Trying to define “intellectual” is like walking in the world of Zoolander, a movie about a male model (Ben Stiller) who describes himself as “really, really, ridiculously good looking.” Academic definitions of “intellectual” (often themselves it would seem) paint a similar gushing picture about a “life of the mind” that values education, and appreciates critical thinking, history, philosophy, and science. After Matt Cavanaugh and Andy Rohrer’s recent blog exchange, I was left wondering how could anyone be against all these wonderful things? One shot of “blue steel” and I was ready to side with Rohrer — the Army, as an institution (or bureaucracy) simply, demonstrably, empirically, is not anti-intellectual.
But, I am in the Army and know the culture. I have heard my peers lament the “loss of a fine officer” when they enroll in a PhD program. I have seen generals roll their eyes and sigh, “darn intellectuals,” when they receive the 400 page read ahead for the 30 minute brief. I have even been guilty of only reading my inbox (and may even wear my reflective belt while doing it). So, maybe we are anti-intellectual — of at least some type of intellectual. But, what type?
What I needed was to stop asking intellectuals to define themselves and seek wisdom elsewhere. I needed a colloquial definition. Enter the more pedestrian and boorish Urban Dictionary — an intellectual is “someone who has found something more interesting than sex and alcohol.” Hmm… then the example sentence, “Parties bore Dan because he is an intellectual.” Therefore, an anti-intellectual would be someone that is not bored at parties and, most likely, would find Dan to be a bore. This explains the Army’s anti-intellectual culture that I know. We have all met Dan, and been bored by him. While this new definition, and its analogy, has added some insight, something was still missing between the Zoolander and Urban Dictionary definitions.
Social media to the rescue. At the time I was wrestling this question most, dictionary.com published a new word (for me) of the day — misology. Misology is a “hatred of reasoning.” This new word immediately highlighted my underlying discomfort between the two definitions. Misology relates to the underlying conditions of the Zoolander definition. That is, it removes the appreciation for those who can apply knowledge. This helps clarify what the Army is not; it is not misologist. The Army, and its leaders, love reasoning (whether we are good at it or not is a separate argument); as exemplified in our use, if not overuse, of the Military Decision Making Process (the scientific method applied to a socio-military problem). It also explains why Dan is a bore — he possesses knowledge without the ability to apply it with critical reason or in the proper context.
So, by subtracting misology from anti-intellectual, we have developed a pretty good definition. And by that definition, Cavanaugh is right. The Army is anti-intellectual.
Dave McHenry, a US Army strategist. The views expressed are his and do not represent official policy or position of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S Government.
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