Eight-hour daily screen time, doom-scrolling on Twitter, and toddler-like attention spans are just some stereotypes about Gen Z. These emerging mannerisms of our generation all seem to retrogress from what historically approved intellectuals possessed, leading us down a potentially worrisome path.
However, I argue that Gen Z is the generation of anti-intellectual intellectuals: the generation that retains key values of what was historically considered to be intellectualism, yet also rejects beliefs that are archaic and problematic, or have yet to be adapted to the digital, globalized, and late-stage capitalist world.
There is a common perception that Gen Z is derailing the route to intellectualism in ways such as neglecting the Socratic method in the age of misinformation, staying within echo chambers, and entertaining algorithmically-coded content. Though this could be true to a certain degree, it is also a narrow imagination of how the Socratic method can be digitally translated.
Gen Z reads — just not the way we’re used to
Gen Z is often spurned for not reading. But this is simply a narrow way to frame what is considered ‘reading’ or what is considered ‘valuable’ knowledge. Gen Z is always reading — more than ever.
News has transcended the medium of print and has entered digital realms consisting of online articles, Instagram posts, Twitter threads, and more. Even presidential debates are live-streamed on YouTube. Whether you choose to believe that Gen Z is developing shorter attention spans — something that there is little empirical data to prove — I see this as an adaptation to accommodate the mass intake of knowledge from varying disciplines that we are now exposed to in our daily lives, allowing Gen Z to have ‘sample tastes’ of innumerable topics.
Importantly, people are no longer confined to traditional mediums of knowledge such as studying directly from the Lyceum, speaking Latin, or only reading Marx or Engels — which were once considered the only ways to gain legitimate knowledge and establish oneself as an intellectual.
The American Press Institute reports that 79 per cent of Gen Z and Millennials consume news daily, and 96 per cent report doing so at least weekly. Gen Z and Millennials, moreover, get their news from a wide range of sources, including national and local news outlets, TV news stations, news stations’ websites, and apps. Gen Z is especially likely to get news daily on social media platforms compared to older Millennials — 74 per cent versus 68 per cent.
Most importantly, however, is that the younger generation is developing a sense of skepticism, including toward the portrayal of racialized groups in traditional media outlets. According to the American Press Institute, 49 per cent of surveyed Gen Z and Millennials believe media coverage of immigrants is slightly or totally inaccurate, for example, with 48 per cent being skeptical against news reported about Black Americans and 45 per cent for Hispanic Americans. The way that our generation is absorbing and filtering information is evolving dramatically in the relatively uncharted territory of the twenty-first-century internet.
The paradigm shift in argumentative dialogue
At times, argumentative dialogue on the internet, especially on infamous sites such as Reddit, causes it to seem like we are regressing in knowledge. Yet simultaneously, disagreement, probing, and interrogation are key parts of intellectualism — or at least the Socratic method. In fact, we can draw similarities between the back-and-forth questioning between multiple online users to the structure of the Socratic dialogue that was used in canon works such as Plato’s Republic.
Furthermore, online discussion forums have created a sense of a meritocracy about who gets to be an intellectual, rather than in the past when knowledge and the tools to derive knowledge were — even more intensely than now — reserved for the rich. After all, Greek philosophers were often only able to sustain themselves because they had rich families or patrons.
I am not denying that the commodification of knowledge continues to prevail. The irony of the back-to-school season, where students must shell out thousands of dollars for tuition and textbooks, has not gone unnoticed. However, the internet has undeniably unlocked the gates to a wealth of information that would have remained inaccessible to the average non-post-secondary student a decade or two ago.
Although Gen Z continues to personify this rhetoric, many pieces of rhetoric are historically associated with intellectualism that we have begun to reject. Thinkers such as Hume, Kant, and Locke, whose works are used to fuel theories of race and intelligence, have led newer generations to become disillusioned by intellectual figures; ideas of intellectualism have always been monopolized into a quest for power by pedestalled writers of the Western canon. Similarly, Aristotle justified enslavement by proposing that some individuals were “slave[s] by nature,” because he believed they had lower intellectual reasoning capabilities. His philosophy was used to build Antebellum America.
These archaic ideologies cannot and should not exist as we move through the twenty-first century. We now live in a globalized world where marginalized voices once relegated to a lower caste of intellectualism are being included in intellectual discourse.
Intellectualism, removed from any attachment to canon ideology, can simply be defined as the drive for knowledge, which younger generations clearly display.
So, the habit of reading still exists among Gen Z — it just takes another form. The search for knowledge still exists among Gen Z, but the idea of ‘legitimate’ knowledge takes another form. The desire to live with reason and critical thinking still exists among Gen Z, but the face of who is allowed to embody these traits takes another form. Gen Z simultaneously incorporates and rejects what historically approved figures of intellectualism promoted, creating a generation of anti-intellectual intellectuals.
Charmaine Yu is a third-year student studying political science and English. She is a member of Trinity College’s BIPOC Writing Circle and an editor of The Trinity Review.