Pundit reader Kate Hannah muses on anti-intellectualism in the United States and New Zealand

The preferred mythology about academia goes something like this: innocent students arrive at university, largely untainted by politics, and are corrupted into radical views through the influence of their left-wing professors, who use the lecture theatre as a bully pulpit for postmodern relativism and politically correct thought.

Three American studies in recent years suggest that this myth is just that—a myth. Despite much of the neo-conservative rhetoric about Barack Obama being based on his so-called ‘elitism’, which is shorthand for being too well spoken and over-educated, the studies draw similar conclusions: that the politics of academics have little or no impact on those of their students, even in political science departments. It seems that other old standby—peer pressure—is to blame.

In a 2006 article published in PS: Political Science and Politics, the journal of the American Political Science Association, associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College April Kelly-Woessner (a liberal Democrat) and her husband, assistant professor of public policy at Penn State University Matthew Woessner (a conservative Republican), found that while students do tend to move towards left-wing politics while at university, this is largely because of the influence of their peers and what is going on outside the classroom.

What has been going on outside the classroom? Well, in the last six years, there’s been an unjustifiable war and a consciously anti-elitist president. Before that, in the 90s, there was another war, and another neo-con, slightly more elitist president. And overarching all of that has been the ‘culture wars’, from whence the basis for these studies originates. Since the late 1980s, conservative thinkers and think tanks have tended towards a position that equates education with liberalism, wishy-washy thinking and weasel words.

Thus fell the legacy of conservative intellectuals such as William F Buckley and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, whose contributions to American society were once necessary reading for anyone at all interested in the United States, particularly US foreign policy. Since the ascendancy of Bushes senior and junior, conservatism has become synonymous with anti-intellectualism, in part because of the perceived influence of radical professors on the politics of right-thinking Americans. Whole conservative colleges had to be established to protect the little darlings against having their prejudices challenged.

All that has now changed: the election of the consciously intellectual and well-spoken Barack Obama, and the serendipitous release of these studies, suggests that perhaps intellectuals may be in for some better press. Obama’s embrace of the education that made him who he is today, like his unashamed embracing of the less than PR-perfect influences on his life (Rev Jeremiah Wright, his grandmother), suggests that we might be able to talk about education now outside the premises of the culture wars, and instead talk about what exposure to ideas can do for a young mind.

Which brings us to New Zealand. We’ve gone the other way—having failed to re-elect a consciously intellectual woman and her academic economist deputywe’re now depending on an ‘aw shucks’ businessman and a Southland farmer who likes to downplay his own intellect to manage us out of a worldwide crisis. John Key is a very intelligent manbut he likes us to forget that, because New Zealanders seem stuck in the midst of the culture wars, perpetually informed by that old chestnut that those who can do, and those that can’t teach.

Obama’s election has reconfigured the traditional discourse of powerand has relocated presidentiality into the person of a black man, a community organiser, a reconciler. Let’s hope that in New Zealand we can similarly relocate intellect into the discourses of powerand embrace leaders who are not ashamed to talk of things other than imports and short-selling.

Historian Kate Hannah is a researcher and analyst at the University of Auckland.

Comments (13)

by Adolf Fiinkensein on November 20, 2008
Adolf Fiinkensein

Methinks your (a) "consciously intellectual woman and her academic economist deputy" are more correctly labelled self styled and (b) John Key will turn out to have more intellectual horsepower in his little finger than the aggregate of your erstwhile front bench.

You can take pleasure in embracing new leadership which is not focussed singlemindedly on having itself re-elected, no matter the cost to the community.   So called intellectuals should remember that you need business before you can afford Bach and growth before you can buy Goya.

 

by Peter Salmon on November 20, 2008
Peter Salmon

I thought Dr Cullen was an historian not an economist

by Kate Hannah on November 20, 2008
Kate Hannah

Peter - I'm pretty sure we're both right - he's an economic historian.  And Adolf - I'm convinced of Key's intellect - it's the populist styling I object to.  And the old argument about economics vs. art reminds me of that well-loved socialist ditty "bread and roses".  I'm unashamed in my belief that art (the arts) and the life of the mind are for everyone, not just those of us who are wealthy enough to have the leisure time to worrry about such things. I'm with Kafka - "a book must be the ice-axe for the frozen sea within us." Why does it have to be either/or?

by Peter Salmon on November 20, 2008
Peter Salmon

You are right his PhD is in Social and Economic history

Re the comments on Key's intellect - I think he is bright and much under estimated by many, but he is not an intellectual in the sense that Clark is/was.

In times past I suspect that Clark would have been what used to be known as a 'blue stocking'.

Key is a guy with brains honed in the commercial world.

Thus his and Clark's world view are probably very different. Further, Key has known poverty in a way which Clark has not.

Your point about the 'Aw shucks' persona might be valid. At the same time I am not certain that many New Zealanders like the aloof intellectual approach favoured by Clark/Cullen and came to resent it.

Another politician who might be said to have used the 'Aw shucks' persona is Bill Clinton, who hid the brain of a Rhodes Scholar behind a veneer of Southern charm, but was a steely and hard as he needed to be. Key to my mind possesses that same steeliness. Anybody who was as successful as Key was at currency trading has to have iron nerves and a mind as sharp as a razor.

In addition, Bill English was quoted recently as saying John Key is one of the most relentlessly optimistic people he has ever met and works hard to make the outcome he seeks happen.

I have no real issues with spending money on the arts, but I would suggest that much of what was spent in recent years was for political reasons as much as anything.

 

by Kate Hannah on November 20, 2008
Kate Hannah

Clinton's 'aw shucks' persona proves my point - that the culture wars created an environment in which intellect was seen as an unacceptable trait for anyone in the public eye.  And maybe it's worth pondering this: why is there a special word for an annoyingly intellectual woman? and no equivalent insult for a man? (unless you view "intellectual" as an insult) Government spending on the arts is a limited concern for me - I'm mainly interested in the way we privilege certain discourses over others, and the way we use dichotomous thinking to force a choice . . . it's that forced choice I take issue with.  I'd like there do be "bigger, more" thinking as opposed to "either/or." Again - it's the give us bread and give us roses argument that I come back to  . . .

by Kate Hannah on November 20, 2008
Kate Hannah

bluestocking being an insult that I embrace, you see . . .

by Dr Jon Johansson on November 20, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Peter - Clinton didn't hide anything. As Kate says, it wasn't either/or, it was Bill Clinton, unreconstructed; that was his problem.

Also, I wouldn't conflate this change moment, Clark won three elections.

 

 

 

by Sam Vilain on November 22, 2008
Sam Vilain

Isn't it just because reality has a well-known liberal bias?  :-)

 

by Peter Salmon on November 22, 2008
Peter Salmon

Kate

I am not certain that in today's world blue stocking is an insult. I meant it in the context of an academic intellectual and in contrast to Key's more commercially based experience.

To be honest I do not know whether one is any better than the other at the end of the day.

Jon

I may not have made myself clear, I wrote that New Zealanders came to resent the Clark persona. In fact right up until the election I was one who thought that she might win. I think what did it for her was countenancing the Mike Williams smear and what had come to seem as arrogance, which in earlier elections was seen as competence.

Actually, to my mind neither Clark nor Key do the 'vision' thing. On the other hand Obama like Kennedy may have too much vision and not enough feet on the ground.

Why is it that so many dislike/fear those with brains? What is it about NZ society that favours sport over the arts? Sport indeed over everything.

 

by Kate Hannah on November 24, 2008
Kate Hannah

Peter - I guess my issue is that much of what people call Clark's "arrogance", and much of the other rhetoric that surrounded the Labour Party pre-election, was based on an underlying mysogynistic premise that holds women to a different set of standards.  That's why the word bluestocking makes me uncomfortable - it holds within it centuries of connotation.  As does the phrase "nanny state" - again, the underlying connotations and denotations imply a different standard for women.  Maybe I'm over sensitive . . . I;m sure many would think I am - but i cannot help but question the language we use to describe male and female power.  We might be doing very well in terms of educational and health related equality, but in New Zealand we are highly discomforted by female power.  Even the dscourse about Sarah Palin (whose politics and populist persona i loathe with a passion) made me deeply disturbed about the way we are still, in the 21st century, unable to bring together femaleness and power, let alone femininity and power.  Women who mess with male domains like politics are either lesbian man-haters or empty-headed puppets . . . (their discourse, not mine!)  And yes, i agree Clark was short on vision.  But a woman should be able to be a leader without her sexuality, brains, wardrobe and sex life being part of the question. . . no one would question Key on those matters.  And I'm talking as a woman who likes books and lipstick, political debate and fashion shows.  I just wish we could talk about Clark on her merits without misogyny creeping into the discussion.

by Peter Salmon on November 28, 2008
Peter Salmon

Kate

I note your response, but must beg to disagree

Peter - I guess my issue is that much of what people call Clark's "arrogance", and much of the other rhetoric that surrounded the Labour Party pre-election, was based on an underlying mysogynistic premise that holds women to a different set of standards.

I firmly believe that Clark was arrogant. Not because of any misogynistic premise, but because of the way she and her administration behaved. Having worked with many women throughout my career, including a lengthy period of reporting to women bosses whom I respected enormously I have no hangups in this regard.

I will accept that there is an element in society not just NZ society that is mysogynistic, but there is a large element in NZ society that does not prize success, or only if it is achieved in sport particularly rugby.

To me Clark, Cullen and others took an elitist view that they knew far better than I did what was good for me and sought to impose that view on everyone.

That's why the word bluestocking makes me uncomfortable - it holds within it centuries of connotation.

I am not sure bluestocking is centuries old, but I used it not disparagingly in intent, but wishing to convey someone who was perhaps more academic and intellectual and not at home in the day to day milieu of much of the populace.

As does the phrase "nanny state" - again, the underlying connotations and denotations imply a different standard for women.  Maybe I'm over sensitive . . . I;m sure many would think I am - but i cannot help but question the language we use to describe male and female power.

With respect I think you are being somewhat over sensitive. I would be interested to see your suggestions for a synonym for 'nanny state'. It may well be the case that I do not see language such as 'nanny' state in female/male terms or as part of some cultural war being waged between men and women.

We might be doing very well in terms of educational and health related equality, but in New Zealand we are highly discomforted by female power.

Are, for the last some 10 +years we have had female Prime Ministers, senior female ministers and at least 2 female Governor Generals.

Personally, my concern is whether or not an individual is up to the job, not whether they are male or female. My obsession tends towards competence not gender.

Even the dscourse about Sarah Palin (whose politics and populist persona i loathe with a passion) made me deeply disturbed about the way we are still, in the 21st century, unable to bring together femaleness and power, let alone femininity and power.  Women who mess with male domains like politics are either lesbian man-haters or empty-headed puppets . . . (their discourse, not mine!)

As someone who if in the USA and able to vote would possibly have voted for Hillary Clinton, I am not cedrtain I can agree as a general point. I accept that there many who do take that view, but they are not I would suggest confined to NZ.

Palin I disliked intensely, but that does not make me mysogynistic,. Her views were and are an anathema to me.In the same way that the views of a man who held to the beliefs that Palin holds to would also be an anathema. In fact I struggle to comprehend how the party of Lincoln can have become the party of the ignorant and prejudiced.

And yes, i agree Clark was short on vision.  But a woman should be able to be a leader without her sexuality, brains, wardrobe and sex life being part of the question. . . no one would question Key on those matters.  And I'm talking as a woman who likes books and lipstick, political debate and fashion shows.  I just wish we could talk about Clark on her merits without misogyny creeping into the discussion.

Actually I do not think mysogyny necessarily does creep in. I have since the change of government seen many references in the media to Key's 'effeminate wave', his light vocie, his tailored suits and his wealth. All combining to a pattern of sneering disdain. There is again in some places the view that if Key decides after consideration to change his mind it is presented as ' flip-flop', whereas with Clark it was often presented as a 'principled' decision.

These comments may of course mean that we both see the world through the prism of our own experience and prejudice as well as the facts presented.

by stuart munro on December 12, 2008
stuart munro

You know I wouldn't have believed the "bully pulpit for postmodern relativism and politically correct thought", but I did a year at Otago in 2006, & it was pretty rough. I had my email hacked and was made to feel thoroughly unwelcome.

Post-modernism is the opposite and enemy of everything I cherish in our culture. It is, moreover, the counsel of despair, for a post-modern society cannot be improved, it can only be reinterpreted.

Post-modern values told Clark and Peters that by controlling media messages they might prolong their rule indefinitely. Not a very democratic impulse. In the event, traditional values trumped the post-modern perspective.

Post-modernism is, after all, designed to console a cynical elite, for their failure to address the issues pertinent to their society. Key knows that at the very least he must pretend to try.

by Don Donovan on April 05, 2009
Don Donovan

Golly, what an intellectual intercourse. Speaking of which, the only bit I latched on to was Dr Johansson's 'Clinton didn't hide anything.'

He did, you know, but he was found out. Never mind what he might have done with Monica, his biggest sin was that he lied to the world about it. It says a lot about America and the world that they generally forgave him!

I never did; I doubt if his wife did either. But she caught his meretricious disease when she claimed to have landed in Bosnia under a hail of small arms fire!

What did she call that solecism? Ah, yes, 'I mis-spoke'!

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