Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Where To Start

with 3 comments

Given the comments that have come in, it’s difficult to know what to say first, or even what to talk about first.  I always start these things with grand plans for a perfectly argued, perfectly structured, architecturally elegant exposition, and then it all goes to hell.

First, in answer to Cheryl–yes,  I’ve definitely heard the “ivory tower” smear.  I haven’t mentioned it for two reasons.  First, because it’s really just a variation on the more basic revulsion against education–us peckerwoods are smarter than all you college boys with your book learning!   But the more important reason is that I keep trying to get this subject off the myopic concentration on universities and academia.

Education does not only take place in academia, and the violent distaste for intelligence and education isn’t always directed at “professors.”  In the family in which I grew up, there was an entire subsection of people who responded to my going to the library to take out Anna Karenina with the words, “who do you think you are!”   Note, I didn’t use a question mark there.   It wasn’t a question.

What seems to be offensive to these people, what seems to be offensive to a large minority of the American public, is not the Ivy League per se, or even the real  Ivy League, but what “Ivy League” has become a metaphor for:  a certain habit of mind, a certain set of tastes, and an intelligence strong enough that it cannot be hidden.

Nor do I think the revulsion and derision against smart people–which is what this is–has anything to do with the smart people being condescending and arrogant.  I was certainly neither at the age of ten, when the incident with Anna Karenina occurred, nor even earlier than that, when I used to get slammed for using “big words.”  Mind you, I had no idea I was using “big words.”  They didn’t sound big to me.

What’s more, far from being either condescending or arrogant, I spent most of my time feeling vastly inferior on every level to the cousins who made my life absolutely hell on wheels at least three times every year.  The three times were, of course, Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter, when I would be forcibly transported to my Aunt Dot’s and thrown in the midst of a dozen or so people of “my own age” who not only couldn’t stand me, but spent a lot of their time making sure I didn’t forget they couldn’t stand me. 

When I got a little older, I devised a strategy.  I’d go into the house, sink into the woodwork as far as possible, and then, when nobody was looking, go back out to my father’s car.  In those days, my father favored enormous Cadillacs and Lincolns, and the floors of the back seats didn’t have that little bump thing they’ve got now.  I would lie down flat on the floor of the car, where nobody could see me, and read.  

Sometimes, I managed to read all the way through dinner without anybody knowing I was gone.

My point here–aside from the fact that this got me thinking about it–is that their hatred and contempt for me had nothing to do with my going to some fancy college.  I did that, eventually, but it was years later.  What they didn’t like was something much more basic in me, and they don’t like it in anybody.   That’s as true now as it was in 1961.  Hell,  I think it’s actually gotten worse.

A couple of years ago, my father and my brother died within a month of each other.  At the dinner after the memorial service for my brother, I went over to talk to that side of the family, all the cousins gathered together in a little knot like a high school clique, and my cousin Chris, seeing me sit down at the table, picked up her chair, turned its back to me, and then planted herself with her arms folded across her chest. 

She wasn’t even going to pretend to talk to a little snot like me.  Who did I think I was?  I ought to remember where I came from!

Someday, I’m going to be forced into the company of these people and I’m going to just lose it.  Which my sons think would be a really good idea.

What I’m getting at here, though, is that this reaction had nothing to do with any of the excuses people usually make for it–I hadn’t gone to any fancy schools when it started, I didn’t think I was better than they were, I wasn’t parading around showing off one thing or the other.  If anything, I was desperately attempting to make sure they didn’t notice me.

As it turned out, they tended to take not bothering them as just as bad as any of the arrogant stuff would have been if I’d done it.  Hiding out in the car?  Who do you think you are!

I don’t know where this kind of thing comes from, I really don’t.  I just know it’s there, and I know it’s wrong–morally wrong, not just mistaken.  The people who fulminate against “pointy-headed intellectuals” are not doing it because they think the Ivy League types look down on them or because they think the experts are wrong.  A lot of them have never met an Ivy League type face to face and most of them do not have the background knowledge to make an informed decision about just about anything. 

Who’s going to pay for it is a side-issue, really.  These people would feel this way about intelligence and education and erudition even if they were never called on to fork over a dime for its existence.   Their problem is not their wallets or even the environmental policies of this government agency or that.  It’s with the mere fact that intelligence exists, that it does not exist equally in all people, and that some people got more of it than others.

i want to point something out here:  what I’m talking about is not a function of substandard IQ.  My cousins aren’t stupid–well, okay, one of them is–because they lack the raw ability.  I know plenty of people whose IQs are no higher who do not fall in to this kind of trap. 

In the end, this is a decision, and sometimes people with very high IQs indeed fall into it.  We ought to talk about an academic phenomenon called  Physics Envy sometimes–you can see a lot of this kind of thing in that.

But the simple fact of the matter is that the decision to hate and revile intelligence in other people is, at the same time, a decision not to develop it in yourself.  It is the white trash equivalent of what is called, in ghetto neighborhoods, “acting white.”  And its theme song is always the same:  Who do you think you are!

Note, again, the lack of question mark.  It’s not a question.

There is, on that side of the family, one other person who has the Mark of Cain, or whatever, and it’s interesting to me what has happened to her among the cousins.  She’s definitely tolerated, unlike me, and she’s almost never reviled to her face or outright shunned when the family gets together.

But there’s a price, and it amazes me that she’s willing to pay it.  The price is to show up at every family gathering with a cooked something, to work overtime to “fit in”–and to pretend not to know that they make fun of her as soon as her back is turned.

It isn’t good-natured fun, either.  I know.  I’ve heard it.   The woman has a PhD and a law degree.  Why she thinks she needs to put up with this crap is beyond me. 

As for me, I figure that half a century is long enough to give anything, so I quit.

And I’ll get to Robert’s thing about the usefulness of studies in Thomas Jefferson’s UVa tomorrow.

Written by janeh

October 29th, 2008 at 6:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Where To Start'

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  1. It’s ‘us and them’ again. It’s the same thing I ran into with parents who wanted their sons not to leave home even when there were no opportunities in a dying town and their sons and daughters to lead the same way of life they did, going out to work as soon as it was legal and bringing money to the household until they married – even when it wasn’t really financially necessary to do so. And if you don’t, you have rejected where you came from and who you at bottom are; you are selfish and not quite normal or right – and if you do it and succeed (earn more money, get a cleaner or higher-status job), you have to bend over backwards to accommodate their beliefs because you have to counteract the evidence that maybe there is another way or life and that maybe you are a bit different than the family/group members.

    I still think envy plays a big role in this attitude in many cases, but I also think that sort of reaction can go way beyond envy, right down into the genes that evolved when membership in a group was essential to survival. We still need connection with other human beings in a very deep and profound way, and sometimes we meet that need by making it bloody miserable for anyone who obviously doesn’t fit in. *We* don’t put any value in education, not just ‘we’ the group of individuals, but ‘we’ the family or social class or work buddies, and to ensure the continuity of the group (even though we no longer need it to hunt mammoths), we’ll force anyone who doesn’t fit to hide who they are or to compensate in some way as the token intellectual or other minority. Or to leave. And this is almost instinctual – although there can be an overlay of more personal and chosen (or not combatted against) attitudes like envy as well.

    I didn’t realize how strongly I still felt about this until I started writing.

    I think one of the reasons I get so angry at some groups I would otherwise have much in common with is that the people who talk the most about being ‘inclusive’ do exactly the same thing. They form groups and they enforce the group mores. They just draw the lines between ‘us’ and ‘them’ in a different place than the members of the groups they condemn for excluding others. That’s probably why I think so strongly that there’s a genetic component in this ‘us and them’ thing, although like many genetic influences, it can be encouraged or not. It seems to take a conscious effort to accept people as they are instead of trying to fit them into your existing group, your existing comfortable social circle, and shoving them out if they don’t fit.

    And perhaps the process is more obvious in the poor in a very materialistic society because it’s harder for them to take the high road and think ‘Oh, poor soul, she just doesn’t quite fit in, you know; she’s not people like us.’ Poor people get smacked in the face with the possibility that the intelligent and hardworking people are not merely not people like us, they’re people who do better than us. Maybe people who ARE better than us (especially in a society in which quality is often equated with financial success). Maybe the ones who get an education or work hard aren’t just rejecting us, and our way of life…maybe they’re right to do so because there’s a better one out there. That must be terribly hard to bear.

    But at its roots, the process of ostracizing the intelligent is one possible expression of our strong natural urges to belong to a group; to have other human beings we can identify with.


    29 Oct 08 at 9:31 am

  2. A lot of people don’t like me, and some of them are right to do so, but I don’t think it’s ever been a function of my intelligence. But then if I was generally the bright child in the room, I was also the worst athlete, “talked funny”–vocabulary? speech impediment? I’ll never know now–and was no competition to my peers with the opposite sex.

    I knew a “golden child” when I was young. Bright enough, good looking, well spoken and a natural athelete. The family had money too. Looking back, I never got down to the level of Jane’s relatives, but I certainly wasn’t as much above them as I should have been.

    Being bright and being disliked doesn’t necessarily mean you’re disliked BECAUSE you’re bright. Being all-round better is much more infuriating. No need to invent a new condition when garden-variety envy will suffice.


    29 Oct 08 at 8:55 pm

  3. Robert-
    As I’ve said, I think envy is a big part of what we’re talking about. But I don’t think envy alone quite explains it.

    I’ll put it another way. Where I grew up, a common (although usually relatively mild) criticism of someone would be ‘she’s not easy’. People who used it didn’t mean ‘easy’ in the sexual sense, they meant ‘easy to get along with’. The person they were talking about didn’t fit in in the community or family in some way. Maybe she didn’t have the usual opinions about other people’s doings or misdoings. Maybe she was a bit of a drama queen and always wanted attention. Maybe she showed that she was a bit bored by the things that fascinated most people and was always going on about things that didn’t interest anyone else the speaker knew. She wasn’t easy; didn’t quite fit in socially for some reason, which might or might not have anything to do with intelligence.

    I generally wasn’t considered easy as a child, although the people in my immediate circle didn’t fuss over the fact a lot, and my relatives didn’t treat me with the disdain Jane experienced. But I remain convinced that in addition to envy, the desire to have people fit in plays into the social divisions we’ve been discussing.

    PS I didn’t intend to ask Jane if she was familiar with ‘ivory tower’, I intended to ask you. I was truly astonished that you said you hadn’t encountered that slur.


    30 Oct 08 at 6:28 am

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