Americans Don’t Like Educated People

I'd like to see television fare in which educated people speak like educated people.

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.

The forms of English

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4 Responses

  1. Awesome! I couldn’t agree more. It’s ironic that 100 years ago Americans highly valued education. Those who benefitted from it today are scorned and treated with suspicion. How unfortunate!

  2. I agree with every point you made with respect to the groups I jokingly used for fodder in my comment.

    Humility is, after fear of God, the most important way point in the growth of wisdom (sophia). Of course, I understand that some humanist, though not all, will quibble with that fear of God part, and I accept their stand as their God-given right to take.

    As for “stereotyping “educated people” as jerks lacking in both common courtesy and common sense,” I thought everyone here should see through that stereotype as a disarming ruse, not as an intellectual insight on my part. I am just not humanistically correct enough to fret too much about the questioned usages in my comment. I don’t find it necessary to split and polish the short hairs of every thought I put to paper (Though I was, of a necessity, very aware of humanistic correctness when I was in college. Had I not been, I would not have satisfactorily made it through that political mine field.).

    The redneck in me is; loving, giving, open, honest, hard working, and I am pleased to be that way to the extent I am capable.

  3. @Lawrence
    Aren’t you stereotyping “educated people” as jerks lacking in both common courtesy and common sense and “rednecks” as uneducated people?

    Some of the most educated people I know are among the most humble. The more one learns, the more one comes to understand how much more there is to be learned. To my mind, an educated person has more than one way of relating to other people. An educated person understands that there is more than one kind of learning and is quick to recognize and respect non-academic areas of expertise.

    I don’t think it’s an excess of knowledge that creates the haughty posturing snob you describe. And I don’t think that all “rednecks” are hostile to evidence of learning. Some of my dearest kin might be described by some as “rednecks,” but they are intellectually curious individuals who fit my definition of “an educated person.”

  4. Your statement, “Americans love “education,” but they don’t much care for educated people,” is unfortunately correct. I see two sides to the reasons this is a correct statement.

    Side one: The typical American, whether they want to admit it or not, is a redneck; happily I own up to being, too. While the redneck’s propensity for speaking his mind is being undermined by humanist correctness, a.k.a. political correctness, in America, the redneck trudges on unfettered in his heart, but today he may trudge on sub rosa in public.

    When the American redneck sees what he, rightly or wrongly, perceives to be haughty posturing of the educated, he is revolted by the sight. He is right when he thinks, who is this snob to think he is smarter than the rest of us slobs. Perhaps he is smarter than we are but does he have to show it so clearly? Maybe a little humility would do that highly educated snob a world of good and make him a good American slob like the rest of us.

    Side two: Educated people frequently—no usually—have little to no commonsense. On the plus side, education truly increases the educated thinking man’s thought choices. On the minus side, it is harder, and sometimes much harder, for him to pick out the commonsense answers among all the thought choices parade through his mind.

    On balance, education is undoubtedly is very worthwhile, and the educated man is to be applauded, as long as he remembers he is an imperfect being who needs the good offices of his Maker to aid him in humbly living a good life worth living. An educated man who remembers this will be remembered as a man who lived life well. An extraordinary example of such a man was George Washington, and another was St. Mary of Egypt. (Never heard of her? More classical education may cure that shortfall for you.)

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