Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

The Stupid Thing

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I titled an essay this once, or part of an essay.  It’s over on the main page of the site in the political essays, under the main title Why I Don’t Vote Republican.

But in fact, the thing I want to go ranting on about here is not the fault of Republicans alone, or even primarily.  I’m not sure that it’s the fault of anybody primarily.  But I also know that most of the people not only willing but able to read this blog have very likely seldom or never come in contact with the kinds of things I’m going to talk about–well, the kind of people I’m going to talk about–or at least have no idea that this is not only a common thing. 

I have a son in the kind of college where these things don’t happen, and he tells his friends stories about my students, and they refuse to believe him.  They think I’m making them up.  I’m not making them up.  

This link


is to an article an on-line friend of mine sent me.  He thought it was sad.  I thought it made perfect sense.  

These are the students I teach–at least, the ones called DUMB CLIENTS are–and they are, increasingly, the students who populate the lower tiers of the state college and university systems and the no-name private places where an applicant with a  C- high school average and board scores that don’t look like the kind of thing you’d like to see on an electric bill are considered highly desirable catches.

At the end of that article my friend sent me, there’s a paragraph on the incredible rip-off college is for students like these, who get nothing from it, and I completely agree.  The extent to which the lower levels of American “higher education” have become a cash cow that pumps tens of millions of dollars out of students and their families in exchange not just for nothing much, but for an effect that is actively harmful to the students and the society they live in is truly astounding.

But we can’t get there from here unless we consider The Stupid  Thing first, and The Stupid Thing is the way so many of us revile and resent the people around us who do get first class educations–and the way in which any suggestion that some art (novels, paintings. music) is objectively better than any other is nothing but a form of snobbery.

Or, as another online friend sent me in response to the post before this one:

>>>    You DO realize, don’t you, that when you go on one of these tears you sound very much as though you think the peasantry isn’t paying sufficient deference to someone’s diploma?<<<

For what it’s worth, I’m not asking that anybody pay any deference to anybody else’s “diploma,” nor has anything I’v said indicate that I think anybody else is part of the “peasantry.”

Try to think of what this sort of approach would look like if you applied it to, say, basketball. 

You think guys who play for the NBA have more basketball talent than the rest of us?   Well, you must think all of us shooting hoops at the Y are part of the peasantry!

I could do this for a hundred other things< and in every case you”d be able to see,  straight out, just how ridiculous an approach it is.  Most fields of human endeavor offer varying levels of  possible accomplishment.  And in every one of those cases, the people able to reach the highest levels of that accomplishment are a very small percentage of the total population.  The people able to appreciate those levels but not to reach them are larger in number, but still a small percentage.

And yet, in no other fields but the intellectual do we declare that those people who reach the highest levels and those who appreciate them somehow look down on the rest of us as “peasants” because we do not. 

What’s more, in no other fields but the intellectual do we have any objection to accepting quick-and-dirty shorthand for such achievement.  Not every world class basketball player will make it to the NBA.  Some won’t want to.  I knew a kid about twenty years ago who turned down basketball scholarships from practically every school in the Big 10 because he wanted to go to medical school and he couldn’t do pre-med adequately and play college ball.

Even so, we accept “he’s an NBA player” as a pretty good indication that he’s a world-class basketball players.

So here’s my first proposition–getting a degree from the Ivy League is like being an NBA basketball player.  The standards for getting in and getting out are exponentially higher than they are for my students.  So much so that I’m willing to say that “college” is not the same experience at Yale aas it is at West Podunk State  University.

This wasn’t always the case, by the way.   Forty or fifty years ago, in a very different world with a very different set of assumptions and priorities, less prestigious colleges and universities often at least offered their students education on a par with the best of the “first tier” places, and the tiers had more to do with money and achievement.  I taught composition at Michigan State during the late 1970s, and you could have gotten a first rate education there if you wanted to put in the time and effort.

What’s happened to  Michigan State since, I don’t know, but I do know what’s happened to the colleges downmarket from there, and most of you reading this would have to see it to believe it. 

And we can rant and wail about how the liberals or the conservatives or the whatevers have destroyed American education, because they want rote learning or they have no sense of standards, but the truth is a lot worse than that. 

We have lost, on a society-wide level, any sense at all that there are real, objective, important intellectual standards of any kind at all.  We sort-of accept them in math and science, because even if we don’t understand the equations and the formulas we do understand that there’s a ‘right” answer and somebody has it,  but when it comes to literature, art, history, philosphy and everything else that was once the core of “education” in the West, we’re been taught that it’s all “subjective,” it’s all “a matter of opinion,” and in that case, if you think your opinion is better than mine, you must be some kind of dirty elitist snob.

And make me know something about literature and h istory and philosophy before you give me a college degree–you’re worse than a snob.  You’re probably a racist, or maybe just a bitch.  I need a college degree to have a decent life and you’re trying to tell me I can’t have one unless I know all this useless stuff I’m never going to learn at all!

Okay, all right.  I had a really, really, really bad day yesterday, and dealing with just this kind of thing, too.

But before I get to it, for real, and in detail, I want to point out a few thing.

First, that it doesn’t bother me that the lightweight and ephemeral sells better than the serious and artistically difficult.  Of course it does.  Many of my students are not capable of understanding Jose Saramago, but I can understand Saramago and Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure both, and it’s a pretty good guess that both my students and I  own a copy of the second, but only I own a copy of the first. 

Second, it’s not deference to a diploma I’m looking for, but an end to the outright hostility and resentment of intelligence, and what accompanies it, the hostility and resentment to anything that isn’t “just like me,” the endless insistence that what is most important when it comes to intellectual work and intellectual understanding is being “just like everybody else.”

That’s what I have against Sarah Palin.  I have no idea what she’s like as a person, but I do know how she’s being sold to the American public–“Hucka-hucka-hucka, hor-hor-hor, looka-me!  I’m just like you!  That’s why the elite mass media doesn’t like me!”

It”s not her conservatism.  William F. Buckley was a conservative.  Or how about somebody just as conservative, and maybe more so, actually available to be McCain’s running mate? 

Mike Huckabee is a lot of things, and the name is unfortunate, but he gives every indication of being an intelligent and educated man.

I don’t think Sarah  Palin was chosen for her conservatism.  I think she was chosen for just the quality her publicity machine has been hammering home ever since she accepted the nomination, that ability to appear, well, stupid.

When did Jefferson’s natural aristocracy, the nation that built a system of Land Grant colleges that tried to insure that our engineers had read Plato and our aggies understood King Lear, get to the point where stupid and ignorant became qualifications for high office, and an objection to stupid and ignorant became  the badge of evil, the mark of the “elitist?”

I promise to be more coherent tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 24th, 2008 at 10:45 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'The Stupid Thing'

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  1. OK, I’ll come clean. I’m the person who sent the link to Jane.

    Some personal data. I’m 72, was born and educated in the US and moved to Australia when I was 35. I’m now an Australian citizen and do not claim to understand the US – it seems to have changed drastically since I left.

    I have a PhD in Physics so I guess I can be counted as elite.

    I do not resent people who went to Ivy League schools but I do dislike people who pound their breasts and say “Look at me, I’m a Harvard
    graduate.” Frankly, I don’t care about university education past the first 5 years after graduation. Past that, I want to know what the person has
    done with his/her life as an adult.

    What I found sad about that article was the waste of time and money trying to “educate” people who should not have been in those classes. Australian
    universities do not have distribution requirements – a BA or BS takes 3 years.

    My own experience is that you can not teach Physics to English majors and forcing Physics majors to study Thomas Hardy merely leaves them hating his

    Yesterday, I had to ask my next door neighbor for help in assembling a desk chair – one of those “easy to assemble” kits. He put it together in
    1/2 an hour without even looking at the instructions. He can’t do calculus, I can’t use a screwdriver. Why should I look down on him as
    “uneducated?” Why should he look up at me as a university graduate?

    What is the point of forcing people who would make good carpenters or electricians or auto mechanics read Plato’s Republic?

    Postscript: Jane emailed me to say that you can teach elementary Physics to English majors. Yes, in a way – you can teach them that energy is conserved. Its much harder to get them to see the connection between that and why you should not jam on your car brakes so hard that the wheels lock. Learning to do simple calculations is not the same as learning to think like a physicist or engineer.


    24 Oct 08 at 5:43 pm

  2. “We have lost, on a society-wide level, any sense at all that there are real, objective, important intellectual standards of any kind at all.“

    On the contrary, we understand very well as a society that there are real objective important intellectual standards. The MD or biochemist from Johns Hopkins and the engineer or physicist from MIT or Cal Tech embody those standards and are respected for it. On the other hand, Johns Hopkins doesn’t have tenured faculty who deny the circulation of blood, and Cal Tech is short of professors of Aristotelian physics. Over in the philosophy departments, on the other hand…So perhaps philosophy isn’t objective in the same way. Perhaps it isn’t objective in any way at all.

    The last time I heard a Harvard graduate on art, she was insisting that a dung Madonna and a rotting shark were art, and that it would be censorship not to exhibit them on the taxpayer’s dime. This seemed to be the prevailing opinion in such circles, which leads me to conclude either (a) there is no objective standard in art, or (b) there is one, but Harvard and Yale do nothing to promote it. (It also told me you can get in and out of some very prestigious schools without learning the meaning of censorship.) Must I repeat the exercise in literature? If anything, America’s middle classes fought the long rearguard for coherence in literature and the arts, while our “elite” institutions demonstrated the old Greek proverb that “the fish rots from the head.”

    History is different, of course. There are real events, and though we might argue about significance of some of them, they have an objective reality. Richard Nixon was not President on Christmas Day 1968, no matter how often a noted Yale graduate said otherwise. FDR was not President in 1929, and the television was not in domestic use in his lifetime, nor have the United States and France ever chased Hezbollah out of Lebanon. But no one outside of a few cranky conservatives point out that in addition to Governor Palin, we have a vice presidential candidate with a grasp of history last demonstrated by Bill Murray in ANIMAL HOUSE. Our major news outlets know he can’t be bone-ignorant or delusional, because after all, he has a law degree from Syracuse and has been in the Senate for a generation. Try to explain that line of reasoning, and see how far you get without using “elitism” or a synonym.

    I am ignoring the question of the relative quality of our learning institutions as a side issue, but my silence does not betoken consent.


    24 Oct 08 at 7:02 pm

  3. A comment ofn RObert’s comment. I spent a few years studying Philosophy at an Australian university while I was a programmer there.

    The philosophers were NOT post-modernist. They could see the problem with a theory that says “All theories are wrong.”

    The English and History departments on the other hand…

    Australian historians keep talking about the “genocide” committed by the whites against the Aborigines. But they define accidental spread of measles as genocide. And the shooting of 1 aborigine by a white man as genocide. What happened to intellectual standards?


    24 Oct 08 at 10:08 pm

  4. I’ve been thinking about this post over the last few days because I wanted to respond but wasn’t sure how. Although I haven’t read your latest book yet (I only just finished ‘Glass Houses’, which I really enjoyed) .I’ve read enough about the US and elitism that I think that you’re on the money in describing a certain kind of anti-intellectualism, but it’s not something I’ve seen much of myself.

    I’ve known people who considered those with ‘excessive’ education to be slightly weird, or ivory tower types, and parents who desperately wanted their children to have a degree – any degree, in anything – because that would make for a better life, in spite of the fact that the child in question appeared to have little interest in and less aptitude for book learning. As an aside, that’s probably why we are perennially short of skilled techinicians, since there are quite bright kids who aren’t really suited for getting that BA in English but who are encouraged by their parents and teachers to do so anyway, because Getting an Education means Success in Life, and Getting an Education requires getting a degree from a university.

    And I’ve known the envious, who while unwilling or unable to put the work into changing their lives, can always find the time to put down those who achieve what they would have liked to achieve, and who have what the envious lack but consider theirs by right.

    I think also that some people look on their friends and relatives who advance in life as having somehow abandoned and betrayed them. I remember a mother whose son had had problems in a bigger town and returned home. I thought at first she was saying that it was so good to have him back with her in order to put a good face on the fact that he was now back in a small town with no opportunities for work or further education, but I came to suspect she meant it. She’d rather have had him home, part of the family, *like* the family, than away trying to make a better life for himself. I also knew someone years ago who became a physician – and a specialist – in the face of a family who figured she should have dropped out of school and got a job to help out with the family finances as soon as she could do so legally, because it was terribly selfish of her to get all those student loans and go to university instead. Alongside the envious, we have the fearful and the short-sighted.

    So, we have a society in which people who want to do better than their parents (or than they themselves have done in the past) are told to get an education, and ‘education’ is often narrowly construed to mean university rather than college (um… Canadian terminology, a ‘college’ is usually what used to be called a community or trades college and offers 2-3 year programs leading to certificates or diplomas in technical programs, although there are some exceptions). So you get people going to university who don’t have much of an academic background and maybe little aptitude as well, but the universities need bodies for the tuition money and the government grants based on enrollments, so they offer remedial math and English and complain loudly about the terrible K-12 schools. Meanwhile, some poor people, either through envy of those who have a better life than they do, or fear of losing their children through social mobility, are quite hostile towards the more educated groups.

    I can see how it would work like that on an individual level.

    Perhaps the loss of automatic respect towards those in authority plays into it too. I generally think that’s not a bad thing, but in the past, authority = education, especially in remote or rural areas, where the local priest (or, if available, doctor or nurse) might be called on to settle anything involving written materials – eg legal issues, government demands etc. I wouldn’t be surprised if some people hadn’t gone from respect for to resentment of the more educated rather than ending up in the middle (with acceptance and use of their skills, perhaps?)


    25 Oct 08 at 6:54 am

  5. Loss of automatic respect towards authority could play into it as you say, Cheryl, but I think that your earlier comments are closer to the mark. The mother who’s glad her son is back home, not out getting an education and becoming different – I think that’s much closer to the Palin phenomenon. It seems to be about being comfortable with the people around you and with those you see on the public (political) stage – a lot of people seem to mistrust others when they can’t understand them.

    The really weird thing is how it went from mistrusting those who think differently or who have educations, to actually looking down on them. How did it become good to fail tho think about much of anything? Reacting to what happens to you is what my cats do. Thinking and trying to understand is what people should do – and so when I saw the one and only Sarah Palin sticker that I’ve seen (not counting McCain/Palin stickers, of course) my first thought was “good god, this person actually put a sticker on a car to tell the world they like willfully ignorant better than thoughtful?”

    But it seems to be true. I know people like that. Our shipping supervisor where I work is like that. You can talk to him and he’s friendly and not lacking in common sense, but there’s a point in conversation beyond which he won’t go, can’t go, and isn’t interested in going.

    And what I don’t understand is the not interested part.


    25 Oct 08 at 10:39 am

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