May 13, 2004

How extremely rum: elite anti-intellectualism and disfluency

In support of the notion that anti-intellectualism has long been stereotypically associated with the British upper classes, I can offer this famous anecdote:

Edward Gibbon once presented the Duke of Gloucester (brother of King George III) with a copy of the first volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

When the second volume appeared in 1786, Gibbon again arrived to offer a personal copy. The duke's reply? "Another damned, thick, square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon!"

And as a suggestion that acquired disfluency has also had a place in that strange culture, consider this passage from Hilaire Belloc's 1910 Dedicatory Ode:

The Freshman ambles down the High,
In love with everything he sees,
He notes the racing autumn sky,
He sniffs a lively autumn breeze.

"Can this be Oxford? This the place?"
(He cries) "of which my father said
The tutoring was a damned disgrace,
The creed a mummery, stuffed and dead?

"Can it be here that Uncle Paul
Was driven by excessive gloom
To drink and debt, and last of all,
To smoking opium in his room?

"Is it from here the people come,
Who talk so loud, and roll their eyes,
And stammer? How extremely rum!
How curious! What a great surprise!"

I have little evidence that this cultural complex includes mispronouncing foreign words or culpable regularization of ethnonyms, but there may be some connection all the same.

In any case, I don't mean to suggest that there is no such thing as populist anti-intellectualism. But the kind of intellectual capital that we're talking about -- the ability to pronounce foreign words, to deal with the more obscure corners of irregular morphology, or to compose in a highly-ritualized formal style -- is not something that everyone is likely to value equally, if at all. In a modern society, such knowledge logically ought to be valued most by the upwardly mobile middle class, who can use it to get ahead. It ought to be resented by those stuck at the bottom, who can't use it and aren't going to get it anyway; and it ought to be scorned by those perched at the top, who have no need to strive, and who can hire whatever expertise is appropriate. In the absence of special cultural respect for learning, due to other mechanisms entirely, this seems to be just about the way that things work out.

Posted by Mark Liberman at May 13, 2004 07:25 AM