Defending The Eggheads

In 1952 the right-wing novelist and essayist Louis Bromfield wrote the following barb regarding the intellectual, who was increasingly referred to as an “egghead.”

Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions, often a professor or the protegé of a professor. Fundamentally superficial. Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem. Supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men. Essentially confused in thought and immersed in a mixture of sentimentality and violent evangelism. A doctrinaire supporter of Middle-European socialism as opposed to Greco-French-American ideas of democracy and liberalism. Subject to the old-fashioned philosophical morality of Nietzsche which frequently leads him into jail or disgrace. A self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot. An anemic bleeding heart.”

To add to the mix, president Eisenhower later added “by the way, I heard a definition of an intellectual that I thought was very interesting: a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.” And so, led by the likes of Joe McCarthy, the war against those who use their minds and choose their words carefully began. And despite McCarthy’s dwindling popularity, the cry was swiftly taken up by hordes of more practical and down-to-earth folks who have always had a distrust of poets, artists, dreamers, and those reputed to live in ivory towers.

But we might note that Eisenhower’s definition might well include Bromfield who uses way too many words and doesn’t seem to know what he is talking about.   After all, it’s not at all clear how those dry intellectuals can at the same time be “over-emotional and feminine” (whatever that might mean). Further, socialism cannot easily be set in opposition to democracy since they are not of a kind: one is an economic system and the other a political one. There are highly successful countries that blend in interesting ways both socialism and democracy. Moreover, Bromfield might even fit his own description of an egghead, since he is “supercilious and surfeited with conceit and contempt for the experience of more sound and able men.” But, we leave these enticing thoughts because there are larger issues here.

To begin with, Bromfield does make a couple of good points. For one, intellectuals do tend to look at every side of complex issues and it often renders them ineffectual. Accurate or not, the common image of the intellectual is the philosopher Thales who reportedly fell into a hole while gazing at the stars! However, we might recall that Plato’s notion that philosophers should be kings was dismissed out of hand by that other egghead, Aristotle, who preferred a person of “practical wisdom,” which meant a person with good common sense. Neither, however, would have approved of a political leader who rushes blindly into action before he or she has fully accessed the consequences of that action — like, say, engaging in war in Iraq or Afghanistan. Thus, if the alternative to the egghead is the “real world” person of a practical mien who jumps at conclusions and rushes headlong into disaster, then one would think the intellectual approach is to be preferred. Or, perhaps, there is a third option: careful deliberation followed by determination to follow the agreed-upon course of action. Indeed, this is the sort of thing James Madison envisioned when he wrote the Constitution. (Now, there’s an egghead if there ever was one!!) This was supposed to be the strength of a Democracy. We were to be a nation that took its time to do things right, examining both sides of complex issues and reaching a consensus when possible.  We were supposed to deliberate and use our minds; in order to make sure we could do that, an educated citizenry was the keystone. Both Madison and his close friend (and another egghead) Thomas Jefferson agreed about that.

But the anti-intellectual ethos that permeates this culture today has lent its considerable weight to the attack on the public schools and the notion that education will lead this country into a brighter tomorrow has been lost in the concern over more practical matters: like job training and the economy. To be sure, Bromfield is right that intellectuals can be a pain in the ass. But one would hope that in this complex world of ours we would willingly take time to listen to a person who knows what he or she is talking about rather than mindlessly follow the person who shoots off his mouth and rushes blindly into situations filled with hidden dangers.