What breeds anti-intellectualism?

Picture of Paul Johnson (right), Norman C Francis (centre) and Ruth Johnson Colvin (left).From the Archive: Paul Johnson on the Know-Nothing Left

This article first appeared in the New Statesman in 1975 when Paul Johnson was still associated with the British political left (in the late 1970s he became associated with the Right and admired Thatcher, and wrote columns for the Spectator instead; his son is Daniel Johnson, who founded Standpoint magazine). He claims that the Labour party at the time were in thrall to a trade union sector which had become thuggish and intolerant, which relied on numbers and power to get what they want, which had suffered an intellectual degeneration and which used the term “elitism” as a term of abuse, when in fact it the things they were denouncing as “elitism” were virtues, not vices:

Without a struggle, with complacency, almost with eagerness, it has delivered itself, body, mind and soul, into the arms of the trade union movement. There is a savage irony in this unprecedented betrayal, this unthinking trahison des clercs. For Labour’s intellectual Left had always, and with justice, feared the arrogant bosses of the TUC, with their faith in the big battalions and the zombie-weight of collective numbers, their contempt for the individual conscience, their invincible materialism, their blind and exclusive class-consciousness, their rejection of theory for pragmatism, their intolerance and their envious loathing of outstanding intellects.

Some might say this is simply Johnson, who went to a Jesuit private school, reverting to type; there is a history of middle-class progressives who believe in equality and justice in principle but don’t like getting too close to the sort of people who might need to use them. It is noticeable that he accuses the left of something that is nowadays more commonly associated with the Right: the disdain for intellectualism in favour of power. It did not take until Bush Jr versus Gore for this to happen: four years after this was published, Ronald Reagan used it against Jimmy Carter in presidential debates, interrupting Carter with “there you go again” when he responded to his claims with facts, and when asked if he knew the name of the president of Iran, responded “I don’t know his name, but if I win this election, he’s going to know mine”.

I learned about the culture of early Welsh trade unions at college: that miners and other labourers taught each other philosophy in the workers’ cabins, for example. Why, as Johnson says, were they selling off their books in the 70s to make way for strip clubs? Why were Labour politicians telling universities to sell off their art collections? Could it be that working class people in 70s Britain were products of a mass education system which hadn’t burdened the workers who first founded trade unions in the Victorian age? Could it be that the mass media was talking to them in “their language”, offering sensationalism, cheap gossip and titillation, rather than offering them education and self-improvement?

Bad schools, particularly bad secondary schools, are a breeding ground for anti-intellectualism. To begin with, all those in post-war secondary modern schools had been through the 11+ exam and failed; at least some will have known that passing this would have meant an opportunity to gain a higher education later on, while failing it meant leaving school at 15 or 16 and going into a manual job. Once you’ve failed the test, many schools have an internal anti-intellectual culture. The teachers (the already learned people) are middle-class and their status is beyond the pupils’ reach. “Discipline” comes to mean often pointless rules, punishments and beatings; younger kids look up to the youths at the top of their hierarchy, not the distant teachers who are more interested in correcting your manners or grammar than in what you have to say. Learning is pointless and therefore uncool: you don’t rise to the top of a hierarchy of juveniles by being a swot but by being tough.

Schools have other purposes besides education, of course; one of them is to look after children while their parents work, while the other is to keep teenagers out of the labour market so that older people are more likely to find, and keep, jobs (and better-paid ones at that). This perhaps explains the repeated rises in the school leaving age, regardless of the justifications in terms of maturity, to 14 after World War I and to 15 in 1947; in 1972, it rose again to 16. Each of these increased the number of young adults in the school system, who would have been less manageable by the staff and had more weight to throw around. An increase in the number of disinclined adolescents means that teaching and learning is made more difficult for everyone else. Anyone who has studied for A-level will know how different, how much more relaxed, the atmosphere is once those with no interest in learning are removed from the system.

There are other reasons why politicians from a trade-union background would have been suspicious of left-wing intellectuals; Johnson does not mention their history of illiberal attitudes to the poor and working class, as typified by the early Fabians’ embrace of eugenics. There had always been some conflict between these two sections of the Labour party, but it is natural that a second generation of a working-class that had been branded failures at age 11 and learned that being a bookworm gets you nowhere should be receptive to “anti-elitist” ideas. These days, however, “lefty intellectual” tends to be a rather more prominent stereotype than the thuggish union baron from the 70s (the remains of that culture proving an able sidekick to New Labour in the last decade), while the political right exalts power and ridicules the weedy intellectual. This, however, hasn’t put Paul Johnson off them in all these years.

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