Anti-intellectual culture discourages academic excellence
By Jenny Jiao, ’16 and Maeve O’Brien, ’16
Try-hard. Overachiever. Know-it-all. Teacher’s pet. If you’ve ever been called one of these terms, you’ve been subject to anti-intellectualism. If you’ve ever called someone one of these terms, you’ve been a proponent of anti-intellectualism. And if you’ve ever heard of one of these terms at all, in the hallways, in classrooms, over text or social media, you’ve witnessed anti-intellectualism first-hand.
Anti-intellectualism is the opposition of those who display intelligence. It is not only widespread throughout the adolescent generation and mass media, but also prevails in the classrooms of UAHS. It is evident when a student is afraid of the social consequences of speaking out in class, sharing good grades or openly displaying academic excellence.
PsychologyToday writer Ray Williams noted that anti-intellectualism is common in public schools.
“Well-educated and intellectual students are commonly referred to in public schools and the media as “nerds,” “dweebs,” “dorks,” and “geeks,” and are relentlessly harassed and even assaulted by the more popular “jocks” for openly displaying any intellect,” Williams wrote in his article, “Anti-Intellectualism and the Dumbing Down of America.”
Research shows this negative perception of high academic achievement can lead students to downplay their intellect in the school environment.
One in five girls and over one in ten boys purposefully underachieve in math subjects to avoid being bullied, according to a survey conducted by the Anti-Bullying Alliance.
ABA Chair Ross Hendry released a statement to The Huffington Post commenting on the findings of the survey.
“It’s unacceptable that rather than celebrate their talent, they feel that they have to hide their gifts, purposely underachieve in crucial subjects and miss out on things they enjoy because of bullying,” Hendry said.
What this means is that not only are students being victimized for performing well in school, many accept lower grades to avoid these negative consequences.
Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason, explained to Alternet that anti-intellectualism is a troubling paradox.
“There is no country that has had more faith in education as an instrument of social mobility…but no country has been more suspicious of too much education,” Jacoby said. “We’ve always thought of education as good if it gets you a better job, but bad if it makes you think too much.”
Anti-intellectualism is also present around Columbus.
Senior Matthew Schechter transferred from St. Charles to UAHS after his sophomore year. He experienced a highly competitive academic environment at St. Charles, which fed a culture of anti-intellectualism.
“They expect you to be good at school, but if you’re not super smart, you’re made fun of,” Schechter said. “But if you’re super smart, then you are an outcast or different. It’s bad no matter where you are on the spectrum.”
After facing a harsh academic environment at St. Charles, Schechter was nervous switching to UAHS.
“At first, I was a little unsure about how the environment would contrast and collide or whether they would be the same,” Schechter said. “I was expecting them to be similar but I saw a lot of other people speaking out in class a lot and asking stuff they genuinely needed help with, which isn’t what goes on at St. Charles.”
Schechter finds the classroom dynamics at UAHS to be more welcoming.
“Here, anybody that needs help just asks questions,” he said. “So I try to be open in that way or just not care if people make fun of me.”
However, Schechter has received some negative backlash from participating in class.
“In my math class, for instance…whenever I would ask a question or something, [one student] would make a snide comment or something towards what I would say,” Schechter said.
Schechter attributes situations like this to occur in every high school, not just UAHS.
“I think [anti-intellectualism] is everywhere,” Schechter said. “I think it’s because of the sports networks and [media] because a lot of it is making the image of athletics and people who are more built in other areas than academics…become more popular than people who are academically strong.”
Additionally, Schechter believes the greater proportion of academically achieving individuals continues to bolster the popularity of the “jock” type.
“There’s so much formal education in society now that it doesn’t matter if you’re smart because everybody’s smart,” Schechter said. “So people who are smart in other ways, like getting strong or stuff like that, get more popular.”
In general, Schechter has noticed anti-intellectualism transforming the way bullying occurs in schools.
“I think bullying happens in classrooms now, more than hallways,” Schechter said.
Junior Nick Trifelos also sees intelligent students receiving negative attention in the classroom.
“I see people making fun of smart students all the time,” Trifelos said.
However, Trifelos believes the hostile comments to derive more from envy than anything else.
“It’s probably because they are jealous so they just use the fact that [another student] tries really hard as an insult against them,” Trifelos said.
In addition to teasing high-achieving students, anti-intellectualism can also be characterized by the praising or condoning of bad grades.
“[Students] joke about their bad grades because they feel that no matter what they will be successful,” Trifelos said. “Bad grades are cool to some people.”
UAHS business teacher Eva Frustaci believes it may boil down to a student’s pride.
“If they make a joke, I would think that it is out of a defense mechanism,” Frustaci said. “It doesn’t feel good to not do well and not have that sense of achievement. We all potentially want that sense of achievement but if they don’t get it, that’s their defense mechanism.”
Frustaci thinks participation and student interaction is largely dependent on the classroom environment.
“I think [participation] depends. Certain class periods have certain environments and class cultures, and part of that is time of the day,” Frustaci said.
Frustaci sees the negative stereotypes of the “try hard” or “teacher’s pet” at work, though not dominating the environment.
“I’ve had students that are very vocal and always raising their hands and sometimes you see other students rolling their eyes,” Frustaci said.
While anti-intellectualism is a widespread social phenomenon, it can be combated on smaller levels.
Schechter, being subject to varying degrees of anti-intellectualism at St. Charles as well as UAHS, provided insight on how to combat it on an individual level.
“If you’re super unsure or you don’t know if you can handle all the bullying, I think to deal with the pressures of society and anti-intellectualism, that you need to either just be brave and take up your questions or find your voice in other ways, like outside the classroom,” Schechter said.
While Schechter addresses the individual solutions for coping with anti-intellectualism, Jacoby encourages families to begin to reverse its effects.
Jacoby sugguested families should “put the video games on the shelf more and spend more time talking and reading to our kids,” according to Alternet.
The harms of anti-intellectualism have already been felt in the nation, and in UAHS. However, it’s clear that there are possible solutions to reverse the negative effects, on the individual and familial levels.