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Defining intellectualism in USP today

How do we define intellectualism in USP? Is intellectualism just about academics? Writer Yugo Kawai reports on the panel discussion that happened in the evening of 24 Jan, and summarises the key points raised during the event.

By Yugo Kawai

A panel discussion was hosted by The Sessions at Chatterbox on Thursday, 24th January, inviting six USP alumni to discuss the state of intellectualism in USP. About 30 students participated in this interactive session to share their opinions.

The session was divided into three parts. For the first part, the attendees were grouped into three small groups headed by two alumni. In the second part, each group presented their findings. Finally, there was an open discussion to wrap up the session.

This event was hosted partly in response to the growing concerns among students about the expected quality of students in the program. Year 4 student Mark Goh wrote an opinion post on 16th December about the decline of intellectualism in USP over the past few years. The post referred to some students’ poor attitude towards work, lack of critical thinking, and the decrease in the number of “academic” USPolymath talks to support the argument.

A fourth value, Courageous, was recently introduced in 2018 to the core values of USP, which had hitherto been comprised of the three values Critical, Curious, and Engaged. Mark then suggested in his post to add a fifth value, Intellectuality.

This sparked a debate among the USP community about how we should define intellectualism and if its scope is only limited to academics.

At the beginning of the event, USP alumnus Imran Shah (Class of 2018), quoted Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectuals: “At bottom, the intellectual, in my sense of the word, is neither a pacifier nor a consensus-builder, but someone whose whole being is staked on a critical sense, a sense of being unwilling to accept easy formulas, or ready-made cliches, or the smooth, ever-so-accommodating confirmations of what the powerful or conventional have to say, and what they do.”

I joined one of the groups during the small group discussion segment of the session. The group mainly tackled two questions: what defines an intellectual person, and what is the difference between intelligence and intellectualism?

“Rather than questioning if we are the right fit for the program, why not ask questions for one another to explore our curiosity and challenge our assumptions?”

To tackle the first question, the group suggested various definitions of what an intellectual should be: should being an intellectual be about accumulating a vast array of knowledge? Or should it be about how fast we connect the dots between two discrete matters?

Then a question arose—Is artificial intelligence the most intelligent existence on this planet? If so, what differentiates us from the always fast and accurate AI?

To that, alumnus Lan Yingjie (Class of 2017) suggested: “Intelligence is an aptitude and intellectualism is an attitude.”

Another member of the group added to this, saying that intellectualism is like a habit because, for example, if one began procrastinating after graduating from school, that is not really an intellectual behavior.

The group concluded that it is imperative that as one shares his/her opinions, one should also be able to listen to other’s opinions and take criticism. As such, intellectualism was tied to humility as well.

In the second part of the event, each group presented their findings. Here, one group talked about  the “emotional core” as to why this entire discourse about intellectualism began. They attributed it to USP students’ insecurity about intellectuality.

“Are we dumb, or are we worse than our seniors?” asked alumnus Stacy Ooi (Class of 2018). “You are in USP, what more proof do you need that you are smart?”

Alumnus Goh Wei Leong (Class of 2017) added to this by saying, “Rather than questioning if we are the right fit for the program, why not ask questions for one another to explore our curiosity and challenge our assumptions?”

The group concluded that intellectualism should not be about the pressure to gain knowledge to compete with others. Rather, it should be about having the curiosity to learn.

However, what happens if we feel the pressure to be an intellectual, nonetheless?

“If you feel the pressure, it is probably because you think it [USP] is a prestigious program; it’s great to have it on the CV,” said Imran.

Alumnus Lan Yingjie (Class of 2017) suggested: “Intelligence is an aptitude and intellectualism is an attitude.”

He added that if someone feels that they are not fit for the program, it is not because they are incompetent but because different people have different interests and values.

Goh Wei Leong said, “Why not extend this intellectual label to make it something more like an attitude to life?” He added that intellectualism is an attitude of curiosity that applies to different walks of life; it is not something that only pertains to scholarship.

Mark Goh (Class of 2019), however, said that a fundamental part of intellectualism should also be about being able to commit to whatever is given, referring to the last-minute work handed in by students mentioned in the post.

Eventually, most attendees agreed that intellectualism boils down to the curiosity to learn, and that such an attitude is nurtured in the sharing of ideas.

Ultimately, we have to know our limits and that we can be wrong, alumnus Lan Yingjie said.

“When you correct a person in a very brutal way, the person withdraws. And when we talk about a community, it takes one person out of the community, and then another and another. Eventually it will get to a stage when no one dares to speak up because they are afraid that they will be wrong.”


The writer is currently a year 2 double degree student from Waseda university. He is trying to figure out a way to aesthetically fit three guitars in his small room.

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