Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


with 3 comments

There are a couple of things going on here today, but my attention got distracted by an article posted to Arts and Letters Daily this morning.  If you’ve never been to ALDaily, you should go–they’re run by the Chronicle of Higher Education, which took over for the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca, and what they do is post a few interesting articles every day.  They cover all political and solution points of view over time, and they’ve got interesting taste.

The article that struck me today was by the son of the man who invented the term “meritocracy,” and it struck me because it may have something to do with why there is such an animus not only to intelligence, but to all things that remind us that intelligence is not equally distributed across the population.  And it gave an answer to the question of why we’ve become so obsessed with non-achieving celebrities tha I hadn’t thought of.

Anyway, the article is here:


and I’ll get to it in a minute, but first I want to clarify something.  John posted the following:

>>>Jane, I’ve never considered Heemingway to be an intellectual. But I do consider
historians, archeologists, physicists, chemists, astronomers, geologists,
biologists and even engineers to be intellectuals and they did have their homes
in Universities! Oh, I left out Philosophy! Perhaps we need to define

I definitely think we need to define “intellectual,” because of the above list, I would consider NONE of the mentioned people intellectuals, except perhaps historians, and then only if they are actively engaged in writing history, not just researching and teaching it.

Intellectuals are first and foremost people whose vocation is the invention, creation and dissemination of cultural ideas.  Most of the people John mentioned are not intellectuals but scholars or scientists.  Scholars engage in the research and explication of past ideas.  Scientists investigate the physical (rather than the cultural) world.  Sociologists and psychologists decided not to be intellectuals in an attempt to be scientists instead.  I don’t know how well that worked out.

But it really has been only recently that intellectuals have been found primarily in universities–Sartre, definitely an intellectual, managed to make his living as a writer and a philosopher with only temporary forays into the academy.  And yes, you CAN make a living writing for little magazines and intellectual journals.  You just can’t make a six figure income that way, unless you’re somebody ‘famous” like Sartre, and I rather think it’s the six figure incomes that attracted intellectuals to the  universities in the first place.

But then, until you get to the Sixties and the Seventies, university professors often made even less than intellectuals writing for little magazines.  It’s the  vast expansion of the university system that made “professional level” salaries possible for PhDs, and it’s that same expansion that has nearly killed the humanities as an intellectual endeavor in the United States today. 

If I was interested in writing a Faust narrative for our time, I would write it about the devil’s bargain the universities made to get all the money they’ve  been able to rake in over the last four decades.  And it was a Faustian bargain.  To get not only the public funding but the willingness of private people to pay the freight on sky-high tuitions, they had to pretend to believe in things they knew were not true:  that a college education made you better qualified for a “career,” that all students everywhere had the innate intellectual ability to do college-level work, that the only reason there was any differential in academic achievements between races or sexes or classes was “institutional racism” that could be rooted out by requiring the faculty to attend a few senstivity seminars.

That all of these things are lies is probably obvious to most people, and I think that’s where this intersects with Toby Young’s article about meritocracies and the “Celebutariat.”  Because young makes the following point:

The most striking thing about the new breed of celebrities is that they are not, by and large, “better” than the people who watch them.  They are “ordinary people” on every level, and that means that any ordinary person out there might–with the right combination of luck–himself become such a celebrity at some point in his life.  In a sense, becoming one of the new celebrities is like winning the lottery.  The playing field is absolutely level.  Anybody who is in it can win it. 

Now, I know that some of  you are thinking what I am, which is that no matter how lame these people seem, the chances are good that the playing field is not level.  Not just any girl can grow up to be Tyra Banks.  The fat squat one who is entirely unphotogenic isn’t going to be even a mediocre model, never mind and top one.

And no matter how utterly talentless, and utterly without a work ethic, somebody like Paris Hilton seems, the fact is that even silly celebrities often have to work very hard to get where they’re trying to go.  If you don’t believe me, cast your mind back to those several months when Britney Spears wasn’t putting the work in.  Rehearsals, diet and exercise, recordings, concerts, appearnaces, voice training, dance training–it can take a lot of blood and sweat to look brainlessly untalented on Letterman.

Possibly the reason that there is such an animus against intelligence and intelligent people is just this:  almost all of us spend most of our childhoods in schools, and schools are a place where intelligence is rewarded.

What’s more, it becomes clear to any child in kindergarten that the playing field is not level.  Some students just “get it” faster and more completely than others.  Some have to sweat and study for hours to achieve a C in a subject where others get As without even trying hard.

Add this to the fact that it is easier for a relatively unintelligent student to understand why his answer is wrong in a math course than it is for him to understand why his answer is wrong in English or history, and what you get are a great crowd of people who a) understand that they were born without something they need to succeed and b) that the fact that they were born without it will make a singular difference to their prospects in life and c) that their lack looks as if it’s of something completely arbitrary, that doesn’t mean anything and isn’t important in any substantive way.

In other words, that contests of intelligence are not fair.

Of course, realistically, John F. Kennedy had a point.  Life is not fair.  The unfairness starts with genetics and goes right on up through being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but the unfairness of genetics is especially galling in a democratic country. 

All men are created equal, Mr. Jefferson said–but even he talked of a “natural aristocracy,” which would be built up of people born more talented than their fellow men and willing to work harder to put that talent to use.

We can talk all we want about how Jefferson was referring to being created equal before the law, but on a day to day basis we live in a world where the facts of our born inequalities are inescapable.  When the universities started to encourage all high school students to go to “college,” they found themselves increasingly saddled with freshmen who were not only unprepared for college work, but unable to do it no matter how well they were prepared.

Robert says I must know very different young people than he does–I do.  I know the ones who are ‘bored” by history, literature, philosophy, and just about anything else that isn’t either immediate or entertainment. 

The dumbing down of college standards at the lowest levels of the system is truly breathtaking.  Where the demands of a field are inelastic, it is simply circumvented.  Consider the vogue of College Algebra.

When I went to college, Calculus was a freshman level course–and everybody had to take at least two semesters of it.  At the lowest levels of the talent pool in colleges today, however, Calculus is entirely out of reach.  Instead, students are required to take two semesters of something called College Algebra, which turns out to be high school Algebra I.  That’s Algebra I.  Not trigonometry.  Not geometry.  Not Algebra II.  We’re talking about the course that used to be given almost exclusively to high school freshmen on the college track.

In English, the situation is just as bad, it’s just easier to hide it.  When I was in college, everybody took “freshman English,” which was a literature course–read lots of novels and short stories and write about them.  Now, instead of ‘freshman English” there is “Composition,” in which students read only pasteurized “essays” chosen for being uncomplicated both structurally and in terms of vocabulary.  They are encouraged to use these essays as models for their own writing, which is restricted to things like “the compare and contrast paper” and “the process analysis paper.”  That last, which sounds very rigorous, is actually just a standard how-to. 

This is not just high school level work, it’s high school level work from the “general studies” track, the academically least rigorous of them all.  These are students who, in my day, would not have gone on to college at all, and in many cases would have dropped out after their sophomore years.  They have not been sent on to “college.”  They’ve been sent on to a holding pen where the system gets one more chance to give them a high school education, and an inferior high school education at that.

In the meantime, we’ve conviced them that “college” is a joke, and that those of their peers with the unfair advantage of high IQs and academic talent have somehow managed to get themselves in on a scam.  They’re less resentful of students in the sciences, because they understand that there is something truly “hard” about math, and that they can’t do it.  They think that it’s just a lot of bullshit that there’s anything “hard’ about explicating literature, or analyzing philosophy, or understanding  history.

And the new celebrities are celebrities because they could be anybody at all.

I’ve got a thing from Robert about decadence and decline, that belongs right about here, but it’s late, and this is getting long.

Written by janeh

November 20th, 2008 at 11:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'Fair'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'Fair'.

  1. “Intellectuals are first and foremost people whose vocation is the invention, creation and dissemination of cultural ideas.”

    Jane and I are biased but in opposite directions! I would leave out the word cultural in her definition.

    The articke Jane linked to discusses inequality. The book “Economic Facts and Fallacies” by Thomas Sowell has a chapter on Income facts and fallacies and it turns out to be very difficult to define inequality.

    Years ago, the rich took Grand Tours of Europe and everyone else stayed home. Now the rich fly first class and stay in 5 star hotels, the rest of us fly economy class and stay in 3 star hotels or backpacker inns. Inequality is still there but now we do have wide spread opportunity to travel overseas.

    Does this relate to Jane’s essay? Perhaps we could say that the consequences of economic inequality are decreasing but the consequences of inequality in intelligence are still large.


    20 Nov 08 at 6:11 pm

  2. “Intellectuals are first and foremost people whose vocation is the invention, creation and dissemination of cultural ideas.” A bit narrower I would like – I think I’m with John in including thinkers in other fields. I’d probably say something like ‘pursuit of knowledge for its own sake’.

    And you really need to specify the ideas. The idea that young girls should aspire to become clones of Britney Spears is not particularly intellectual.

    OK, that’s an extreme case, but there are a lot of ideas that are created and spread around, and they aren’t supported by intellectuals (any definition) and some of them don’t require a lot of intelligence to understand.

    I’m sure you can see how this idea of intellectual could cause a lot of hostility – it’s mentioned in the reference to the article’s author’s father’s book. If you have this tiny minority who alone influence culture and society, and especially whose control cannot be affected by the less able majority, you have a recipe for revolution.

    The idea that all students should and can go to college (US)/university(CDN) has been cited here as one of the reasons we so badly lack skilled workers. Students don’t all seem to have been swayed by the ‘everyone in university’ idea – there are waiting lists to get into some of the trade and technical programs – particularly those with guaranteed jobs that are expensive and difficult to offer because of the equipment needed and the fact that many of the teachers can and do earn far, far more in industry.

    There’s an old idea about the dignity of all honest work that seems to have been lost, even though some students are more than happy to take a technical program with no pretenses to intellectualism and a nearly guaranteed job at the end.

    Who was it who said it was better to be a good plumber than a bad philospher?

    I suppose I’m saying that there are other things of value besides intellectualism, and perhaps there would be less fear/jealousy/generally negative views of intellectuals if other talents were recognized.


    20 Nov 08 at 8:40 pm

  3. There’s a cure for the whole “celebrity” thing, you know. Firmly disconnect the cable from the TV, remove the antennae, and leave it hooked up only to the DVD player. Get your news from computers and magazines. The celebrities virtually disappear. All that is left is the odd headline not clicked on. If only I could find a similar fix for sports. It took me two years to convince a particular coworker that I simply didn’t care that one professional athlete had beaten another, and the shop still rehashes every event the next day.

    Yes, it’s true that some people get their thrills from the lives of others, but it probably gives them a break in routine from Elvis sightings, and it does me absolutely no harm. I don’t even support the celebrities, while people are continually taking my tax money to build some place for the athletes to play. Surely the fans could chip in a little something instead?

    Meritocracy is another matter. I notice the article didn’t say that Britain had unqualified elites. The author was complaining that the elites had disproportionately attended more rigorous schools. This does not immediately sound like a major problem.

    All large human societies are ruled by someone, and generally those who rule have more in common with each other than with those they rule, but for stability and prosperity, there are certain limits.

    There has to be a way in. Complete equality of opportunity is a chimera, but you can offer sufficient equality of opportunity to drain the intelligent and energetic away from the malcontents. This I suspect the West achieved in the aftermath of WWII–which is why Jane’s discontented kids are dullards studying to be parole oficers instead of very bright kids studying to be revolutionaries.

    You can’t leave dolts in charge. This doesn’t mean they can’t have wealth or titles. It DOES mean they can’t be permitted to make critical decisions. Here, despite some fine sets of credentials, I’m not sure we’ve done so well.

    Rank has responsibilities as well as privileges. If a ruling class can do things the masses can’t, it also must do things the masses needn’t. There is an old H. Beam Piper novel in which someone observes that “you have an aristocracy which is ashamed of its privileges and shirks its responsibliities” and then pronounces the society doomed. Here, I think we’ve outright failed.

    And perhaps all I’ve done is restate John Campbell’s dictum that for government to work, responsibility must be commensurate with authority. I persist in thinking that much of what is called anti-intellectualism is the response of inarticulate people to our failure to adhere to Campbell’s dictum.

    As for the schools, the standards went first. Once literally anything could be taken seriously as art, poetry or music–somewhere between dada and Picasso–it took the students less than a generation to decide the whole thing was arbitrary, and they were right. In those schools where the instructors DID adhere to a standard and expected to be held to it, the rot has not yet set in. To get students to take a standard seriously in art, music, literature or philosophy, you’d first have to get the professorate as a body to do so.

    You’d need firing squads.


    20 Nov 08 at 9:09 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 240 access attempts in the last 7 days.