Gordon McLauchlan: We don't need formally educated fools

COMMENT

Almost exactly a year ago, I was in the United States with a group of writers from a number of countries, all of us not just wringing our hands over the Bush Administration's pre-emptive war plans but wondering at the lack of organised opposition within the US.

We knew that many Americans vehemently opposed war on Iraq and had discovered that Congress is run very much as the Auckland City Council is - what matters is what happens in back rooms not in the debating chamber.

Then an Argentine looked around the room, gestured expansively with his hands and said: "Where are the intellectuals? What are they doing about it?" After a long silence, I said: "Intellectuals? I can't speak for anyone else but where I come from to call someone an intellectual is to faintly insult him."

The English writer and an American nodded with understanding. Everyone else, especially those from the Latin America and Europe, stared at me bemused and I realised that the suspicion of people who call themselves intellectuals is essentially Anglo-Saxon.

The Argentine is an admirable man - a professor of mathematics at a Buenos Aires university and an admired novelist.

I tried to explain to him that while an anti-intellectual attitude among New Zealanders has a downside, its effects are not all bad because they are balanced by a historical reverence for common sense.

Formal education is a fine thing and no one is harmed by it but neither vanity nor a volatile temperament is necessarily cured by it, and it works best when depth of learning is matched by its breadth and when life experience goes into the mix.

I used our history as an example. For near enough to a century until 1975 the country was always well-managed by international standards and often governed with flair and daring, free from ideology; yet of the 17 prime ministers during that period only three had had a university education and two of those were in office for less than a year.

Of the others only a handful went to secondary school and none was there past the age of 15. Of the four longest serving - Richard Seddon, William Massey, Peter Fraser and Keith Holyoake - only Massey went to secondary school and he left at age 14.

So you can see, I said, that New Zealanders have traditionally had no undue respect for the formal education so often assumed of intellectuals, yet some of those politicians - Fraser, for example - were certainly better read than most PhDs of today.

I thought of that discussion in the US four times this week. The first time I winced when I heard of a forum of "public intellectuals" - mostly of the usual suspects whose voices are often heard - set to perform on a Friday at $85 to listen. I don't attack the people involved, just the growing claim that we have this species called public intellectuals or that we should. Why don't we just get on with the arguments?

The intellect has been described as "the faculty of reasoning and understanding objectively" - a faculty that should be assiduously promoted but is rarely attained. Thus for anyone to claim to be an intellectual probably means they aren't, and the journey from would-be intellectual to prig is short.

I remembered all the formally educated fools I have known who would label themselves intellectuals, and all the clear-thinking, everyday people I've liked and respected.

The second time I thought of the discussion in America was when I heard the Prime Minister yet again refer to herself, augustly, in the third person. She is well-educated, clever and with an acceptable amount of political cunning - an intellectual politician?

Then one day she preened herself with the suggestion that she might be a victim of her own success. Like all politicians she will one day fairly soon be a victim of her own failure, probably because of the mounting hubris that is a professional hazard.

The third time was when I stumbled on a book I had long known about called Cheerful Yesterdays, a memoir by a Danish New Zealander, O.T.J Alpers. I read it compulsively. Alpers arrived in Napier as a 10-year-old from Denmark, a member of an immigrant family that had no English. He became so gifted a pupil as a teenager that he set up night classes for local people to supplement his scholarship, in one case teaching German by working three lessons ahead of his student with a textbook.

Alpers spent some time in the King Country when Maori were holding on to their old ways. He won a meagre scholarship to Canterbury University College, was a secondary school teacher in Christchurch until age 38, studied law, became an outstanding barrister, then a Supreme Court judge not long before his death from cancer. Now there was a man of intellect, complete with a heavily stocked mind, broad life experience and great self-knowledge.

The fourth time was when I heard the announcement of the imminent publication of James McNeish's book, Dance of the Peacocks, the stories of five New Zealanders of differing backgrounds who went to Oxford before World War II, equipped with the plain but sound education available in their home country.

They made a huge impression wherever they went because of their intellectual prowess, the common sense with which they were brought up and the turbulent experience of their young manhood. I haven't read the book yet but I should imagine each would have bridled at being tagged an intellectual.

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