Call yourself an “intellectual” in America and be prepared to sit alone in the corner of the library. Of all of the subgroups in public schools, from “jocks” to “drama queens,” any student labeled as an intellectual is definitely at the bottom of the social heap.
It does not quite equate with “nerd” because those kids can often de-bug your cell phone or computer problem. But they are often videogame addicts and that increases the risk of being an academic dropout. No, intellectuals actually enjoy reading literature and philosophy and science. Sometimes called “eggheads” in the past, they would just rather go unnoticed, aside from a fleeting 15 minutes of fame when they win the inter-school chess championship.
Not so over here in China. The term for “intellectual”—pronounced jur-sure-fun-dze—is revered, and has been from earliest history. Of China’s social classes, uneducated peasants were always at the bottom (except rhetorically during Mao). But if a family had a bright youngster (a boy, of course) and could gather enough money to hire a tutor, that educated young man could sit for a sequence of three exams. If he scored high enough, he would receive a government post at a local, provincial or national level. Therefore, China recruited only the highest-educated men into their government. And that meant wealth for his family and relatives. China was the origin of meritocracy and the “civil service exam.”
But not quite make the cut-off score and he could still be a teacher. Over many dynasties, a blue robe was the attire of the scholar, and he was recognized and respected. As a teacher, he would be relatively poor, but he was respected.
As the merchant class developed, some amassed fortunes. Yet the social status of a rich merchant could never equal that of the poor scholar-teacher. (Did I mention that the teachers were respected?) Rich merchants would even attempt to buy a scholar’s credentials to gain this status of respect. When this became commonplace, it usually was an indication that the dynasty was in its last days. (Perhaps like getting an online degree?)
When Chinese look back at their history, it is the names of artists, poets, historians, philosophers and great writers that they admire. Westerners tend to define their past “greats” as generals, political leaders and captains of industry. Those of us who would mention Shakespeare or Bentham or Handel can expect eyes to roll as the social crowd shuffles elsewhere in the room.
I must admit one exception. For 10 years, the Chinese word for intellectual became a negative. From roughly 1965 to 1975, Mao unleashed the Red Guards and the Cultural Revolution that closed down schools. Intellectuals were portrayed as feeling they were superior to others—and were sent to the countryside. Youngsters were encouraged to harangue and harass the educated “class.” Those dark days are long gone now. China learned a lesson. That will never happen again. If anything, China has a lingering guilt complex about it. They renewed their commitment to respecting scholarship. —Even if the schoolwork done by students is motivated by getting a high score to get a better job.
Meanwhile, back in the United States, there remains no respect for the scholar as “intellectual.” Politicians see schooling as mere “job training”—a private rather than common” good.” Where can you find one public university with a mission statement that includes the word “intellectual.” Richard Hofstadter, in Anti-intellectualism in American Life, described our public disdain for intellect. And here I am, being all “academic” about it.
Maybe if America had our own Cultural Revolution and shut down our schools for ten years we would wake up and realize that we should value and respect our young scholars, the intellectuals among us.
Guest columnist John Schrock lives in Emporia, Kansas.