Hidden Intellectualism

April 7, 2017 Les Lynn Argument and Literacy, The Debatifier


Former Modern Language Association President (2008), prominent education theorist, and ACE founding adviser, Gerald Graff, tells a story in his essay “Hidden Intellectualism” of how he learned to be an intellectual not in school, which he really didn’t like, but by arguing about sports (especially baseball, especially the Cubs) with his friends.  Graff sees his story as containing an important lesson for the improvement of K-12 American public education.

Argument-Centered Education embraces this lesson through the resources we produce, the training we conduct, and the implementation coaching we provide.  To take two recent examples of argument-centered projects we have work on with partner schools: (1) the Athens vs. Sparta Project debatifies the sometimes-esoteric study of ancient Greece and its seminal influence on Western civilization, and (2) our Cosmetics, Plastic Surgery, and Authentic Beauty Project accesses teens’ (and not just teens’) preoccupation with physical appearance and academizes it into an argument-based, sustained study.

Professor Graff notes that these moves are not only taken up by some of the most progressive, advancing, and college-directed middle and high schools: they are also observable to an intriguing extent in the culture at large.  Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, for instance, is in a certain way about how critical thinking has overtaken the physical and emotional forces in sport and is now the most highly rewarded.  The way that sports are discussed and argued about in all of sports media is another way that our society has affirmed Graff’s description of the what it is that kids and adolescents are talking about when they’re talking about sports.  The advent of music talk shows like “Debatable” (Sirius XM) and “Sound Opinions” (WBEZ) are indicators that something similar is happening with popular music.

So, now that another baseball season has just commenced, we present Gerald Graff’s full essay, “Hidden Intellectualism,” and invite you to argue about or with it in the comments section below.

“Hidden Intellectualism”

by Gerald Graff

Everyone knows some young person who is impressively “street smart” but does poorly in school. What a waste, we think, that one who is so intelligent about so many things in life seems unable to apply that intelligence to academic work. What doesn’t occur to us, though, is that schools and colleges might be at fault for missing the opportunity to tap into such street smarts and channel them into good academic work.

Nor do we consider one of the major reasons why schools and colleges overlook the intellectual potential of street smarts: the fact that we associate those street smarts with anti-­intellectual concerns. We associate the educated life, the life of the mind, too narrowly and exclusively with subjects and texts that  we consider  inherently  weighty  and academic.

We assume that it’s possible to wax intellectual about Plato, Shakespeare, the French Revolution, and nuclear fission, but not about cars, dating, fashion, sports, TV, or video games.

The trouble with this assumption is that no necessary connection has ever been established between any text or subject and the educational depth and weight of the discussion it can generate. Real intellectuals tum any subject, however lightweight it may seem, into grist for their mill through the thoughtful questions they bring to it, whereas a dullard will find a way to drain the interest out of the richest subject. That’s why a George Orwell writing on the cultural meanings of penny postcards is infinitely more substantial than the cogitations of many professors on Shakespeare or globalization.

Students do need to read models of intellectually challenging writing — and Orwell is a great one — if they are to become intellectuals themselves. But they would be more prone to take on intellectual identities if we encouraged them to do so at first on subjects that interest them rather than ones that interest us.

I offer my own adolescent experience as a case in point.  Until I entered  college,  I hated  books and cared only for sports. The only reading I cared to do or could do  was sports  magazines, on which I became hooked, becoming a regular reader of  Sport magazine in the late forties, Sports Illustrated when it began publishing in 1954, and the annual magazine  guides  to  professional baseball, football, and basketball. I also loved the sports novels for boys of John R. Tunis and Clair Bee and autobiographies of sports stars like Joe DiMaggio’s Lucky to Be a Yankee and Bob Feller’s Strikeout Story. In short, I was your typical teenage anti-intellectual–or so  I  believed  for  a  long  time.  I have  recently  come  to  think,  however,  that  my  preference for sports over schoolwork was not anti-intellectualism so much as intellectualism by other means.

In the Chicago neighborhood I grew up in, which had become a melting pot after World War II, our block was solidly middle class, but just a block away-doubtless concentrated there by the real estate companies-were African Americans, Native Americans, and “hillbilly” whites who had recently fled postwar joblessness in the South and Appalachia. Negotiating this class boundary was a tricky matter. On the one hand, it was necessary to maintain the boundary between “clean-cut” boys like me and working-class “hoods,” as we called them, which meant that it was good to be openly smart in a bookish sort of way. On the other hand, I was desperate for the approval of the hoods, whom I encountered daily on the playing field and in the neighborhood, and for this purpose it was not at all good to be book-smart. The hoods would turn on you if they sensed you were putting on airs over them: “Who you lookin’ at, smart ass?” as a leather-jacketed youth once said to me as he relieved me of my pocket change along with my self-respect.

I grew up torn, then, between the need to prove I was smart and the fear of a beating if I proved it too well; between the need not to jeopardize my respectable future and the need to impress the hoods. As I lived it, the conflict came down to a choice between being physically tough and being verbal. For a boy in my neighborhood and elementary school, only being “tough” earned you complete legitimacy. I still recall endless, complicated debates in this period with my closest pals over who was “the toughest guy in the school.” If you were less than negligible as a fighter, as I was, you settled for the next best thing, which was to be inarticulate, carefully hiding telltale marks of literacy like correct grammar and pronunciation.

In one way, then, it would be hard to imagine an adolescence more thoroughly anti-intellectual than mine. Yet in retrospect, I see that it’s more complicated, that I and the 1950s themselves were not simply hostile toward intellectualism, but divided and ambivalent. When Marilyn Monroe married the playwright Arthur Miller in 1956 after divorcing the retired baseball star Joe DiMaggio, the symbolic triumph of geek over jock suggested the way the wind was blowing. Even Elvis, according to his biographer Peter Guralnick, turns out to have supported Adlai over Ike in the presidential election of 1956. “I don’t dig the intellectual bit,” he told reporters. “But I’m telling you, man, he knows the most” (327).

Though I too thought I did not “dig the intellectual bit,” I see now that I was unwittingly in training for it. The germs had actually been planted in the seemingly philistine debates about which boys were the toughest. I see now that in the interminable analysis of sports teams, movies, and toughness that my friends and I engaged in-a type of analysis, needless to say, that the real toughs would never have stooped to-I was already betraying an allegiance to the egghead world. I was practicing being an intellectual before I knew that was what I wanted to be.

It was in these discussions with friends about toughness and 10 sports, I think, and in my reading of sports books and magazines, that  I began  to  learn  the  rudiments of  the  intellectual life: how to make an argument, weigh different kinds of evidence, move between  particulars and generalizations, summarize the  views of others, and enter a conversation about ideas.

It was in reading and arguing about sports and toughness that I experienced what it felt like to propose a generalization, restate and respond to a counterargument, and perform other intellectualizing operations, including composing the kind of sentences I am writing now.

Only much later did it dawn on me that the sports world was more compelling than school because it was more intellectual than school, not less. Sports after all was full of challenging arguments, debates, problems for analysis, and intricate statistics that you could care about, as school conspicuously was not. I believe that street smarts beat out book smarts in our culture not because street smarts are nonintellectual, as we generally suppose, but because they satisfy an intellectual thirst more thoroughly than school culture, which seems pale and unreal.

They also satisfy the thirst for community. When you entered sports debates, you became part of a community that was not limited to your family and friends, but was national and public. Whereas schoolwork isolated you from others, the pennant race or Ted Williams’s .400 batting average was some­ thing you could talk about with people you had never met. Sports introduced you not only to a culture steeped in argument, but to a public argument culture that transcended the personal. I can’t blame my schools for failing to make intellectual culture resemble the Super Bowl, but I do fault  them for failing to learn anything from the sports and entertainment worlds about how to organize and represent intellectual culture, how to exploit its game-like element and turn it into arresting public spectacle that might have competed more successfully for my youthful attention.

For here is another thing that never dawned on me and  is still kept hidden from students, with tragic  results:  that  the real intellectual  world, the  one  that existed  in the  big  world beyond school, is organized very much like the world of team sports, with rival texts, rival interpretations and evaluations of texts, rival theories of why they should be read and taught, and elaborate team competitions in which “fans” of writers, intellectual systems, methodologies, and -isms contend against each  other.

To be sure, school contained plenty of competition, which became more invidious as one moved up the ladder (and has become even more so today with the advent of high-stakes testing). In this competition, points were scored not by making arguments, but by a show of information or vast reading, by grade-grubbing, or other forms of one-upsmanship.  School com­petition, in short, reproduced the less attractive features of sports culture without those that create close bonds and community.

And in distancing themselves from anything as enjoyable and absorbing as sports, my schools missed the opportunity to capitalize on an element of drama and conflict that the intellectual world shares with sports. Consequently, I failed to see the parallels between the sports and academic worlds that could have helped me cross more readily from one argument culture to the other.

Sports is only one of the domains whose potential for literacy training (and not only for males) is seriously underestimated by educators, who see sports as competing with academic development rather than a route to it. But if this argument suggests why it is a good idea to assign readings and topics that are close to students’ existing interests, it also suggests the limits of this tactic. For students who get excited about the chance to write about their passion for cars will often write as poorly and unreflectively on that topic as on Shakespeare or Plato. Here is the flip side of what I pointed out before: that

there’s no necessary relation between the degree  of interest a student shows in a text or subject and the quality of thought or expression such a student manifests in writing or talking about it. The challenge, as college professor Ned Laffhas put it, “is not simply to exploit students’ nonacademic interests, but to get them to see those interests through academic eyes.”

To say that students need to see their interests “through academic eyes” is to say that street smarts are not enough. Making students’ nonacademic interests an object of academic study is useful, then, for getting students’ attention and overcoming their boredom and alienation, but this tactic won’t in itself necessarily move them closer to an academically rigorous treatment of those interests. On the other hand, inviting students to write about cars, sports, or clothing fashions does not have to be a pedagogical cop-out as long as students are required to see these interests “through academic eyes,” that is, to think and write about cars, sports, and fashions in a reflective, analytical way, one that sees them as microcosms of what is going on in the wider culture.

If I am right, then schools and colleges are missing an opportunity when they do not encourage students to take their nonacademic interests as objects of academic study. It is self­defeating to decline to introduce any text or subject that figures to engage students who will otherwise tune out academic work entirely. If a student cannot get interested in Mill’s On Liberty but will read Sports Illustrated or Vogue or the hip-hop magazine Source with absorption, this is a strong argument for assigning the magazines over the classic. It’s a good bet that if students get hooked on reading and writing by doing term papers on Source, they will eventually get to On Liberty. But even if they don’t, the magazine reading will make them more literate and reflective than they would be otherwise. So it makes pedagogical sense to develop  classroom  units  on  sports, cars, fashions, rap music, and other such topics. Give me the stu­dent anytime who writes a sharply argued, sociologically acute analysis of an issue in Source over the student who writes a life­ less explication of Hamlet or Socrates’ Apology.



Cramer, Richard Ben.Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life. New York: Simon and Schuster,   2000.

DiMaggio, Joe. Lucky to Be a Yankee. New York: Bantam Books, 1949. Print. Feller, Bob. Strikeout Story, New York: Bantam Books, 1948.

Guralnick, Peter. Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley. Boston: Little,  Brown  and  Co.,  1994.

Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. New York: Harcourt, Inc., 1953.