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It's Dicea's Fault

In a recent post, a friend cited a quote:
"it seems that, as a society, we conspire against the eloquent. Sport elitism is essential to our national pride, academic elitism is anathema."

From http://ramblingteacher.blogspot.com/index.html

I was thinking about the quote, and wondering about the source of the social phenomenon. I found a great entry in Wikipedia (sometimes it's crap, but sometimes it's really solid--this entry is the latter) on anti-intellectualism (which is obviously the condition identified above). I particularly liked how it tracked down the roots.

My first instinct was that much of it was grounded in the old religious debate about belief--faith versus knowledge. If this was last Spring I'd be able to quote sources and voices. Let's just say it's one of the things that got Abelard in trouble with the church power structure (well, that and having sex with a student, but that's another problem entirely). So, it's grounded there pretty well. The entry confirmed that hypothesis.

Anti-intellectualism is also, often, a posture assumed by corrupt or authoritarian governments. Academics, scholars, and libraries are always an early target when governments are overthrown or become totalitarian. Free minds are as dangerous to the ends of those governments as a free press is. Even relatively benign governments (ie., "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the rest") distrust and seek to control the academic arena because of the danger it poses since one of it's primary pursuits is to inculcate critical thinking, not thoughtless acquiescence. Yup--seems there's grounds for that assumption on my part, too.

The chief reason, I think, for the contrast expressed in the quote goes to the issue of populism (also mentioned in the article). Populism is frequently anti-academic/anti-intellectual, but organized sports is the essence of populism. It is the "Circus" part of "Bread and Circuses," which by its very nature unites. The modern Circus Maximus is classless; it is also philosophically neutral on religion(if you ignore the prayer circles in center court or at the 50 yard line) and national politics ; it is even economically neutral--the rich buy tickets, the poor get free broadcast. They watch the same game (be it NBA or Olympics). Academic elitism is viewed as an arena accessible only to the privileged few (be they privileged by virtue of intellect, family, or bank account).

More importantly, academic elitism is viewed as in opposition to populism in the same way that "thinking" is not viewed as "real work." A sweaty athlete is "working." A literature professor is "sitting around thinking." Populism is about quick results and obvious utility. Academia is often about "the big question" and long-term payoffs.

Finally, always, sports are about perceived offensive and defensive capabilities. There is the implied "If we can be this fast/strong/"quick on our feet" when it's about a stupid game, fear us if it's about something that really matters. Our people can kick your ass on the basketball court, and we'll do ten times worse to you on the battlefield."

I'm told that in older societies, the tendency is different, that eloquence and academic and intellectual achievements are more highly valued in cultures with longer traditions than 400 years (the bulk of it spent fighting, scratching, and clawing our nationstate and national consciousness out of a sparsely populated and undeveloped continent). That the reason for the severe disparity between how we value the physical over the mental is due to our relative youth. Like the adolescent boy who is more interested in using what he learns in chem class to "blow shit up" than he is in understanding the wonders of the building blocks of the universe; more interested in farting, drinking, gobbling, and fucking than he is in questions of social interaction, the inequities of distribution of resources, and personhood.

Personally, I don't think it has anything to do with the fact that our culture is "adolescent." It's about instant gratification, measurable results, and easy answers. People are lazy--the smart, the stupid, the rich, the poor. Rewarding eloquence and taking pride in academic/intellectual excellence requires too much work. It's much easier to put in the energy to just yell "Go Team!" than to put in the mental work required to appreciate the other.


( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
Mar. 7th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC)
Johan used to claim that our culture's current virulent anti-intellectualism stems from WWII, when Hitler claimed his "purebred" Aryans were superior to everyone else. Americans took great pride in the fact that their army of mongrel "Everyman" types beat the "superior" Nazis. Before that time, there is some evidence that intellectuals were valued much more than they are today. I don't know if the data backs this up entirely, but it's an interesting theory.
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