intellectual.
Having often thought about the role of cynicism in our culture — how we use its self-righteous hubris to mask our insecurity and vulnerability — I find myself nodding vigorously with Wolfe’s observation about the use of “moral indignation” in public discourse:
One of the things that I find really makes it worth watching all the Academy Awards, all the Emmys, all those awards ceremonies, is to see how today’s actors and television performers have discovered the formula. If you become indignant, this elevates you to the plane of “intellectual.” No mental activity is required. It is a rule, to which there has never been an exception, that when an actor or a television performer rises up to the microphone at one of these awards ceremonies and expresses moral indignation over something, he illustrates Marshall McLuhan’s dictum that “moral indignation is a standard strategy for endowing the idiot with dignity.”
Wolfe leaves graduates with a clarion call for cultivating the critical discernment necessary for making up one’s own mind in the face of such wearable intellectualism:
You’re not going to find many traditional judges who can lead you any longer, since they now wander helplessly, bemused by the willful ignorance of that bizarre twentieth-century organism, the intellectual. You’re going to have to make the crucial judgments yourselves. But you are among the very handful of those who can do it.
Way More than Luck, which also includes advice from Bradley Whitford, Debbie Millman, Nora Ephron, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathan Safran Foer, is an elevating read in its entirety. Complement it with this evolving archive of the greatest commencement addresses of all time, then revisit Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit for critical thinking.
Published May 19, 2015