Dawn Reader

Dawn Reader
from Open Door Coffee Co.; Hudson, OH; Oct. 26, 2016

Friday, March 30, 2012

Let's Get More Elitists in the Classroom

This morning, I began reading (for a review) a book about the American presidents--and at one point the author made an obvious point (but one still in need of much repetition) about the Founding Fathers: It is "well to remember, he writes, "that there were few more elitist gatherings than the two groups who met in Philadelphia in 1776 and again in 1787."

These men were among the best-educated people in the Colonies--and they valued education so much, of course, that they kept it entirely to themselves.  No women, slaves, Indians, poor, etc.  But that's another story ...

Flowing along with the river of American history is an undercurrent of resentment.  We don't often gleefully celebrate those who are better educated than we--though we have no problem, it seems, filling ballparks to cheer those with greater athletic gifts.  (But that's another story ...)  Every now and then in our history this resentment abandons its "undercurrency" and floods to the surface.  Some no doubt remember Richard Hofstadter's Anti-Intellectualism in American Life?  That book did not appear last week; it was 1963.  It won the Pulitzer Prize for Non-Fiction in 1964.

Hofstadter traced the impulse historically--and saw evidence everywhere of its lingering effects and influence.  His most damning chapters are about schools.  He attacked what he called "the mediocrity of the teaching profession" and added this blast at the career I've loved: "In so far as the teacher stands before his pupils as a surrogate of the intellectual life and its rewards, he unwittingly makes this life appear altogether unattractive" (312).  And he goes on.  And on and on.

Today, of course, the impulse is once again surging.  Political candidates hide their academic credentials--even apologize for them.  (Newt Gingrich was a professor for a while--but was denied tenure.)  President Obama can not stand up before an audience and talk fondly of his days at Harvard Law.  It would be an act akin to suicide.

Sometimes the source of anti-intellectual sentiment is surprising.  Novelist (and winner of the National Book Award for Fiction) John O'Hara (From the Terrace, Butterfield 8, etc.) never attended college and carried in his psychological backpack a heavy load of inferiority--and resentment--as a result.  In a 1961 interview he told a reporter who'd asked him about the literary awards he had not won (the Pulitzer, the Nobel): "I've never been a pet of the intellectuals, the eggheads" (An Artist Is His Own Fault, 211).  He said much the same often in interviews--and was even more bitter in his letters.

The solution to all of this is not easy.  We are currently a virulently anti-intellectual society.  We celebrate actors, musicians, athletes, stars of "reality" shows--but we often disdain and disparage those who studied deep into the night to become scientists, mathematicians, historians, and so on.  We attack teachers, as if they were the cause of the corrosive culture we've created.  We're now a people who equate education with a test score, who see all education as worthless if it is not directly vocational.  (Liberal arts colleges struggle to survive in such a world--but that's another story.)

I know this.  We need the fill our classrooms with curious teachers who know things and who never want to stop learning.  I remember reading, years ago, in what I think was Summerhill that the students of that very experimental school were interested only in visitors who knew things--not in people who came to talk about educational theories.  Those kids--all kids, I would say--want to learn about the bugs in the bushes, the objects in the sky, the things we can see, the things we can't, the words on the page, the ideas behind the words ...  I saw this for decades in the schools where I studied, the schools where I taught.  My favorite teachers--the best teachers--were invariably the ones who knew the most.  The nerds.  The perpetual, unapologetic nerds.

I don't know what we can do to reverse or diminish this ugly anti-intellectual current.  Sure, some educated people are snobs.  Arrogant.  Elitist.  But in my experience, most--by far--are not.  They are among the most interesting people I've ever known.

We need to grow more nerds in school, encourage more nerds to become teachers, pay nerds better to enter the profession, get out of their way and let them be fabulously nerdy in every classroom in the country.  Maybe then we'll become what we ought to be--a society that prizes its intellectuals as much--or more--than its other accomplished folks.  If we fail to do so (as we are failing now, and grievously so), we are in a most desperate place.

But that's another story ...

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