The origins of the current climate of anti-intellectualism may lie further back than we thought
‘You know, I’ve always wanted to say this… with all the talking we all do, all of these experts, ‘Oh we need an expert’ – the experts are terrible!’
– Donald Trump, April 2016
‘I think people have had enough of experts’
– Michael Gove, June 2016
In 415AD, a band of thugs dragged the mathematician, astronomer and philosopher Hypatia from her carriage and took her to a nearby church, where they stripped her naked, battered her to death with roof tiles, dismembered her and set the body parts on fire.
During the Spanish Civil War, the majority of the 200,000 civilians killed were members of the intelligentsia. In the months after the invasion of Poland that triggered the Second World War, the Nazis captured and killed around 100,000 Poles, 61,000 of whom were academics, priests, lawyers and doctors, in a secret cleansing operation codenamed Intelligenzaktion.
And at Ridgeway School in Swindon in 1982, when Andy Bodle raised his hand to answer a history teacher’s question, Gavin McCracken scraped a wad of mucus from the inside of his nostril, rolled the sticky residue into a ball, and flicked it at the back of his classmate’s head. All right, so it’s not quite the martyrdom of Hypatia, but there’s a direct line connecting fifth century Alexandria to Gavin McCracken’s bogie. Humanity has a long and inglorious history of persecuting its brighter minds, and if the last couple of years are any guide, it’s not done yet.
Once again it has become fashionable to rubbish expert opinion, to prize ‘plain talking’, ‘common sense’ and ‘real men’ over rational inquiry. After years of informed debate, climate change deniers are suddenly back on an equal footing with climate scientists, ‘overeducated’ has become a term of abuse, and British MP Marcus Fysh thinks it is perfectly reasonable to post, in reply to a trade expert on Twitter: ‘Ya da ya da gravity ya da ya da meaningless graphs, supposition and cod economics ya da ya da ya.’
But is this really an overnight development?
In his Pulitzer-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, historian Richard Hofstadter charts the history of the relationship between the US and its intellectual class. For Hofstadter, writing in 1963, the most recent outbreak of boffin-bashing was the period of 1947-56, when erudite Democrat presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson was twice defeated by man-of-action Dwight Eisenhower, and Joseph McCarthy’s Communist hysteria was at its vindictive height.
The parallels between today’s arguments and the rhetoric of 1930s Germany have been pointed out endlessly, but those with the rise of Andrew Jackson and the aftermath of America’s Great Depression are almost as chilling. ‘Thousands of college graduates are going as fast as they can straight to hell. If I had a million dollars, I’d give $999,999 to the church and $1 to education,’ evangelical preacher Billy Sunday is reported as saying. ‘[The right] has always liked to blur the distinction between the moderate progressive and the revolutionary,’ Hofstadter soberly notes.
But Hofstadter’s focus was on the US, his lenses politics, business, religion and education. He barely touched on language and culture, which turn out to be almost as illuminating.
Insults for the intelligent have always been with us – know-it-all, clever clogs, smart alec, swot – but the end of the Second World War brought a deluge of new terms. Square (in the sense of a boringly conventional person, which later morphed into a synonym for ‘swot’), is first attested in 1944. Boffin arrived in 1945. These were followed by geek (1946), nerd (1951), dork (1967), dweeb and pointy-headed (1968), and, finally, anorak (1984). Egghead, though coined in around 1907, only really took off in the early fifties. The tabloids have gleefully embraced such terms,
It’s true that some of these slurs have lost their force over time, and others (pointy-headed) have all but disappeared. Nonetheless, those who once might have searched in vain for a word with which to harangue their more diligent classmates are now spoilt for choice.
Some of the seeds of this contempt were sown even further back. From the oldest myths to the latest television shows, the heroes of British and American lore have overwhelmingly been men of action rather than people of learning: King Arthur. Robin Hood. Flashman. Hornblower. Jack Aubrey. Sharpe. Tarzan. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers and most other comic-book characters. Dick Barton. Dan Dare. Biggles. Bond. Roy of the Rovers. Starsky and Hutch: men of courage, men of heart (and, depressingly, all men), honourable and true, but none of them likely to take out a subscription to the London Review of Books.
They might be possessed of a certain resourcefulness, a dry wit or cunning, but they are never highbrow men.
The second, more modern type of hero offered up by Anglo-American culture is the lovable rogue. Here you have Molesworth, Just William, Bertie Wooster, Dennis the Menace, Minnie the Minx, Del Boy, Arthur Daley, Norman Stanley Fletcher, Homer Simpson. These characters aren’t just ambivalent about intellectual enrichment; they’re actively averse to it. They survive on native wit and luck rather than on any insights they might have picked up by study or observation.
In terms of popular protagonists with actual grey matter, all I could come up with was Doctor Who and Iron Man. (I’m discounting detectives, like Holmes, Marlowe and Morse, as brains are sort of the sine qua non in a crime solver.)
Bright characters tend to get one of two roles in western fiction. First, the socially inadequate sidekick: Willow from Buffy, Mr Spock, Flash Gordon’s Dr Zarkov, Dan Dare’s Professor Peabody, Hermione from Harry Potter, Thunderbirds’ Brains, Bond’s Q. While the hero kicks butt and scores booty, these poor souls toil thanklessly in the shadows, emerging only to deliver their (often crucial) findings when the hero requires them.
The other part reserved for the clever-clogs is the bad guy. Dr Frankenstein, the archetypal mad scientist. Bond’s various evil-genius foes. Dennis the Menace’s nemesis, Walter the Softy. The Mekon. The Bash Street Kids’ Cuthbert Cringeworthy. Street-smart Will Smith’s preppy punchbag cousin Carlton in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
But for me, there are two stories in particular that exemplify society’s unhealthy attitude towards its thinkers.
The Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Wile E Coyote and the Road Runner, which first ran from 1949 to 1966, are a straight-up battle between artifice and natural ability. And who wins out every time? Wile E Coyote’s ingenious traps, courtesy of the Acme corporation, always end up blowing up in his face, while a combination of raw speed and luck allows the Road Runner to live to meep another day.
Whether intentional or not, the message is hammered home as surely as the telegraph pole pounds Wile E’s skull into the Arizona dust: instinct trumps science every time. Those with ideas of improving themselves will pay the price for their arrogance; far better to accept your natural place and your natural gifts.
Then in 1962, a character came along who distilled the brain/brawn dichotomy into one body. On regular days, he’s Bruce Banner: a gifted scientist, but weedy, ineffectual, emotionally distant. Subject Bruce to stress, though, and he becomes the Hulk: an unstoppable powerhouse of limitless strength who’s barely able to form a sentence. Sure, Banner can recalibrate your mass spectrometer, but when the real s**t goes down, there’s only one guy you want around. Again, the primal, ‘natural’ persona wins out over the reflective soul.
There’s been little to counter this narrative. Sure, the cerebrally unchallenged have mounted mini-fightbacks in the films of John Hughes and Judd Apatow, and the words ‘geek’ and ‘nerd’ have been partially reclaimed, thanks in part to the Silicon Valley tech elite. But even today, the stereotypical image of the educated person remains that of a friendless introvert who, while gifted in one department, can’t win an arm-wrestle, change a lightbulb, or get laid in a Bangkok brothel.
For every Good Will Hunting, there are 100 Ethan Hunts; for every Dead Poets Society, 50 Fight Clubs. Given the bombardment of negative stereotypes around learning, it’s no wonder a good 75% of my male peers spent most of their schooldays twanging girls’ bra-straps and carving swear-words into their desks instead of developing their mental faculties.
Our culture and our language are in part a reflection of our society, of course, but they also help shape our opinions. And without more positive portrayals of thinking and thinkers in our facts and in our fictions, we stand little chance of reversing this alarming trend.
Andy Bodle is a journalist and scriptwriter who blogs at www.rainbowsandlollipops.net