I have never forgotten a comment from one of my colleagues as I walked into the staffroom in the London college in which I used to work. He noticed that I was carrying a book that was over 1/4 inch thick and said something to the effect that I was showing off or thinking I was clever for walking in with such a big book. He didn’t know what the book was. It could have been a Mills and Boon compilation. It might even have been a Stephen King book. The point was is was a ‘big’ book and that represented intellectual arrogance!
A Ghanaian friend of mine went to get her hair styled and took her book to read under the hairdryer. The other Ghanaian women taunted her, asking if she thought she was so clever for reading a book. I would have responded that it is precisely because I don’t think I’m clever that I read books. Rather it is you who think you already know everything therefore don’t need to read books!
It is often seen to be pretentious or elitist to discuss forms of culture that some consider to be ‘high art’ yet discussing the latest celebrity is acceptable. I got sick of reading messages on facebook when Michael Jackson died such as “Oh my god, I can’t believe Michael’s gone!” So I reposted them but substituted Jackson’s name with Stockhausen – someone whose music has genuinely touched my life. The action was too obscure but what was interesting were comments from friends who thought I was being pretentious by even mentioning Stockhausen.
Many middle class people in the UK, especially left-wing teachers, feel obliged to drop their ‘t’s (as in wor-ah instead of water) and to pronounce ‘th’ as ‘f’ (fink instead of think) in an attempt to ‘relate’ to their students and be ‘street’. They are ashamed of their middle class accents which they think will be perceived of as being elitist. How embarrassing it all is! Instead of raising people up we are supposed to ‘respect’ the level they are at, as if that is who they are and thereby cut off their access to something more.
There is an anti-intellectual strand to many of our cultures where being thought of as ‘clever’ is a bad thing. It is the inverse snobbery syndrome. It is not about trying to be clever but about a thirst for knowledge and self-development. We have to challenge the peer pressure that wants to embarrass us if we want to move ahead. The results are already showing in cultures that have consciously dumbed down in the name of ‘equality’.