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The difference between knowledge and intellect is remarkable, yet many times these words are used interchangeably. Knowledge refers to facts on a given subject; intellect refers to a person’s perspective, how they view, analyze, and interpret their environment . Unlike I.Q., intellect can and should be taught to our students, but instead our current schooling system is focused on ensuring students memorize the facts required to pass an exam. In his essay, “Hidden Intellectualism”, Gerald Graff explores the limits current education standards impose on our youth’s development.
Graff presents the idea that perhaps the subjects that we normally associate with “anti-intellectualism” are just as capable of being subject of critical thought as Shakespeare’s plays. “Real intellectuals turn any subject, however lightweight it may seem, into grist for their mill through the thoughtful questions they bring to it” (Graff, 381). This idea is central to understanding the rest of Graff’s argument. If no subject is more deserving than another, then every subject—sports to science—should be utilized in the classroom as learning tools.
Young students are motivated in complicated ways. The things that interest them are normally not academic texts of Plato or George Orwell. The author himself identified himself as a person who “hated books and cared only for sports” (Graff, 381). The only readings that interested him were sports novels and magazines. Over time, Graff developed the idea that his love for sports was not actually anti-intellectual as he had previously assumed, but was as intellectual as his university studies. He claims that had his teachers utilized his love for the workings of the sports world as an outlet to spark academic discussion and thought, he would have earned a stronger education.
While Graff was postponing his English homework to have a debate with his best friend about who was the best pitcher in the 50s, he was practicing the skills that would later allow him to become a successful professor at the University of Illinois. Engaging in heated debates about baseball gave Graff opportunities to practice forming coherent arguments supported with evidence he had to collect and analyze while at the same time perfecting his conversation skills and logical thought patterns. What is the goal of elementary education if not to teach one how to learn and think? Sure, one needs to know their multiplication tables and Presidents, but the curriculum should be designed to teach students how to educate themselves in order to think critically about their world.
The first step in education, according to Graff, should be providing the pupil with a topic they are interested in. Doing so gives students a bridge from their social life into the academic world and will yield students that are more interested and involved in their studies. Graff acknowledges that there are limits to this approach just like any other. A quote from his peer, Ned Laff, summarizes the challenge in education. “[The challenge] is not simply to exploit students’ nonacademic interests, but to get them to see those interests through academic eyes” (Graff, 385). Being a cognoscenti on the top songs of the decade is not enough, one should be able draw relationships between the trends of the songs in order to come to a general conclusion or theory that is applicable to other areas of life.
Graff is careful to not belittle the classic academic texts and subjects. He claims that educators should use the topics their students are interested in as a gateway to more challenging topics. If one can teach a student to think critically about the implications of performance enhancing drugs in today’s athletes, then the hard part in education is complete. Once a student knows how to think critically, they can apply that technique to whatever subject they want to study for the rest of their life. It gives the power and responsibility of teaching to the student themselves.
Graff ends his argument by appealing to the readers logic. Suppose he is wrong, and allowing trending topics in the classroom does not in fact motivate the student to become a student of the world. What does the educator stand to lose in trying? Even if all they ever are interested in studying are the current stats of the Baltimore Ravens, “they are more literate and reflective than they would be otherwise” (Graff, 386).
I believe Graff presented a strong and valid argument worthy of discussion. I am able to relate on many levels with Graff. Often I find myself more interested in my fantasy football team than my college courses. Previously, I had assumed time spent on fantasy football was time wasted, but this essay has allowed me to develop a different perspective. In order to have a successful team, I had to decide what players would complement each other; this required close analysis of their strengths and weaknesses.
Memorizing and studying stats has allowed me to develop my statistical analysis skills, a skill that otherwise would be left unrefined. After each season, game, play, I have to reevaluate my thoughts on a player in order to take into account the new information. It has taught me that the greatest players make the same amount of novel mistakes as the worst players but repeat their errors only a fraction as often. If more of my teachers had exploited my love of sports earlier in my education, I might have a more accurate idea of my academic capabilities.
Although I agree with the central tenets of Graff’s argument, I think he is overly critical and general of today’s educators. There are teachers who exploit every opportunity to intrigue their students, and they deserve to be acknowledged in any argument critiquing the current education system. These are teachers who go beyond the status quo of “teaching to the exam.” They are the educators who attempt to instill in their students a passion to learn, explore, and test the boundaries of their mind. It is also important to elaborate on my use of the word “teacher.” A teacher is not restricted to the classroom, but I have extended the term to encompass all one’s advisors, especially a child’s parents.
I believe Graff would agree with my statement that a child’s parent plays a vital and irreplaceable role in the education of a child. Rather than discourage discussion of the popular topics, parents can facilitate classroom learning through critical discussion of subjects directly related to the youth’s life. “Hidden Intellectualism” details a not so unique argument in a way that is easy for the general public to sympathize with. It provides people with a justification for their “guilty pleasures” and encourages a more critical mindset no matter what you are doing. I would recommend the article to my peers, teachers, and teammates alike.
Graff, Gerald. “Hidden Intellectualism.” They say I say. Eds. Graff, G., Birkenstein, C., and Durst, R.. New York City: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012. 380-386.