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The Apotheosis of Stupid

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So Robert said:

>>>So we’re back to “Why are todays yahoos ignoring our Ivy League (or First Tier)
Great and Good?”>>>

And it took me aback, because I don’t remember ever saying a thing in that last post about the Ivy League, or people with degrees, or who you voted for. I did complain about the marketing of W. as “vote for me because I’m just a C student,” and I could have complained about the marketing of Sarah Palin (asking her what magazines she reads is “gotcha” journalism), but that was far less important to me than the relentless enshrining of ignorance as a preferable state of mind throughout American culture.

And that ignorance goes hand to hand with visceral, and sometimes violent, hostility to smart (or at least knowledgable) people in all of American day to day life.  My impression is that this is fairly new, and that my father’s generation, for instance, was not stuck with it. 

In my generation, what we have is a sort of split.  When I was growing up, the kids I was in classes with embodied the hostility, but I was very aware of the fact that there was another world, an adult world, where the values were very dfferent.  They–the people who were willing to verbally assault me, among other things–got to Rule in elementary school and junior high (and in some public high schools, from stories that I’ve heard), but then there was the Real World, and in the Real World, people like me–people who read lots of books, including “hard” ones, who used “big words,” who were nerds and geeks–well, we got to run the world.

I’ve tried to explain this before with limited success, but I’ll give it one more try.

I think an awful lot of American politics these days, on both sides of the political aisle, is being run on emotional memories of high school.

I think, for instance, the reason why so many Demoracts went batshit crazy over W.  and Sarah Palin had to do with the fact that they looked and sounded like the kind of people who harassed them when they were younger. 

And that a lot of the less sane response to Obama–and not just Obama, but to the whole “educated class”–has to do with who that segment of the population envied in school.

In a way, what the meritocracy has done to us is to make us all feel like losers, and to make us all feel that it is desperately important that “our people” be in control, because otherwise…well, there we’ll be again, getting our glasses broken in the locker room.

I really, really, really seem to have a hard time expressing this.

I am very aware of the fact that the memories of what it was like to be me until, oh, around tenth grade, when I went off to my Catholic girls’ school, have a lot to do with how I respond to people like W. and Palin, and even more to the standard Republican Party rhetoric about the ” educated class.”  I even wrote a third of an essay about it, called “The Stupid Thing,” which you can find under the larger essay title “Why I Don’t Vote Republican” on the home page of this web site.

When I hear the Republicans talk about the “elitism” of “the educated class,” what I hear is Ellen Kelly and Becky Hull slamming me into a corner of the second floor girls room in seventh grade, to tell me that I’m weird, I’m boring, I’m stuck, and nobody wants to talk to me, so I should just shut up and go away.  I suppose that beats the time a girl told me I ought to die.

When I hear Bill O’Reilly or Sean Hannity say that “liberals think they’re better than you,” I don’t hear a statement about some “disconnect” between liberals and the general public.  I hear my less pleasant cousins telling me how stuck up I am–because right there in my bag there was a copy of Great Expecations, this huge book–nobody really reads books like that!  they only carry them around to make other people feel bad!

I could probably spend the next several weeks on this blog doing nothing but telling various stories of this kind of harassment–my own, and what Bill went through, and then some choice examples from half a dozen friends. 

I’m not going to do that, because I don’t really see the point.  Robert thinks I live in an alternate universe, but I can think of a dozen movies that make reference to the same phenomenon–and a hundred books–and that makes me think that it’s more widespread than he realizes.  Even Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion manages to make a point of it.  Romy and Michelle may not have been in the A group, but at least they weren’t in the D group, with, you know, all the smart kids and honor society people.

My kids are abysmally ignorant of almost everything.  They don’t know when anything happened.  They don’t know the difference between state and federal law. They think the Constitution of the United States includes the words “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” and then guarantees them a right to happiness. 

But it isn’t their ignorance that bothers me.  Their ignorance can be fixed, if they want to fix it.

What bothers me is a climate that says that asking them to fix that ignorance is to be “elitist,” that to love the music of Beethoven or the plays of Shakespeare or the ideas of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics is automatically to be a stuck up snob who thinks you’re better than everybody else when you’re really just pretending to like that stuff anyway.

And I would like to know when that happened.  As close as the 1950s, the community college system largely ran night classes in things like philosophy,  history and art for people who hadn’t had a chance to get a “real” education.  These days, the classes that fill up tend to be in solidly practical subjects and students are mad as hell if they’re asked to take a few distribution courses in the liberal arts to get their degrees.

Hell, John F. Kennedy was admired, not denigrated, for liking classical music and “hard” books–but Eisenhower wasn’t marketed as good to vote for because he didn’t like those things.  My impressions growing up were not wrong.  There was an adult world where the things that mattered were, in fact, the things that “educated” people found valuable, and conservatives were actaully more likely to insist on the importance of those things than liberals were. 

That is, after all, the subtext of the Sixties–that liberals had abandoned standards, educational and otherwise, and that conservatives had to be the last line of defense against the barbarians at the gates.  Welcome to William F. Buckley, Jr.

What happened to our philosopher farmers, the guys we were going to educate at the land grant universities, so that they’d run their farms better and build better bridges and then go home and read Plato and Catullus?

I don’t envy the period of the founding for any supposed “deference’ they had for their political leaders.  I envy them for the farmers and mechanics and bookkeepers who crowded the halls of the Athenaeums and the Cattaquas to hear lectures on the fall of Rome and the letters of Cicero. 

I don’t doubt that such people would have voted for ignorant men if those men represented the principles and policies they wanted in their government.

I do doubt that they would have voted for ignorant men because they were ignorant. 

And right now, I think I live in a world where not only will a large number of people vote for an ignorant candidate because of their ignorance, but where one of the major political parties seems to think that appealing to this impulse is a good idea.

And no, that doesn’t mean I think Gore or Kerry are geniuses. 

I just know that they didn’t go out and try to sell themselves as people who knew practically nothing, didn’t want to know anything, and thought it was a virtue that they’d never read a book.

There’s something wrong about the approach here, if that makes any sense.

Written by janeh

February 1st, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'The Apotheosis of Stupid'

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  1. Well, I chickened out awhile back but I’m back for another try.

    In response to the blog entry about the “elitist class” with Ivy League educations vs. smart people with less formal education who make their livings by manual labor: I think that many voters want someone who seems like what we southerners call a “good ol’ boy” (or girl in some cases) as distinct from the redneck (who are angry and tend not to have personalities conducive to politics.) Good ol’ boys/girls are populists, in my opinion, who flaunt their similarity to “common, ordinary people,” whose wants and needs they share. George Wallace was a prime example of that. It has been written that he espoused racism and did the infamous stand in the school house door merely to get elected. Prior to his first campaign for governor, he allied himself with Big Jim Folsom, who, for all his faults, was sympathetic to civil rights issues. W and Reagan did the “good ol’ boy’ approach extremely well. And the lack of “good ol’ boy” persona was what defeated both Kerry and Dukakis, in my opinion. Kennedy had the common touch but he didn’t disclaim his education or attention to intellectual matters. Same with Clinton. Obama is in his own league, I think. He certainly appealed to voters from all economic and educational levels but there were those, I feel, who resented him because he as a “smart” black man. I want my elected officials to have as much education as possible and an objective attitude that allows him to see both sides of an issue and not just espouse a “people like you and me” bias toward issues that affect the whole country.

    jem

    1 Feb 10 at 1:46 pm

  2. This reply may be a mistake – I’m tired and off color and in a nasty temper. And I shouldn’t comment on US politics from Australia.

    Let me point out that I’m a nerd, intelligent, interested in History, highly educated and read a lot. I never had Jane’s experience in High School – perhaps I was too unsociable to be a target.

    But lets take some things I’ve come across recently.

    1. A poster in RAM defended the US deficit on the grounds that in bad times you run deficits, in good times you run surpluses. I was taught the same thing in the 1950s but 50 years of observation has taught me that in good times the US Congress still runs deficits. The theory sounds good but the experiment shows that politicians lack the discipline to make it work.

    I’m so tired of educated people who won’t learn from experience.

    2. Some years ago, there was a prediction of a shortage of doctors in Australia. The government doubled the enrollment in medical schools. Now those new graduates are complaining that they lack confidence in their skills. The problem is that the only way to develop skills is to practice on real patients in hospitals and there are not enough senior doctors to properly mentor the new graduates. Surely, that could have been predicted. Doubling the number of students doesn’t double the number of senior doctors.

    Yet the plan was produced by highly educated specialists.

    3. The state governments here are producing plan after plan for public transport in Sydney based on what they think Sydney will need 50 years from now. One government produces a plan and the next government scraps the plan. OK, that’s politics but the real fallacy is experts in the civil service who think they can predict conditions 50 years ahead.

    My parents were born around 1900. They certainly couldn’t have predicted the 1950s. I was an adult in the 1960s. I could not have predicted life in 2010.

    I’m very tired of experts who try to plan 2 generations ahead.

    jd

    1 Feb 10 at 3:58 pm

  3. Yep. I’m reacting to high school and early college all right. And I too am fighting to keep Those People taken down a peg. Or several pegs. I remember the proto-Kerries and the embryonic Gores–smiling, smug, superior, liberal, pretentious and wrong. And since the courses were graded according to their ignorance, your best bet was to sit there and fume. But it’s not 1970, and I don’t have to pretend that reading CATCHER IN THE RYE represents anything but narcissism, or call THE POPULATION BOMB anything but a religious text–and a demonstrably wrong one at that.

    Being black was a point in Obama’s favor. I think it was for most of us. The sticking point was his belief that the Kennedy School of Government is the fount of all wisdom.
    When Bill Buckley said he’d rather see the country run by the first 300 names in a Cambridge telephone directory than by the faculty of Yale, he was not being a yahoo. He was expressing a rational preference based on experience. Well, it’s 40 years later, and here they come again, filled with legislative nostrums for everything they imagine ails us. They’re not even new. It’s as though instead of electing a congress and appointing a cabinet in 2008, we just reprised LBJ’s.
    And when Jane talks about the country valuing ignorance–mind you at the same time Obama is complaining that the poor ignorant voters just weren’t paying enough attention to his wonderful ideas–I hear a long line of boneheaded liberals dating back to Adlai Stevenson, dumber than rocks and with Ivy League degrees, blaming the electorate for not being bright enough to appreciate them.

    As for people being suspicious of education or intelligence, no doubt there are some. There always are, and 60 years of wrapping ticking bombs in Ivy League diplomas will have added to their numbers. But isn’t this the same Jane Haddam who was talking about the wonderful sales of educational CDs? And complaining that kids were going to college who didn’t have the intellectual wherewithal? No doubt they complain about distribution requirements. I did. You should have seen my Economics, Political Science and Sociology courses, let alone Ethics. And if I wanted to better appreciate books, the last place I’d go would be to the English Department.

    The people I know who hire want to hire the brightest most knowledgeable people they can, and no one wants to work for a moron or an ignoramus. But most of us are a little wary by now of the fellow with the expensive suit, the prestigious degree and the plan approved by the experts.
    The trick to being a successful snake oil salesman is to leave enough interval between the trips.

    robert_piepenbrink

    1 Feb 10 at 5:27 pm

  4. What is it about high school? Or US high schools? Every time I think all of North America has the same bland culture, something alien like this pops up, and I mentally mark another US-Canadian difference. It’s not entirely alien, of course; I’ve certainly read and heard enough to know about high school cliques. In any case, the experience of groups and inclusion and exclusion is an essentially human experience; particularly acute in adolescences which is when people move beyond the family group. But as much as I hated my high school and my small hometown during my adolescence, it wasn’t set up like the US type. It’s true that when you leave high school for the adult world, particularly when you leave a small place for a larger one, you can leave behind some forms of exclusion, but really, you’re only trading those for a wider variety of groups and a greater chance of hitting one that you are comfortable with. For most people, that’s enough.

    Holding onto hurts and social structures way past their use-by date – what’s the point? Who cares? I expect just about everyone has had even worse and more damaging exclusions had hurt after they left high school than before. But what’s written here seems to imply the opposite.

    As for suspicion of the elite, the bright, the expert – that’s a quite separate issue in my mind, and based on decades of experts who turned out to be wrong. Some of those failures aren’t real ones – they’re situations in which the media puts forth some misbegotten version of some expert’s theory, which is what turned out to be wrong. But sometimes experts contradict each other, and sometimes they’re dead wrong. Sometimes, as in the eugenics movement and the ‘right-to-die’ movement, they’re threatening the very existence of non-experts. I’m not in the least surprised that people distrust experts or the elite. I myself double check the expertise of my doctor by looking up the characteristics of drugs she prescribes – and the expertise of a doctor is relatively easy to confirm compared to the expertise of some philosopher who says that whole categories of people shouldn’t be allowed to reproduce or even survive.

    And now I must try to work and not spend too much time on a very promising local political story – our leader, the man in charge of our medical system, the one who’s been involved in an extremely bitter battle with various health-care unions, the self-made millionaire has gone to the US for heart surgery.

    The political fallout should be fascinating. So far, one private (ie from a friend) comment was that the lack of privacy alone would ensure that she’d go elsewhere if she were rich and in a position to have so many people who would risk their jobs to get back at her by leaking all her private medical information.

    Cheryl

    2 Feb 10 at 8:16 am

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