March 2- 8, 2006
slantSmart As We Wanna Be
Yo -- Philly's more intellectual than you think.
One time I was describing 12-year-old Charlotte Haze as bourgeois, compared to horrible middle-aged Humbert's Old World aristocratic ways, and one admittedly undistinguished student didn't understand the French b-word. I explained the term from Marxism through contemporary connotations, and she remained lost until her classmate leaned over and said, "Oh honey, he talkin' 'bout boogies." She instantly understood.
All butchery of the English language aside, this showed me something very important: A student with little intellectual training save her one semester at CCP understood the rather complex concept of class distinction. She just didn't understand the daunting word I'd used to describe it.
This, to me, is a microcosm of Philadelphia.
We love our neighborhoods, and at the same time take pride in not knowing anything outside them. This student lived in West Philly; bourgeois is, I suppose, a Center City word. But the concept isn't, and that shows not our ignorance but a failure to manifest our potential.
Philadelphians define themselves with Geno's Steaks, Wawa, South Street, the 700 level (may it rest in peace) and knowing how to spell Schuylkill. But that little place on 6th and Chestnut streets where liberty as we know it was born has been relegated to a tourist spot where no real Philly citizens go unless they have friends in from out of town. I know this because my students at both CCP and Temple, most of them natives, erroneously think 1776 is the year the Constitution was ratified, but a mention of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue puts everyone on the same page.
The fact that Noam Chomsky is a little-known native Philadelphian illustrates the point further. His political views aside, Chomsky famously speaks about the most complex subjects in the simplest language. He believes that unnecessarily fancy words only get in the way of comprehension, and my student shows that he's right.
Yet we do not acknowledge this giant contemporary mind as a son of our city. Instead we honor Rocky Balboa, a fictional character created by a native New Yorker, with a statue before our beloved Spectrum. I understand the latterI can quote Rocky line for linebut these ideas are not mutually exclusive. Understanding words like bourgeois does not nullify one's status as a "real Philadelphian," nor does the ability to discuss literature prevent one from enjoying a lager and a boxing movie.
We think Philadelphia isn't smart, but we are. It's complexity that frightens us, that makes us feel like we've betrayed our roots and become pompous elitists. But as Chomsky demonstrates, we can understand sophisticated subject matter without adopting pompous language.
Then we could read both Lolita and the Daily News, and let intelligence stream out of the Ivory Tower many in this town quite obviously despise, allowing us to function in all social, professional and intellectual spheres. I see it happen when each semester ends, when students seem equally at home whether they're in a classroom discussing Orwell or in a South Philly pub discussing the latest antics of Skinny Joey Merlino.
We must embrace the fact that Philadelphia is the place where both Dr. J and Thomas Jefferson did their best work, where the same Broad Street line takes us from the Linc to the Kimmel Center to Temple University, where Masaharu Morimoto and Jim and Nick all make our food.
Then we'll understand what this city could be: a place of intelligence, culture, wit and our own kind of wisdom. And the fact that we are the only ones preventing it from happening.
Joshua Isard teaches English at Temple University.