Why intellectual snobbery can be so unkind.
A few days ago, I was teaching a student a difficult concept. The student kept telling me that they just could not ‘get it.’ I tried explaining in the usual way that I teach this, but it did not work. Finally, I came up with another explanation and calmly and patiently I tried, and I tried. Suddenly, and it came as if from nowhere, the student understood. I felt elated and the student was equally pleased. Later that day, I considered what I had managed to do. This has to be one of the greatest rewards of teaching; being able to make a difference. I hope that the student will always remember this and perhaps one day they will be grateful. But just imagine what would have happened had I decided not to persevere? What if I had used an entirely opposite tactic of belittling the student for not being as intelligent as I am? That student might have spent the rest of their education believing that they were hopeless and incapable of academic achievement.
It is true that teaching is a vocation since it is not a job that anyone goes into for financial reasons. Over the years it has given me so much joy that I am pleased I chose it. I used to work within senior management in schools. But senior managers teach little and as someone who thrives on making a difference to young people’s lives, I needed to return to teaching because it gives me greater happiness than balancing budgets and monitoring statistics.
Many people tell me that I am intelligent and academic. Whilst it is true that I have a plethora of academic qualifications and achievements including a Master’s, I know that there are a great deal of people far more academic and intelligent than I, including many of my friends. I acknowledge that I have an incredible ability to analyse language and literature. I find it easy and it is one of my passions. Yet I would never have realised that I possessed this talent had I not been taught by inspirational teachers. My literature teachers had impressive academic qualifications, but it was more their enthusiasm and ability to pass on their knowledge that I appreciated. In short, true intelligence and intellect should be measured by being able to relate to others, to share one’s passion and above all else to inspire.
I remember the first time in my Lower Sixth that I wrote an A level English Literature essay on As You Like It. I found it hard and all I was capable of achieving was a D minus. I felt that I just did not have the intelligence and should drop the subject. I went to see my teacher, who implored me not to and explained that writing a literature essay was a skill that I would learn with perseverance and time. She was right. By the time I came to sit my exams, I was scoring A on all of my essays. If I had not had such an encouraging teacher, I would never have discovered my passion and gone onto study it at University. Where would any of us be without inspirational and creative teaching? Knowledge is there to be passed on, otherwise what is the point of teaching?
Often the ability to transmit effectively our knowledge is a vital part of professional life. Doctors, lawyers, accountants, in fact nearly all professionals, are called upon to impart information. The daily corona virus briefings always featured a scientific adviser. Their role was to explain the science in layman’s terms to ensure that the Public understood why the Government decided to implement certain restrictions. If they did not make the science clear and used the briefings merely to demonstrate how intelligent they were, then the Government’s measures would be not be as effective or reinforced. There would have been confusion and misunderstandings.
We are currently living in a World where we rightly challenge any form of discrimination. We know that it is wrong to judge anyone by the colour of their skin, sexual orientation, gender or even intelligence. We are trying to make amends for past discrimination and ensuring that we value people more by their kindness and treatment of others, rather than by any other arbitrary means. Furthermore, after the death of Caroline Flack, we understand how much pressure someone can face after unkind and hurtful comments are written about them in any publication or online. How a person can be pushed to the limit. For a brief period, the ‘Be Kind’ message was reinforced across all social media reminding people of the importance of treating others in the same way that someone would wish to be treated. We know that it is paramount to look after our mental health and we comprehend the impact of hurtful and personalised attacks from others. When we see examples of people being treated unkindly, we should speak out in the same way that we would speak out concerning inequality or discrimination.
The mantra of being kind, along with an adherence to generosity in imparting our knowledge have never been of more significance than they were this week. I have been a member of the Brontë Society for decades. Since the tender age of three, the life and work of the Brontës has long been a passion of mine. I have probably read just about every book or pamphlet ever written about them. I have even been to various archives and conducted my own Brontë-related research. As much as I would love to believe that I know more about the Brontës than anyone, I do not. As much as I would love to be considered The Brontë expert, then I am not. I have met people online through our shared love of the Brontës. I have had some incredibly heated discussions with other Brontë lovers since we are united by our passion.
Last year, I interviewed a fellow Brontë lover and writer, Diane M. Denton and I found her life-story so inspiring that I read her biographical fiction work on Anne Brontë, Without The Veil Between. Biographical fiction is a demanding form of writing, since it must combine the talent of creative writing along with strict adherence to fact. In writing her book, Diane was taking on a huge task and, in my opinion, her book was successful in its attention to detail regarding the Brontë story. The book demonstrated Diane’s exceptional story telling and creative writing skills. In short, Diane brought the story to life. I knew this was a work of fiction based upon fact. I knew this came from an author who loved the Brontë story as much as I. It was escapism into a World I loved. When I later wrote a review, I spoke about how much I appreciated the work. It was not dissimilar to my experience of watching the biographical film, Bohemian Rhapsody: the story behind Freddie Mercury and Queen. Not all elements of the film were exact. Dramatic licence was employed to push the film on and to maintain interest. Some characters were invented, and others took on an altered personality. Certain elements were embellished, and others withheld. It was not a hundred percent faithful to the story but that did not detract from my sheer enjoyment of the film. It was one of the few films I have seen at the cinema where the audience stood up and applauded at the end. I felt similarly about the Elton John film, Rocketman. Elton’s life has always appeared larger than life and thus it was no surprise that his biography was related through the medium of music and dance in the style of a musical. I certainly never for a moment believed that Elton John lives his life accompanied at all times by a large orchestra and a chorus of dancers. Escapism was the aim, as is the case for most forms of entertainment.
A few days ago, I was reading the latest copy of Brontë Studies, a quarterly publication by the Brontë Society. The publication includes scholarly articles concerning the Brontës and their work, as well as reviews of Brontë publications. I noticed the inclusion of a review of Without The Veil Between by a Dr S from my alma mater. The review began by asking the question concerning why authors choose to write biographical fiction. It was a similar sort of question to why do some people like science fiction or why do some people like the horror genre? From the outset the review came with a heavy emphasis on disrespect and judgement from someone who considered themselves a superior writer and scholar of the Brontës. Dr S’s analysis of the book preferred to point out how the book had incorrect etymology and some split infinitives, rather than considering the more significant aspects such as did the book flow, and more importantly was it enjoyable to read? At one stage, Dr S pejoratively referred to the author as The Denton. I am not able for copyright reasons to reproduce the entire review, but I believe these are sufficient examples of its tone.
When I remarked on the unkindness of the review, whilst many agreed, there was one person who suggested that since Dr S is such a renowned and highly-respected Brontë specialist, it therefore followed that she was entitled to say such things since, “her opinion, whatever it can be, is to be highly considered and regarded.” She might think her intellect enables her to be superior but surely true intelligence involves being able to relate to others, share one’s passion and inspire? It does not involve belittling people to present oneself as better. Why should anyone accept her criticism with humility? What makes her the fount of knowledge for all things Brontë?
Dr S may consider herself a worthy critic because of her intellectual qualifications but there is no generosity or kindness in belittling an author and it does not make Dr S more intelligent. Furthermore, were I to adopt the same uncharitable attitude as Dr S, I might be tempted to comment on her ability as a lecturer and whether she was able to install any of her passion in her students. Yet in doing so, I could easily be accused of being hypocritical and not following my own advice. Being able to empathise and be kind to people is far more valuable than any certification from the best university
Of course, all writers have to develop a backbone and be prepared for criticism of their work. They will have equal numbers of supporters and critics. But criticism should be constructive and mindful of different tastes and preferences as well as the impact of our comments on a writer. Just because I am not a fan of science-fiction does not justify a full-on onslaught against anyone who has written a book in the genre. The problem in Dr S’s article is that it begins from an attitude of superiority and continues in that vein. Fortunately, Diane is an experienced writer and has many supporters of her work and I sincerely hope that this will in no way impact upon her self-belief. However, consider if this was a younger writer, just starting out. How would they react to such intellectual pomposity?
Dr S was not forced to write this review. Knowing her evident disapproval of the genre, the more appropriate thing to do would have been to decline to review it. Or even had she written a disclaimer at the start that the review was her own personal opinion and as such she did not intend to hurt the author or cause offence. Sadly, the review reads rather bitterly and somewhat vitriolic.
You might wonder why this concerns me so much. I have nothing to gain in any way. The book was not written by me. I do believe, however, that it is imperative to speak out about this, in the same way that we should all speak out about any injustice. Dr S may have chosen to write her review whilst hiding behind her keyboard, but would she be as eager to offer her unsolicited opinion in real life? I find it rather surprising that despite her fifty years’ experience of studying literature, she can display such a lack of understanding of one of its key themes; that of empathy.
There is a quotation from D.E.Navarro that I discovered this week concerning intellectual snobbery. “The tunnel under the wall of intellectual snobbery is the only way back to common sense reality. But most won’t find it because it is beneath them.” Dr S might wish to consider this before choosing to write any further reviews and perhaps more importantly, she needs to remember that intellectualism is certainly not wisdom.
Diane M Denton’s novel
Without the Veil Between: Anne Brontë: A Fine and Subtle Spirit
is available at