Thursday, May 30, 2013

Anti-intellectualism: It's all in the family

Ah, summer! The season when I wave goodbye to students who think I am the embodiment of evil and say hello to visiting relatives who are certain I am the embodiment of evil.

Well, not me personally, but academics in general. Summer is the time when duty calls me to be nice to people just because they happen to share some DNA with me or my spouse, and inevitably the discussion will turn to What's Wrong with the World These Days (everything) and Who Is to Blame for our National Ills, and I'll bet you can identify the current scapegoat: godless liberal socialist college professors brainwashing students with their radical feminist pro-gay anti-gun anti-God multicultural agenda.

What do I say to these people? A little voice urges me to bite my tongue, respect my elders, don't rock the boat, keep the peace, don't teach an old dog new tricks, just smile and nod and talk about the weather. Cliches: the last refuge of the academic at the family reunion.

But I can only bite my tongue for so long, and bottling up all that anger may eventually make my head explode. I need a quip, something clever and concise enough to make anti-intellectualism uncomfortable without permanently alienating people I'm supposed to care about or causing anyone to suffer a fatal stroke or, even worse, draw a gun.

What would you say?  


  1. You could drop a couple of examples of famous conservatives who went to college but there's always caveats.

    "Dick Cheney went to college and he turned out OK," is pretty good, except some may point out that his daughter is gay, so he must have been brainwashed at least a little bit.

    "Condoleezza Rice is a faculty member at Stanford, so we're not all completely nuts." Ah, Condi Rice. When will that nice girl settle down to have some children?

    I'd just be direct since that allows you to keep your sentences short and lessens the amount of higher-level thinking involved on their part.

    If you want to be mean, try, "Our brainwashing certainly won't affect your kids because they are too stupid to get into college."

    Twist the knife by saying, "If you had done a better job as parents, you child would not be so mentally weak."

    One of the more reasonable replies that I have heard is, "Don't worry about us changing their political views. We can't brainwash our students to bring a pencil to class."

    Just to be clear, I am pretty conservative so idiots like your relatives piss me off even more.

  2. Back during the height of the Heavy Metal Satanic Panic, someone alleged that Judas Priest had hidden pro-suicide messages in their music through backward masking; the band replied that getting their fans to kill themselves would be counterproductive, and if they thought backward masking worked, they'd insert messages like "Buy more of our records."

    That's about how I respond. I teach in a field that by its very nature tends to draw heavy wingnut fire -- fortunately, none from my own family, which has a sizable number of proffies in it. When accused of brainwashing the youth of today, my stock answer is "If I could brainwash my students, I'd brainwash them to mow my lawn."

    Should more discussion be even required, I raise the question of how turning my students into [gay/feminist/multicultural/what-the-heck-ever] could possibly be to my benefit. As I once said, "what, do you think that for every ten students I turn into liberals, I get free Tupperware?"

    1. I am stealing both of those responses. Brilliant.

  3. I like to put my screensaver face on (blank Stepford Wives smile, faraway gaze) and say, "My goodness, you're right -- the weather for this event is just perfect!"

  4. Someone told me that, because I was a professor, I was teaching my students to hate my country and that hard work wasn't necessary.

    I tersely replied: "I didn't know that there was an un-American way to solve a differential equation or to integrate a function".

    Then they accused ME of "being condescending". :-)


    1. I hate to tell you, but instead of bringing up ODEs and calculus (which you and I know are elementary, but your knuckle-dragging acquaintance probably doesn't), you should have just said:

      "I didn't know that there was an un-American way to do engineering math, which is what I teach."

  5. Zora, I sigh for you. A little rum in the iced tea can help.

    Those days are sadly over for me, as my beloved and tolerant in-laws have died, and their reactionary, undereducated relatives no longer come around. I used to look for subtle eye rolls, share an amused glance, and then sit next to those relatives so we could smirk together when the inanity started flying. But occasionally someone -- always the same one, a man who enjoyed the confrontation so much that he'd start with a hand on my arm and a big ol' grin -- would challenge my discipline point by point. I would put on my biggest grin, say his name a lot, and answer him point by point.

    If they go on attack and direct it at me, I take my motto from "Galaxy Quest", by Grabthor's Hammer:

    Never back down. Never surrender.

    1. Galaxy Quest! Okay, you know that female alien who falls in love with the Tony Shalhoub character? And you know her annoying blank smiley-face expression? That's how I look after a few hours in the company of these relatives. But if I could master her otherworldly shriek, that would really shake things up!

      The really bizarre thing about these encounters is that whenever I try to gently challenge any of the ridiculous statements, the relatives always say, "Oh, we're not talking about YOU. We know YOU are okay." Which somehow doesn't help.

    2. ARGH!

      It's "Never GIVE up! Never surrender!"

      And I suggest being completely drunk.

    3. Stella: ARGH! Shame on me.

      Zora: yes! That expression bugs me too. Love your idea about the shriek. Too bad you can't produce a big tentacle.

  6. Here's what I fail to understand. You're concerned that if you address these criticisms and attacks, you will ostracize yourself from members of your family. Why are those members of the family not concerned that they will ostracize themselves from *you* by attacking your profession and career? Why do they get a pass to go on the attack, but you don't get a pass to defend yourself? There's something almost abusive about this dynamic, it seems to me.

    1. That's a good point; Zora is facing abuse from these jerks, who outnumber her. But she's not just taking it. She's asking for a zinger to make them shut up for a while. I hope someone posts some! Bella? Stella? Bubba? Strelnikov?

    2. Because in American culture Ph.D.s are presumed guilty of being condescending elitists until/unless they/we can prove otherwise (see title). Some of us aren't very good at it (see my complete inability/unwillingness to care/talk about sports), which probably perpetuates the stereotype.

  7. "Buddy, my colleagues and myself are the only thing standing between you and a total disintegration of civilization as we know it.
    You should fall on your knees and thank us."

  8. This will come up next week when the first relatives show up at the door.

    I just smile and take the card out of my wallet that shows I'm a paid member in a certain socialist party of northern Canukistan. If I scare you, then be afraid. Very, very, afraid.

  9. I did once have an uncle on my mother's side tell me that my career was bullshit and not a real job. I agreed with him, because after all, I only owned one car while he owned three, two of them dissolving into rust on his front lawn and the third one currently leaking oil in the driveway.

    Fortunately, there are precious few wingnuts in my family, so the rest of the family ganged up on him on my behalf, and that was that. His wife's response to him was something like "what the hell do you know? He writes books, and you can barely read."

    1. Good that you have a line of defense. I feel similarly bolstered on at least one side of my family; the other side is never in the same room together, so these confrontations become a nonissue.

  10. Actually, if anything, we're helping ignorant reactionaries take over the country. After all, the more time people spend in school, the fewer children they have.

  11. I always ask for examples of what they mean when I know they're just restating crap they've heard on Fox News but for which they have no evidence.

    "Liberals are brainwashing our students," they say.
    "What do you mean?" I ask.
    "Well, you know, universities promote the Obama Agenda."
    "I'm not sure what you mean."
    "The subjects offered," they say.
    "How so? I'm still not sure."
    "Only teaching things like revised history."
    "I'm still not getting it..."
    And so it goes... until they give up, confidence in the conclusion that all academics are not just obtuse, but obnoxious, as well.

    1. This also works well for freshmen who think they're saying profound things that are just moldy ideas.

  12. I like this approach--turn on the questions like a two-year-old who has just discovered "Why?" This could work, especially if I remember to never give up, never surrender.

    1. As Carl Sagan noted in "The Demon-Haunted World," the fusillade of "whys" from a two-year-old are an attempt at controlling adult behavior.

  13. I'm blessed with fairly few such relatives at the moment (death has definitely thinned the herd); most of my contact with the wingnut crowd comes via facebook (high school classmates, from a pretty rigorous girls' school, so it tends to be an educated, pearl-clutching "what is our country coming to?" version, though with the same underlying message. And fortunately I'm not the only leftie graduate of said school, so I have backup), and occasionally at church (though we don't have many far right types there, either; the Republicans tend to be centrist and more than a bit disaffected with the party as currently constituted). When I do hear some version of "teachers are brainwashing our children," I usually use the English comp teacher's version of Ben's riposte: "Well, even if some teachers are trying, I doubt they'll succeed; I can't even persuade my students to use apostrophes correctly." This sort of reply works best with parents of current teenagers/young adults (or those who can remember the age/stage), who have had recent similar experiences with picking up dirty socks, making beds, etc., etc.

    I also like Cynic's persistent questioning, and F&T's complete non-sequitur. Maybe mix up all three, just to keep them on their toes, and yourself amused?

  14. I wish I had a great quip for such idiots. I actually like Beaker Ben's idea about referencing ultra conservatives who teach. If I encountered this stuff on a regular basis, I'd research really crazy things some famous academic conservative said to college students and present it as an "I know, right!!!" I don't have the energy to find a good tidbit right now, and it would be hard to pick someone the ignoramuses would actually know (and therefore get the irony), but it would make me a bit happier just to say it. You could also bring up some creationist loser like this guy:, and say how sad it makes you when you read about professors like him allowing their personal beliefs to cloud their ability to teach real facts in the classroom.

  15. I have many, many such relatives in my extended family. I love them all dearly and the family reunion weekend is one of my favorite of the year, but this is why we all drink. A lot. They know that I'm a liberal, atheist, feminist professor and I know that they are mostly fundie Catholic anti-intellectuals who drank the Fox News kool-aid a long time ago. We all roll our eyes at each other and the alcohol flows freely.

  16. I chewed my tongue bloody last summer on our family vacation with my in-laws, who both vote Right. Listening to my MIL talk to her Libertarian brother on the phone about how Obama was giving away free cell phones to people on Welfare so that they'd vote for him nearly sent me over the edge. I could not, and did not try to explain that the Lifeline program was started by Reagan in 1984 (mostly because the vacation spot had no internet access, and I couldn't prove it by pulling up the relevant FCC document). I just went for a walk in the woods.
    However, I did tell my Other Half that I would not be going on a family vacation again (short-lived, as they bought us a trip to Disney for Christmas. They're generous, if wrong-headed about a lot of stuff).

    We had a big family meeting in the fall where a lot of stuff got aired out, and I pointed out that if she's going to bash unions, and Democrats, and teachers, she and I were not going to be able to spend any time together. And my Other Half pointed out that we don't bash the Right (in front of them) so what she was doing was unfair. She's a decent person, so she agreed to stop baiting me. I have had to work hard over the last two years to get over my rage at the backwards tack my once-proudly-Progressive state has taken (seriously, destroy public employee unions and we're STILL 44th in private sector job creation), but if I am going to bite my tongue for the sake of family harmony, she can do the same.

    I guess that's a long way of saying Perhaps it's time you had a family meeting, if this bothers you so much. Even if the other side doesn't learn much, maybe they'll stop needling you. And if they don't, perhaps now is a time to distance yourself. Just because they're family doesn't mean that you have to put up with abuse.

  17. But before he could move I grabbed me a chair
    And said watch him folks 'cause he's a thoroughly dangerous man

    Well you may not know it but this man's a spy
    He's an undercover agent for the FBI
    And he's been sent down here to infiltrate the Ku Klux Klan

    He was still bent over holdin' on to his knee
    But everyone else was lookin' and listenin' to me
    And I layed it on thicker and heavier as I went

    I said would you believe this man has gone as far
    As tearin' Wallace stickers off the bumpers of cars
    And he voted for George McGovern for president

    Well he's a friend of them long-haired hippie type pinko fags
    I betcha he's even got a Commie flag
    Tacked up on the wall inside of his garage

  18. It is good to give some thought to conversation in case one is invited to a dinner party at Ted Nugent's home. I don't think that my invitation is imminent, but then as they told me in Scouts, be prepared.

    I say that I teach optics and modern physics to engineers and scientists. This includes how chemistry works, and how to make computer chips, so what exactly is it that you think that I do to brainwash them?

    Of course, I never also mention that relativity is one of the best parts of this course (but then, deriving human morality from physics is always questionable). I also don't mention that evolution is mentioned prominently in the astronomy courses. So far, they've never been brought up, though.

    I can also point out that "I may be the last honest professor in America, since we share quite a few values. I hold my students responsible for their actions, and I always grade fairly and conservatively." They love that last.

    Of course, since my field is astronomy and spaceflight, I get relatively little grief from the right. What I do fits in well with their idea of Manifest Destiny. It's also obviously essential for national defense. Also, since my family is ethnically German (back when they still spelled it "Frankenstein"), all I have to do is mention the exploits of Wernher von Braun (pronounced "fon brown," not "vawn brawn," dammit), and they perk up happily with pride. No one even ever mentions the unpleasantness with the Sklavenarbeitern at Mittelwerk, or in London or in Paris or in Antwerp...

    If anything, I get more crap from my left-wing relatives. Ever since Project Apollo, they have been whining that exploring space is such a WASTE, "why don't we give that money to the poor?" ("Because these days, you'd be called a socialist" is a comeback to that I've recently used.) And of course, I can always point out that, "We haven't sent Americans to the Moon in a long time, and now America is about to lose its scientific pre-eminence to China, who sooon will be sending Chinse to the Moon. So, are you happy now?"

    But then, as Lucy van Pelt pointed out to Snoopy (back in the days of the Apollo project, when "Peanuts" was still funny), at her "Psychiatric Care 5 cents" stand when Snoopy was disillusioned after a family reunion at the Daisy Hill Puppy Farm that hadn't gone well, "Just because you're related to these people doesn't mean you have to like them! (Five cents, please.)" Ever since I read this, it has made getting along with some of my relatives much easier.

    1. P.S. The recent post about the students at Weber State sending the balloon with a digital camera and parachute-and-GPS transponder so you can get the camera back was cute, but not exactly something new. It's been a common high-school science fait project for about 5 years now, and was pioneered in Britain. It shows yet again how little the commercial press knows, when covering a science story. The guy giving the interview at the end in the NASA hat was the best part: that hat may make him look like a NASA employee, but anyone can buy one of those hats in the Visitor Center, you know.

    2. P.P.S. If the conversation really goes badly, I can always right things by bringing up Uncle Gus's bad driving skills. He had this big old Eldorado Cadillac, hurtling down Highway 17-92 through Orange City, and he was a teacher all his life and he loved to talk, and he loved to wave his hands when he talked, and you'd go "AAAAH!!! Get your hands on the STEERING WHEEL!" and he was deaf in his right ear, so he'd turn around and say, "WHAD-JA-SAY?" Good old Uncle Gus.