Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Self Fulfilling Prophecies

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Every once in a while, somebody says something that so startles me that I don’t know what to do with it.

Mique said:

>>>Your sons and, I suspect, most other kids with the ability to achieve a life of the mind will either come from privileged backgrounds with sufficient family intellectualism and relative wealth, or simply be so brilliant, like Sowell, to make it despite the real and perceived obstacles to be faced by most adequately talented people.  But the reality for the rest is relative poverty, the need to work to survive all levels of their education, and to compete for limited opportunities in academia against more privileged people while
still trying to live a semblance of a normal life among family and friends who most likely share neither their talents nor their

And I’ve got to work out how to work through this.

First, let me clear up a misconception.  When I said “my fourteen year old kid,”  I didn’t mean one of my children, both of whom are–well, well over the age of fourteen. 

I meant “my” as in “the one I’ve been talking about in these posts.”

But beyond that–

First, it’s simply not true that most poeple who want and achieve the life of the mind are from “privileged” backgrounds, unless you’re using “privilege” in a very different way than I am.

It’s almost never the case that the children of “privilege” in the sense of those coming from the top rungs of the socioeconomic ladder opt for the life of the mind.

In fact, I doubt that there are many societies in which this particular social strata did so opt.  Renaissance Italy might be an exception.  The people who make serious money in the  US, however, do not do it in intellectual pursuits, aren’t interested in intellectual pursuits, and tend to be far more sports-and-pop-culture oriented than concerned with Shakespeare and Scarlatti.

Successful intellectuals in the US rarely get much higher than the upper middle class, which is itself composed mostly of people like doctors and lawyers who are themselves not much interested in the life of the mind.

What that class does have, however, is a strong commitment to formal education, so that they push their kids to get the grades and board scores and extracurricular resumes to make them attractive to “name” schools, where their wholesale anti-intellectualism is the bane of their teacher’s lives. 

Even most academics in the US come from ordinary middle class backgrounds, and often less.  And that is as true in the Ivies as in the lower tier colleges. 

One of the better aspects of the American educational system is the fact that it doesn’t matter what a mess you’ve made of your life, you can always go back to school and take another shot–and people do, all the time.  They drop out of high school at fifteen to have a baby, stay on welfare for a decade, get fed up, get their GED (general ed degree–a high school diploma you can get by taking a test instead of actually going to high school), find a college to take them (there are lots) and go on from there. 

Granted, most of these people, and the ones who start college in prison, and the ones who start college in old age, will do something “practical,” but the call for adult education courses in things like philosophy and literature, and the success of enterprises like The Teaching Company that provide DVD and audio “courses” in the liberal arts, say that a lot of people out there who are neither privileged or brilliant are interested.

As for brilliant–well, brilliant never hurts, certainly, and Sowell is certainly brilliant, but I doubt whether most intellectuals are. 

I think intellectuals have to have a talent for certain kinds of thinking, but I’d hesitate to say that they’re more intelligent as a whole than, say, old Henry Ford. 

Most intellectuals are like most of anybody else–of average intelligence, from average families, with average resources. 

Finally, I don’t think that the anti-intellectualism of much American public life will discourage vast numbers of these people from doing intellectual work or from making themselves intellectuals–although it does deter some.

I do think that the impression given that only one side of the political spectrum is hospitable to intellectual work increases the chances that such people will pick that side of the spectrum.

And I do think that that impression will lead to younger people–and older people, like those adult students–not even bothering to look into writers like Edmund Burke, Frederick Hayek, and, for that matter, Thomas Sowell.

In other words, the present American climate, where the “conservative” side is constantly railing at how awful, stuck up, immoral, and despicable “intellectuals” are, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Of course most intellectuals are on the left these days–they’ve been given the distinct impression, since childhood, that nobody else would have them.

And I think it’s interesting that nobody yelled at me about that populism quote, but I think I’ll just end this here and go find some music.

In case you’re wondering, the music this morning will probably be intellectual enough, but my mania this week is a gospel piece by a (white) country singer named Josh Turner, called “Long Black Train.”

Written by janeh

February 26th, 2010 at 7:33 am

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Self Fulfilling Prophecies'

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  1. There is a saying attributed to one of the US Founding Fathers (perhaps John Adams). It goes something like this: “I study war so that my children can study agriculture so that their children can study art.”

    I live in a city with a high proportion of immigrants. Their children are first generation Australians and tend to go to the local university. Its noticeable that they major in computer science or engineering or accounting or medicine and do not major in history or English.


    26 Feb 10 at 1:25 pm

  2. I considered a rant to go with the “populism” quote, but I was tired, and decided it wasn’t worth half an hour to object to a cheap shot. Could we just consider the parallels with the American Left already drawn, and go on from there?

    But I am unconvinced that conservative intellectuals are or ever were recruited by word they were welcome in conservative ranks. It’s certainly not a message they’d receive on campus in any event. Neither conservative nor libertarian thinkers will be mentioned respectfully, nor will their views be accurately stated.
    But there is a strong habit in America of digging one’s heels in when pushed. That and the legendary incompetence and vitriol of the leftist lecturers in humanities survey courses will continue to ensure clandestine reading of Rand, Friedman and Heinlein.

    We come to conservatism or libertarianism because we’ve already seen the alternative.


    26 Feb 10 at 4:45 pm

  3. I still think that Jane’s scenario is probably true for the US more than it is anywhere else except in the UK and Western Europe. I think my view is closer to the situation here in Australia where while a very few excellent, but expensive private schools exist, they are very few indeed, and there are many times fewer good public schools. (I use schools in the limited British sense – K-12.) There are virtually no private Universities, and only one Australian university regularly rates in the world’s Top 50, and only one or two others in the world’s Top 100 as published in the Australian media.

    The chances of a young person with talent but only limited resources ever really being able to access the life of the mind at anything more than an occasional, dilettante level are slim to statistically insignificant in this country.

    Tom Wolfe’s “I Am Charlotte Simmons” suggests that a similar person in the US would also find the difficulties nigh on insurmountable. Sure, there will be exceptions, but they will only be exceptions.


    26 Feb 10 at 9:28 pm

  4. We’re back to the question of whether you can be an intellectual only with a degree from a top university. I expect it helps, but as a character in a book I just finishes said, she was angry at her father when he settled money on her instead of permitting her to get a university education, but she thought she got the best of it when she realized she didn’t need to go to university to read history, and she still had the money.

    If we’re talking about studying, thinking and maybe writing about the great ideas that underlie our civilization, it sure helps to have it all laid out for you in a curriculum, and to have access to the acknowledged experts to discuss it with. More importantly, the person who engages in the discussion of ideas at an everyday level – takes part-time or distance courses as Jane describes after work, for example, or engage in discussing issues on a blog, like we are doing – are hardly likely to have much influence on the world at large. Time limits how much we can do and write, and the people with power, when they listen to intellectuals at all, will listen to the ones with credentials, at major universities and think tanks.

    Think tanks are an interesting phenomenon. Talk of an institution in which one’s conclusions are set in advance! They always seem to have a well-known political slant.

    I also don’t know why Jane expected any special reaction to the quote on populism. That does seem to be how it works, once you get past the ‘power to the common people’ surface rhetoric.


    27 Feb 10 at 8:08 am

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