Graff’s essay “Hidden Intellectualism” is basically about the concept of “street smarts” and how they can help, not hinder, the development of traditional “book smarts,” ivory tower intellectualism. He posits that intellectualism in the sense of thinking critically and arguing effectively exists in almost every aspect of life, even those considered “anti-intellectual” such as sports and religion. Graff writes from the perspective of a child of the 1950s, when it was considered uncool to like school or excel in it, yet he explains that despite his efforts to be anti-intellectual by immersing himself in sports, that very obsession allowed him to develop the skills and desire for intellectual pursuits. Schools today could, according to Graff, do much more to encourage students to become better thinkers by tapping into the intellectualism hidden in their non-academic pursuits.
I have to admit, I had a hard time relating to much of this essay. I have always been enthralled with school, always excelled there, always got complimented for being bright; throughout high school my friends and I wore the label “nerd” like a badge of honor. So I’ve always thought of my intellectualism as very overt and not hidden at all.
What the article did get me thinking about was how the process of using an immersion in, for instance, religion (like Michael Warner, whose memoir Graff mentions or cites throughout the article, experienced as a child) to draw out intellectualism applied in reverse in my life. I had always gone to church and Sunday School from the time I was a tiny child, and then followed dutifully on to Confirmation by middle school. But the entire time I was looking at my study of religion as an academic exercise- memorizing Bible stories and reciting main tenants of the faith without it having much personal meaning for me.
That changed in tenth grade when my world history class included a unit on the Reformation. As required by public schools, the teacher explored it from a clearly secular angle, showing how world events and ideals influenced the split. And because of that, I began to really appreciate my denomination and my church on an emotional level, because I saw the alternative beliefs and could reject them. The interactions between traditional intellectualism and Graff’s “hidden intellectualism” continues for me as I wrestle with specific aspects of theology in order to decide what my faith means for me, personally.
Another aspect of Graff’s argument is that teachers have a golden opportunity to tap into the hidden aspects of intellectualism present in their students’ interests. Once again, given that I consider myself an overt intellectual, I had some issues with this. However, it allowed me to recognize why so many of my peers disliked my twelfth grade English teacher when I adored her. She was what one might consider the “traditional” teacher, and structured her lessons with a specific conclusion in mind that we were expected to reach. While this was perfectly fine for me, many classmates were of the hidden intellectual variety, and resented the loss of the more free rein discussions provided by our teacher the previous year, which allowed them to draw in more peripherally-related information that was interesting to them and bolstered their argument.
Yet, even after reading this essay and gaining a better understanding of “hidden intellectualism,” I’m not convinced that teachers are wrong to focus on the traditional history-and-literature variety. Didn’t Graff himself say he only realized he had been a “closet nerd” after studying those things in the academic way? And, aren’t there forums outside of the classroom for developing and expanding those “hidden intellectual” pursuits like sports, religion, and pop culture (like what occurs now, by the way)?