While sitting in the classroom one day, a classmate of mine raised her hand to ask a question. “How is Aristotle’s theory of the active intellect any different from Ibn Sina’s theory?” she asked. As I was thinking of the answer to that question, I simultaneously heard giggles coming from the back of the classroom. Perplexed, I looked back at the laughing individuals and then I turned my attention to the questioner. Embarrassed and shy, she turned pale regretting the question. I realized at that moment that this particular experience was part of a deeper problem; a problem that I had been overlooking for a long time- intellectual bullying.
We often see politicians and leaders campaigning against bullying in schools as part of their platform. We see people bullying others due to strength and their economic and social status. But, what seems to fall in between the cracks are bullies who emotionally and mentally torment students who are “less smart.” Individuals within society are placed into an “intellectual hierarchy” determined by the numbers and letters that come in the form of students’ grades and GPA’s. The problem arises, however, when individuals at the top of this hierarchy are rightfully permitted to belittle students at the bottom. This construct creates a new kind of bullying- intellectual bullying. Intellectual bullying is the emotional and psychological harassment one imposes on another based on his/her intellectual understanding. Intellectual bullying is no different than physical bullying as it leads to emotional abuse. In many ways, intellectual bullying is more unjust than physical bullying because it is based on a superficial hierarchy stemming from a lack of compassion.
Too often, intellectual bullying goes unnoticed because it causes mental harm, not the apparent physical harm. But this type of bullying persists in both public schools and private schools. Intellectual bullying does not discriminate between the well-established Washington University and University of Pennsylvania-which have the highest suicide rates in the nation, mostly due to the intellectual pressure and unnecessary competitiveness caused by the students- and any old community college .The bullying that results from an intellectual hierarchy has a devastating, long term effect on people. Studying in an environment where one is in a competitive, vicious rat race to obtain intellectual superiority causes a deep and everlasting emotional and psychological trauma. Thus, competiveness is the reason for thirty five percent of the suicides, more than any other variable besides tuition . Many times, when students go to their peers for help, they get turned down because “they should already know the material”. It belittles, humiliates and demoralizes students because they are being judged by one standard. Einstein said, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid”. This is the type of attitude we are facing in schools and colleges. When I was in eighth grade, a sixth grader committed suicide, recording in his journal that he felt that his intelligence was overlooked, his peers weren’t sensing his worth, and his parents wanted him to live up to societal standards- which were different from his passions and goals. As students are being judged by one standard, intellectual superiority, they are losing their identity and sense of worth.
Sarcasm is another form of expression where intellectual bullying can express itself. How many times have we joked about McDonald workers? How many times do we tell our friends “you’re dumb” or “kill yourself”. These are jokes, but the effects these words have on some people are not a joke. Sarcasm, among friends who understand and relate to each other might be fine, but when that sarcasm is used with every person we see or meet, it becomes problematic. On one occasion, while playing basketball, I kept on calling a friend of mine by a vulgar name. It was a joke in my mind, but for him, it was serious and all of the sudden he punched me straight on the face. This behavior, along with countless other cynical behaviors, makes the recipient feel like he should have already known the object of their conversation and as it becomes a habit, it closes the door of compassion – the core of human relationships.
Bullying, in general, stems from the lack of compassion. When bullies hurt their victim, they do it knowingly; if they had genuinely cared about the person’s feelings, they would not have insulted him. So, the only solution left to fixing the phenomena of intellectual hierarchy is a need for compassion. Instead of seeking to fit into an intellectual hierarchy, people should use their knowledge to, first of all, internalize it, and then to assist those who are ignorant in certain fields. If a person is struggling in math, he should and needs to be helped. Also, contrary to physical bullying and drug addiction, the intellectual bullying catastrophe does not have a rehab center. The solution is personal and requires a lot of introspection because the first step to getting rid of this disease is to realize that one is a bully; for bullying is an act of oppression that not only afflicts others, but most importantly afflicts the bully himself. He projects his own insecurities on the victim in order to reassure himself and to feel important. As Aristotle said, “Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all”. If this quote is taken seriously, both the “smart” and the “inferior” will benefit from each other because the latter will acquire better understanding of the world, while the former will learn compassion and humility. This brings us to my last question- who is really in need of an education: the student who fails to understand a certain concept in the classroom that he or she can be taught or the one who lives in the delusional world of an intellectual hierarchy?