It hasn’t escaped my notice that there seems to be a culture of anti-intellectualism brewing in the world. Certainly not everywhere, or in every person, but it’s becoming obvious that thinking isn’t something that many people want to do. They want their information in tiny bites, if at all. Downtime is used to vegetate, not to learn. People don’t want to do the work of critically evaluating information. They prefer to simply believe whatever “their side” tells them rather than doing the work of honing an informed position.
Why? I have no idea. Learning doesn’t have to be a drag; it’s actually pretty fun. All I can figure is that it’s easier not to think, and people are simply looking for easy these days. That’s the only reason I can come up with because learning makes you a more well-rounded person. Interesting. Empathetic. A listener. Informed. All things that tend to make a person desirable to be around. Sure, not all thinkers are great people. Some are asshats, just like anyone else. But give me someone who wants to listen and offer a reasoned debate over someone who just spouts a click-bait headlines any day.
Plus, being willfully stupid isn’t good for you over the long term. Studies show that lifelong learning can slow down the progression of Alzheimer’s disease. You can’t get this benefit if you flee from learning opportunities and spend your days reading headlines on Facebook.
So if you don’t want to be stupid, what can you do? Refuse. Refuse to be stupid. That’s it. Not being stupid is a conscious choice, one that you can make every day through very simple actions.
Go beyond the headlines (and your comfort zone). When you’re looking for news and current events, don’t just hit the headlines of your favorite news outlet. Read the news from a variety of sources, both domestic and international. If there’s an issue you want to know more about, research it in more depth. Headlines can be good at giving you a glimpse of what’s happening in the world, but they’re often biased and click-bait-y. Look deeper.
Don’t flee from learning opportunities. On a pre-Covid vacation, we visited an area that offers many museums and an aquarium. These places were empty, but the stores, restaurants, bars, and less educational tourist attractions were packed. All I can think is that people were intentionally avoiding the educational opportunities. I get it. Those places aren’t “fun,” especially with kids in tow. But it can’t hurt to venture inside such places every now and then instead of actively avoiding them like they have the plague.
Pursue educational hobbies. No, you don’t have to make earning degrees into a hobby. But if you’re choosing a hobby, try to make it one with a learning component. Music. Language. A new skill. Astronomy. History. It’s fine to have non-educational hobbies, as well, but don’t pursue garbage exclusively.
Replace garbage with quality. Which brings me to this one. Try to make some painless substitutions in your pursuits to add learning opportunities. Watch a lot of TV? Try adding in some documentaries or history programs every now and then. Read a lot? Add some non-fiction to your genre reading. Hang out at the bar every weekend? Try joining a book club, astronomy club, language class, or other educational social outlet.
Admit when you’re wrong, and when you don’t know something. Part of not being stupid is being able to admit when you are wrong. Most people hate to do it, but the mark of an intelligent person is an ability to say, “New information has come up that has forced me to change my thoughts on a matter.” When you learn new things, your opinions and worldview will change. Only intelligent people are aware of this and, even more so, willing to admit when it happens.
Similarly, intelligent people admit when they don’t know something. They can easily say, “I don’t know anything about subject X, but I’d like to learn.” They don’t try to bluff their way through a conversation, or pretend to be something they are not. They simply admit the gap in their knowledge and try to fill it.
Always ask questions. Stupid people are ashamed to ask questions because they’re afraid they’ll look stupid. Well, as the saying goes, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. Questioning is how we learn. It’s okay to ask for more information, or to ask why/how something is happening. Intelligent people are inquisitive and want to get beyond the surface information into the nitty-gritty of things.
Become an “expert” at something. No, you don’t have to get a PhD and become a world-renowned expert on a topic. Neither does the topic have to be particularly useful or interesting to anyone but you. Just take the time to learn as much as you reasonably can about a subject. Research the topic from all angles to see how others have covered and thought about it. The experience is valuable in that it can teach you the value of research, of learning how to parse different sources/types of information, and of deliberate, reasoned debate. Also, it gives you respect for how much other experts have put into learning about their subjects.
Don’t shy away from thinking, especially critical thinking. A lot of people seem to flee from any sort of sustained thought. It’s why you see them on their phones at every opportunity. Heaven forbid a free moment should turn to thought. The world might end if a half an hour spent in a waiting room were given over to thinking about a problem. Instead of fleeing from thinking, try to lean into it. Put the phone down and use free time to think about things that interest you, or are important to you. What problems do you want to solve? How can you do that? What information have you come across lately that’s given you pause? What are your thoughts on current events? Just tune out the noise and use your brain for a change.
Choose your associates carefully. You may be stuck with stupid family members, but you can choose to surround yourself with other people who aren’t stupid. Find people who like to learn and hang out with them. Their good habits and inquisitive natures might rub off on you.
In a world where all sorts of education is available at the click of a mouse, where you can connect easily with experts and information, and where research can be done in seconds, there’s no excuse for remaining stupid. Stupidity is a choice, and you can refuse to be stupid.
(Photo by Nick Fewings)