The Dangers of Intellectual Elitism and Narcissism

411820_10150944915692901_1945633882_oIt’s far too common for academia to be regarded as an ivory tower—a self-contained bubble of elitism and grandiosity that serves no “real” purpose in the “real” world. In the interest of fairness it’s worth noting that there might be a nugget of truth to this. After all, academia is certainly not elite in the worldly, economic sense of the word. In fact, the mere notion that academia alone leads to anything close to wealth must seem patently absurd to increasing number of overworked and underpaid adjuncts, graduate assistants, and postdocs. Nonetheless academia— insofar as higher education is concerned—can often be elitist in its estimation of its own worth.

Call it love for a learning or passion for self-improvement but the fact remains: the gaze of an intellectual almost always turns inward to the strength of  her ideas or his interpretations of someone else’s ideas and not the source of those ideas. Abstract, conceptual theories themselves can appear equally pretentious and narcissistic. What gives a man the right to talk about women’s rights if he has not experienced work-place discrimination? What right does a political pundit have to make sweeping generalizations about working class Americans if she has never experienced the resigned sadness of choosing between food and medicine? Theory is nothing more than narcissistic idle-talk if it has not been experienced or applied.

Yeah, if you could just explain to me how Heidegger’s Daesin is related to your TPS reports that would be great.

To be fair, elitism and narcissism in academe is unavoidable. In fact, the current system of academia promotes a sort of enclosed echo-chamber of ideas—especially the obscure and closed-off nature of its publications. (Publication is a bit of misnomer considering the vast majority of the public cannot easily see, much less afford to read these highfalutin journals.) However, that does not excuse the level of sheer ignorance and arrogance often tossed around by my peers—and even some celebrated thinkers. The most detestable sort of ignorance is the assumption that  certain individuals are superior to “the masses” on the basis of the select few’s superior knowledge. “How can they not know,” someone might say, “when the evidence is all around them? Why don’t they just pick up a book or visit Wikipedia? They deserve their fate if they don’t make an effort to know all the facts.When will these freaking ‘sheeple’ open their eyes?” Far too often do we forget that these “sheeple” have families to support through long, thankless jobs.  We forget that the majority of America makes in year what Drury charges for tuition. The cultivation of one’s intellect is not merely something that one choses to do. One must also have the time—and by extension the money—to do it.

Not pictured: Someone who has lots of time to read Kant’s “Critique of Pure Reason”.

If Rick Santorum’s well-received remarks were anything to go by, this is a very real problem. It’s also worthing noting that it’s not just an attitude problem but a socioeconomic and systemic one as well.  Nonetheless, we enter college—assured by virtually every member of our community—”knowing” that we are the best and brightest of our high school class. After all, we got into college; those high school knuckle-draggers did not. At the beginning of our first semester someone will invariably proclaim that this freshman class is the best so far—just look at their GPA and service hours! The positive reinforcement only intensifies as the wheat is is inevitably separated from the chaff.  I’m all for positive reinforcement but is it any surprise that some of our best and brightest are lacking in humility? Is it any surprise that many college students walk around with an inflated sense of self-worth?  I realize that part of this is a maturity problem. However, we students are almost always inspired by our betters so the problem isn’t entirely ours.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be proud of what we have accomplished. To misquote a professor, academia is a long and tricky road; reaching the top is an achievement in and of itself. Yet far too often this pride turns into intellectual narcissism and it is this sort of elitism that has led to eugenics, slavery, manifest destiny and the scientific “proof” of social constructs like race or sexuality. Presumably, we do not know the current extent of our elitism now because as the privileged few, we are trained not to see those who pave the way for us. We cast aside and ignore the janitors, the technicians, the grocers, the farmers, the average taxpayer, our middle-school teachers and the various other individuals that allow us to lead a life of relative luxury. President Obama is certainly right in his previous estimation—you don’t build anything by yourself. We do not exist alone in this world and we are privileged to be privileged.

Overzealous tumblr users aside, it never hurts to engage in critical self-reflection.

It’s not just moral imperative to respect the inherent dignity of others—if such a thing even exists—but also an economic imperative. In fact, whether or not individuals have an intrinsic self-worth does not matter if almost every individual feel as if he or she has intrinsic self-world. These “sheeple” fund our schools, roads and other municipal services. It’s in our economic interest to at least be respectful if we want to further our intellectual pursuits. If we want to stay relevant than we have to value the things that make us relevant. This means not just our own ideas but the people, places and things that inspire these ideas and make them possible. As Michael Foucault writes:

“There are more ideas on earth than intellectuals imagine. And these ideas are more active, stronger, more resistant, more passionate than “politicians” think. We have to be there at the birth of ideas, the bursting outward of their force: not in books expressing them, but in events manifesting this force, in struggles carried on around ideas, for or against them. Ideas do not rule the world. But it is because the world has ideas (and because it constantly produces them) that it is not passively ruled by those who are its leaders or those who would like to teach it, once and for all, what it must think.” 

You want to remain relevant? You want to become relevant? Than follow the golden rule—it’s as simple as that.

In the interest of full-disclosure I would like to admit that this essay was inspired by and therefore would not be possible without my parents who have raised me to constantly remember “who you are” or many of the Drury professors—like Dr. Hornsby, Dr. Chin, Dr. Panza and most of all Dr. Peter Browning—who have always pushed me to see the bigger picture without disregarding the details. Finally, I’d like to give a big shout out to my girlfriend for always giving me a swift kick in the butt when I get too big for my britches. 





  1. Also, the “sheeple” are hardly taxed and the wealth of the 1% has contributed to our roads and infrastructure far more than the layman. You seem to want to pretend that everyone has an equal value to society. I agree that the working class should be treated with respect, however they are not to be glorified in any way. They represent what we should all strive to not be.

    Now if you are going to value my opinions based on my gender or ethnicity or background I’ll have you know that my parents are working class and I am white. Yet my parents still send me to a private school (albeit with scholarship and without he help of extended family.)

    As well as this I would like to point out the fact that many working class live beyond their means, for instance, many choose to have multiple children and then complaint hat living expenses are too much and that they can’t afford to send their kids to a private school. The fact is, simply put, that parents should consider their child’s quality of life before taking that step rather than fostering a sense of entitlement and relying on the state.

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  5. I think the most damaging things are when intellectuals dismiss the common view of the world entirely, as if they didn’t need to learn what they learned in the first place. Linguists use the term ‘folk linguistics’ to dismiss a vast body of cultural knowledge. But there is a lot about folk linguistics that turns out to be pretty true; it’s just that, like all folk concepts, it’s exaggerated.

    There’s a tendency in language attitude studies to essentially assume most people are morons. We say, for instance, layman don’t even think and truth and falsity, goodness and badness. It’s really deplorable in my estimation.

  6. Scott McKinney

    Thanks for this.

    I found this – snobbery and narcissism – is an endemic problem in today’s academy. I think the core issue is The Professors’ mindset – they do not act as servants of humanity or devotees to truth, but use their positions and “achievements” to glorify themselves.

    Not sure if this is true of the majority of professors/academic institutions, but it has been endemic to several institutions I am familiar with.

  7. the other brother's mother

    Very well said and true Brian. I’m glad you haven’t gotten ahead of yourself or “too big for the britches”. If only everyone realized your thoughts; we would all be living in a better world!

  8. Well written , son. Thanks for the shout out. Drury was the perfect fit for you. Many thanks to the Humanities Department! GiGi would be so proud of you.

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