Americans love “education,” but they don’t much care for educated people.
I know this because television tells me so.
Niles and Frazier Crane (Frazier), both doctors of psychiatry, are presented as socially inept bumblers who annoy everyone by using big words and preferring such enjoyments as opera and art to football and rock concerts.
The PhDs on the Big Bang Theory are so socially inept and nerdy as to appear mentally ill.
The PhDs on Numbers are presented with a bit more respect. Charlie Eppes is humanized by having a macho, down-to-earth brother who chews gum and misuses pronouns. Dr. Larry Fleinhardt is satisfactorily peculiar. Both of these geniuses also misuse pronouns on occasion, perhaps because the scriptwriters or actors didn’t know any better; perhaps to make them seem more like “regular” guys.
Television characters who are not being portrayed as geniuses, but simply as educated people, are often ridiculed by other characters if they use any but the most elementary vocabulary, literary allusions, or correct grammar.
Danny Reagan on the series Blue Bloods is quick to object when his sister and brother use a turn of phrase that he wouldn’t. In one episode the sister, a lawyer, calls a case she’d just won “a Pyrrhic victory.” Danny asks why she has to use “such big words.” On another occasion Danny mocks his brother Jamie for using the word whom. Jamie graduated from Harvard. When Danny and other policemen call Jamie “Harvard,” they do not mean it as a compliment.
On the sit-com Rules of Engagement, the ignorant, vulgar character played by David Spade ridicules the speech of his educated assistant.
In some of the early CSI episodes, when the character Gil Grissom delivers a familiar quotation from Hamlet or Macbeth, the younger characters react as if in awe of his great erudition. When I was going to high school in the little town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, all students in grades 9-12 were required to memorize speeches from four Shakespeare plays. Nowadays it’s apparently a big deal if a college graduate can quote a line from one of the better-known plays.
“Education,” if it means anything, should mean that an educated person is fluent in a standard form of his native language and is acquainted at least generally with the most influential authors who have contributed to the language.
Not everyone can be expected to enjoy opera and classical music, but the truth is that not every American enjoys football and rock music. Not everyone has to graduate from Harvard in order to know how to use “whom” in a sentence. High school graduates ought to have mastered basic grammar. Not everyone has to be an “egg-head” to be acquainted with a few characters and lines from the English literary canon.
I’d like to see television fare in which educated people speak like educated people, and characters like Danny Reagan vent their feelings of resentment against people more privileged than they by ridiculing something other than educated speech. There are plenty of untapped targets deserving of ridicule: hypocrisy, greed, corruption, dishonesty, despotism, and cruelty, to name a few.
The right to speak a standard form of English is not the preserve of the upper classes. It’s not even the preserve of college graduates.
Speech is a little like clothing. There’s a time and place for sweats and jeans, and a time and place for more formal attire. English has many dialects besides those that are considered “standard.” No one dialect is “better” than another, but there are situations in which speaking a standard dialect is the appropriate choice.
Working class people have a perfect right to speak standard English when circumstances call for it. And college graduates who speak non-standard English in the workplace or on talk shows may have a diploma, but I wouldn’t call them educated people.