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Anthony Badami '11: A retreat from anti-intellectualism

Jonah Fabricant's recent column ("A retreat from pedantry," Sept. 22) is a stupefying and wandering criticism of the use of academic jargon in friendly conversation. He calls it unnecessarily mystifying and invites his readers to retreat from such conduct.
I am not of a similar mind. Instead, I invite my peers to face pedantry head-on rather than retreat into flavorless vocabulary.

Why might I have such an inclination? I'll answer this question by responding to one of Fabricant's. He writes, "Is the added precision I would gain by introducing an unusual term worth the resulting loss of simplicity?"

I dare say yes. Contrary to those who embrace mental torpor, I would argue that the injection of academic jargon into everyday conversation is necessary and valuable. Jonah deems the use of intellectual lingo as simply a "shorthand (way) of referencing," a catalog of "academic buzzwords" not to be "used outside of the classroom."

This is nonsense. As a political theorist, I can tell you that these "buzzwords" (especially "hegemony") have made immeasurable contributions to the way human society is understood. These words are not just pseudo-intellectual argot; they are incredibly rich and complex responses to some of the toughest and most fundamental questions of human existence.

Consider his two examples: "totally dialectical" and "subversively heteronormative." He dismissively argues that these "mundane" terms could easily be boiled down to something like "the two things are opposed" or "I'm gay, and that offends me."

But that's not what those terms mean. Dialectical thinking, for example, is a theoretical approach to analytic and philosophical discovery, utilized by powerful thinkers like Marx and Hegel, that seeks to make sense of the contentious relationship among social, political and economic forces. It is wondrously nuanced and one of the more interesting subjects I've studied as a Brown undergraduate. 

Nor are these terms used solely for posturing. A queer student at Brown, expressing his or her repulsion to heteronormative behavior, is not merely performing for peers or dressing up distress. Rather, he or she is expressing genuine opposition to hateful and entrenched prejudice. Personally, if I were to overhear this bit of opprobrium in a food line at Jo's, my heart would skip a beat.

As a high school student, I understood the benefit of keeping academics affairs separate; my high school social circles were not exactly bookish. Whether it was a farm party or a friendly dinner, loud and boorish behavior earned you attention — the cerebral did not.

But, as a junior at Brown, I've moved past this. Why keep the academic, social and personal spheres separate? If you refuse to use "academic" language in common social settings, then you quarantine intellectual study to the confines of a classroom. I implore you: Let the spheres mingle. If you can describe your morning oatmeal at the Ratty using "French literary criticism," then you're someone I want to eat with!

A significant part of Fabricant's column hinges on a GQ article concerning the "douchiest" American colleges. May I say, for the record, who gives a flying what's-its-name about GQ? I understand the fear of alienating one's peers with elaborate language, but no one has the authority (be they GQ or Cosmo) to tell me how to act, how to speak or how to think, so that I might eschew "douchiness."

It seems like Fabricant's real issue is with the misuse of language. But this problem is not solely academic — it pervades all forms of vocabulary and communication. Correcting malapropism requires the introduction of difficult words into the public arena. If we let complex words fester in some miserable carrel, they're useless.

I will end with a distinctly populist notion brought to you by Enlightenment thinker and French essayist François-Marie Arouet. He writes, "No problem can withstand the assault of sustained thinking."

Academic language does not obscure simplicity — it obscures simplistic thinking. It complicates matters. It exposes the gray and challenges orthodoxy. It gives us a chance to sustain thinking.

When, might I ask, will we get a better opportunity to utilize these ideas and words in everyday conversation? It's Brown for heaven's sake! So, I ask you, with barren angularity, to incorporate academic jargon into whatever kind of social setting you find yourself in, whether it's a dull night out or over a bowl of bland oatmeal.


Anthony Badami '11 is a political theory concentrator from Kansas City, MO. He can be reached at anthony_badami (at) brown.edu


 




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