Mass media barrages young people with messages that even if school is good, learning is not.

I like to collect examples of the ideological subtext hidden in mass media documents such as TV shows, advertisements, movies, cartoons and news stories.  Today I would like to share some recent examples of one ideological message embedded in the mass media for decades: anti-intellectualism and anti-learning.

The mythology of anti-intellectualism has been alive since at least the end of World War II.  In this mythology, only the socially maladroit and sexually unattractive do well in school or engage in intellectual pursuits.  The brand name for these socially inadequate creatures that end up alone with their books is the nerd.  Here is how Merriam-Webster’s defines nerd:  an unstylish, unattractive, or socially inept person; especially: one slavishly devoted to intellectual or academic pursuits

It’s easy to spot anti-intellectualism in films such as “Grease,” the “Revenge of the Nerds” series and even “The Social Network,” or in any number of television shows.  I want to give a few examples of more subtle digs at those who like to do well in school or pursue intellectual activities:

  • The latest New Yorker has an article by D.T. Max about chess phenom Magnus Carlsen that sets Magnus up as the anti-chess nerd.  Max tries to convince us the Magnus, who played thousands of games of chess over the Internet a year, is not a studious chess professional compared to unnamed others.  All the details about Carlsen are meant to oppose him to some imaginary chess archetype who is less normal and nerdier.  This imaginary archetype exists only in myth.  Most of the children and young adults whom I met when my son was a nationally ranked youth chess player were well-rounded, athletic kids with a lot of social poise and grace for their age, including the current American phenom Hikaru Nakamura.
  • A article circulating the Internet this week claims to tell us the “Top 10 cities to date a nerd.”  It’s a list of the 10 cities with the highest educated members in technical or educational occupations.  I can see the value of the article, because if I wanted to find a spouse, I would certainly be interested in going where there are a lot of highly educated people.  But note that the label doesn’t glamorize highly educated people, the articles uses the derogatory “nerd.”
  • A Garfield the Cat cartoon of March 3 finds Garfield and his owner, Jon, perusing the owner’s yearbook. Remember that years ago the strip’s creator Jim Davis established Jon as a socially inept doofus.  Here’s what Jon says as they flip the pages:  “There’s me in the chess club….There’s me in the Latin club…There’s me in the science club…There’s me in the calculus club.” Finally, in the last panel the punch line comes, “There’s me stag at the Junior prom,” to which Garfield think-says with a sarcastic smirk etched across his face, “Go figure!”  The inference and the essence of the joke, is that it’s a no-brainer that Jon went stag to the prom since no one with those intellectual activities could ever attract a date.

Now for two examples of one of the most popular sub-themes of the anti-intellectual ideology, the myth that math is impossibly hard.

  • In October of last year, Mackenzie Carpenter wrote a very good story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette about the fact that all over the county, more and more freshmen kids are freaking out when they get to colleges.  Unfortunately, she marred the story with her anti-math opening: “It’s late October. Have you gotten The Call or The Text yet from your college freshman?  As in: I hate it here. No one will sit with me in the dining hall. I’m going to flunk algebra because the teacher has a foreign accent and I can’t understand her.” 

In analyzing this hypothetical case history that Carpenter presents, let’s place the mildly racist comment to one side and look at what Carpenter imagined was the tough class the hypothetical freshman was failing: algebra.    The fact of the matter is that most kids bound for college have already taken algebra, many as early as the 6th grade.  On the college level, algebra is considered a remedial class. To propose algebra then as the “hard subject” in the hypothetical case history actually demeans the intellectual content that should be the central experience of college.  By selecting algebra instead of calculus or freshman English is inherently anti-intellectual, while also supporting the false view that math is extremely hard.

  • “The Motley Fool” column of financial advice and news also took a gratuitous swipe at math by assuming that his target market assumes math is hard in an article from last October: “The bad news: Studying companies well involves a little math. The good news: It’s not that hard.” There are so many other ways that the Fool (or should I write fool?) could have approached the story, which is about calculating growth rates, none of which would have proposed that math is hard.  It’s not that the Fool/fool has an agenda to help enslave people intellectually by convincing them they are not smart enough to master the intricacies of “10 = X + 3, what is X?”  It’s that “math is hard” and “intellectuals are socially maladroit” are part of the underlying ideological messages that permeate all our lives, including the Fool/fool’s. 

Some of you are going to remind me that I often write about another social trend: the mad push by helicopter parents to get their children into the very best colleges possible.  This mad dash can include a lot of actions that would appear on the surface to support and cherish learning, such as taking enrichment classes during the summer and getting private tutors.  But judging from the stories in the mass media and the vast anecdotal evidence I have collected from my own experience and those of many other parents, the quest of the helicopter parent, or maybe I should say the Tiger Mom, has nothing to do with learning or education.  It has to do with upgrading to a brand of education that the parents believe will represent a more powerful certification of their children’s status and therefore lead to a higher social position and a job that pays more money.  The helicopter parent has commoditized education, that is, turned it into a commodity that they believe they can buy to enhance their children’s lives (and their own).

Far from being a paradox, the coexistence of these two trends—anti-intellectualism and the helicopter parent—makes all the sense in the world.  What debases intellectual activity more than reducing its value to a certification that money and not intellectual achievement can buy? 

2 thoughts on “Mass media barrages young people with messages that even if school is good, learning is not.

  1. Thanks for the Twitter follow — I suspect I will enjoy perusing your blog in the days/weeks to come. In this article, you’ve touched on something I’ve sensed, but have lacked the language to describe. While Iain is correct about the reclamation of the word “nerd” (I happily describe myself as one.), there is certainly a large segment who seek power without earning the skills to wield it.

    For what it’s worth, I met my nerd on, and have since discovered that the geeky town of Los Alamos suits me well, other than the lack of employment opportunities for a gal with a background in marketing and direction toward psychology. Any chance you ever farm our work via remote?

    Cheers, and again, glad to meet you!


  2. Nicely said and good points, Marc, but I do take issue with a portion of your post. The term “nerd” is often worn as a badge of honor these days by a substantial subset (myself, included). In the digital age, being a nerd is actually kind of cool. The tech-savvy hacker is this year’s model, and the jocks and buttoned-down frat rats get their comeuppance in the end (at least in the movies). So I agree with much of your post; there’s certainly a cheapening of what it means to be intellectual at work and an obsession with surface trappings of intellectualism with no real regard for deeper thought. But all the same, being a nerd isn’t quite as bad as it used to be.

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