In “Hidden Intellectualism,” Gerald Graff pens an impressive argument wrought from personal experience, wisdom and heart. In his essay, Graff argues that street smarts have intellectual potential. A simple gem of wisdom, yet one that remains hidden beneath a sea of academic tradition. However, Graff navigates the reader through this ponderous sea with near perfection.
The journey begins at the heart of the matter, with a street smart kid failing in school. This is done to establish some common ground with his intended audience, educators. Since Graff is an educator himself, an English professor at the University of Illinois in Chicago, he understands the frustrations of having a student “who is so intelligent about so many things in life [and yet] seems unable to apply that intelligence to academic work” (380). Furthermore, Graff blames schools for not utilizing street smarts as a tool to help improve academics; mainly due to an assumption that some subjects are more inherently intellectual than others. Graff then logically points out a lack of connection “between any text or subject and the educational depth and weight of the discussion it can generate” (381). He exemplifies this point by suggesting that any real intellectual could provoke thoughtful questions from any subject, while a buffoon can render the most robust subjects bland. Thus, he is effectively using logic and emotion to imply that educators should be able to approach any subject critically, even non-traditional subjects, lest they risk being labeled a buffoon.
After a smooth start, Graff makes a slight misstep when trying to ram the above point home with this punch line: “That’s why a George Orwell writing on the cultural meanings of the penny postcards is infinitely more substantial than the cogitations of many professors on Shakespeare or globalization” (381). It appears that Graff forgot the most important thing about comedy, timing. Hence, his punch line is wordy and dated. In this age of computers, where even hand written letters are in danger of becoming extinct, many readers may not know what a penny postcard is. Although the punch line fails to deliver, the reader can still understand the gist of what Graff is implying. Thus, it does not detract from the overall effectiveness of his argument, but it does show his age; a tactic that Graff intentionally repeats as support for his next major point.
Although students need examples of intellectually challenging literature, Graff believes that students who tackle literature from their own interests first are more likely to read the challenging ones. In support of this belief, Graff offers his own experiences from his adolescent years beginning in the late nineteen forties. In which, Graff describes himself as a typical anti-intellectual teen caring only for sports and sports related literature (381). He continues by describing his multicultural neighborhood, in post-WWII Chicago, where he recounts the difficulties of...