Almost twenty years ago, and only a month or so after I had taken up my then new position as Professor of Law at the University of Hull, I was invited to take part in a local public meeting to discuss employment law. I gave a short presentation on the future of this branch of the law, and suggested that in the light of the political battles that had been fought over it during the previous 10 years of Margaret Thatcher’s term of office neither of the two main British parties had a sensible plan for it. This brought out a strong expression of outrage from a man in the audience. I couldn’t work out which side of the political divide he was on, but whatever else he might have been for or against he certainly hated academics: what business had I, he asked in a tone of real anger, to lecture them about what political parties should do. Being a professor, he suggested, had clearly gone to my head and I was obviously now ‘some sort of prima donna’.
I took it on the chin and made one or two polite comments in response, but I had noticed that one or two others in the audience nodded when he accused me of professorial arrogance. And so in the years that have followed I have noticed that, from time to time, I will encounter someone who believes that academic excellence is by definition objectionable, and that it indicates a state of mind that approves of social elitism and is guilty of snobbery. The highlight of this was, for me, when a politician once, in a tone of exasperation, suggested to me that ‘too much intellectual ability warps the mind’.
Clearly I am not alone in this experience. Some years ago the then British Lord Chancellor Lord Hailsham berated an academic member of the UK’s House of Lords with the words that ‘excessive academic knowledge almost always produces a biased perspective’. The latest manifestation of anti-academic intellectualism is Sarah Palin’s reported criticism of Barack Obama as someone with a ‘flawed approach’ because he behaves not like a commander-in-chief, but rather like ‘a constitutional law professor’.
There is a peculiar tendency in some social circles in English-speaking countries to celebrate anti-intellectualism and to pour scorn on academic excellence. It is sometimes said (and I cannot say whether it is entirely accurate) that English is the only major language in which the word ‘clever’ can be and is used as a term of abuse. Those who are inclined towards this position often distinguish between intellectual argument and ‘common sense’, suggesting that the latter is a better way of assessing and responding to complex situations. Sarah Palin probably is the current high priest of this particular faith.
This, however, is where universities have a mission, and perhaps one they have not to date adequately addressed. They need to persuade the general population that the ability to assess, explain and develop complex knowledge is a huge strength and benefits society in countless ways. They need to show that this doers not just yield up interesting theoretical perspectives, but also very practical improvements and innovations. Scholarship and learning are not only hallmarks of a decent society, but also of a successful one. Anti-intellectual sentiments must be fought wherever they are found, but in a reasoned way. If the academic community cannot do this successfully, it may not have much of a future.Explore posts in the same categories: culture, higher education comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.