Pedants are revolting...

27th February 2004 at 00:00
There was a great Frenchman on the Today radio programme last week, hailing the delivery of a 20,000 signature political petition, unimaginable in Britain. It was signed by assorted scientists, writers, lawyers, actors, poets and professors, unanimously protesting against the "anti-intellectualism" of the French government, notably the Premier Ministre, Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

"He is always speaking," said Jacques the Frenchman witheringly, "of 'La France d'en bas'. He wants to oppose the people to the intellectuals."

There is, the petitioners complain, a government policy against the arts, scientific research, creation and true education, and in favour of "the military and rich people". The intellectuals are fighting back, with an unselfconscious rage so magnificently alien to Anglo-Saxon behaviour that one can only gasp in admiration.

For, in Britain, to call someone an intellectual is an insult. It implies effeteness, ineffectual vapouring, pretentiousness, insincerity, and a lack of human sympathy. There are, of course, little covens of samizdat intellectuals who admit their true nature to one another in dusty corners of university common-rooms or urban villages in Hampstead, but the outer world is unforgivingly cold to intellectuals to a degree the French protesters could only conceive of in nightmares.

"Oh, it's very clever," we sneer. In Britain you can just get away with being a leading scientist if you admit either to being too daffy to do up your own buttons in the morning, or else being fond of football or some other populist pastime.

You can be a playwright or novelist provided you remember to keep saying that you are first and foremost an entertainer. The most serious classical actor must learn to shrug embarrassedly and pretend to be a simple-hearted wandering player, interested more in emotion than ideas. When a character with some sort of intellectual curiosity and inner life appears on Coronation Street (in the shape of the marvellous Roy Cropper) he is universally regarded as a comic weirdo.

Tom Stoppard has somehow got away with intellectualism for years by being funny and using deep camouflage. When he wanted to do a play about philosophers (Jumpers) he wisely dressed them up in gymnastic Lycra and had them leapfrogging, stepping on tortoises and sleeping with one another's wives. Brilliant.

David Hare disguises himself as a political firebrand, expressing emotion loudly in case anyone should suspect that what he is really doing is thinking.

Moreover, unlike the French intellectuals who seem to be able to sink their differences and unite in gangs of 20,000, ours are weakened by division and mutual suspicion, with right-wing philosophical wonks hating left-wing ones, and scientists and artists pretending to be of different species.

Politicians in Britain have been playing the equivalent of Raffarin's "La France d'en bas" card for years. What else is the current insistence on "the people"?

Diana was "the people's princess" not only because she was kind to the unfortunate and nice to look at, but because of her steady insistence that she was "thick as a plank" and her pleasingly lousy academic record. "Be good, sweet maid, and let who will be clever" is not often said these days, but it is certainly thought.

The Millennium Dome, which Ted Hughes wanted to be made into a representation of the human brain and all its marvels, and Stephen Bayley planned to fill with intelligent art, had its contents dumbed down by relentless pressure to be "accessible" to any idle fool, and by the ridiculous Peter Mandelson announcements that it would launch "surfball" as the game for a new century, even though nobody had actually invented any such game. That is not, one feels, how chess was born.

But Conservative governments hated intellectuals, too. They preferred business, moneymaking, and the encouragement of avid consumption. Ministers like Keith Joseph, who thought too hard and had mad hair, were rapidly supplanted by self-confident thugs and simplistic disciplinarians.

Education, under the control of anti-intellectuals, became reduced to tick-boxes, lists and tests which almost exclude the possibility of independent thought.

As for universities, God save us: whenever some Oxford or Cambridge admissions tutor invents an interesting question to test a candidate for signs of independent intellectual life, there is a howl of indignation that such questions encourage "elitism". And we are all the poorer for it, because a cerebral awkward-squad is necessary to any nation.

Time for a revolution. Time for a petition. Perhaps it should start in the schools and colleges, with a strike by staff and students refusing to co-operate with any government directive which is insultingly simplistic, illogical, ungrammatically phrased or populist.

Let there be bonfires of stupid pamphlets and patronising set-books and ruthless insistence on precision of language and thought. Step forward, my heroes, for the Pedants' Revolt!

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