Anti-Intellectualism: Why We Hate the Smart Kids

Anti-Intellectualism: Why We Hate the Smart Kids

While the title of the essay “Anti-Intellectualism: Why we hate the smart kids” may resonate emotionally with many self-identified nerds, its author Grant Penrod ultimately relies too much on arguments-by-anecdotes to be really persuasive. While there is certainly evidence from modern political life about a strong anti-intellectual current within the American culture, most of Penrod’s is based in personal experiences or subjective emotions. The essay opens with a complaint about a football team at one high school that received more school praise than the equally successful science bowl team, the speech and debate team, and the academic decathlon team. Penrod seems to be trying to make a persuasive case to his peers about the persecution of nerds but the essay reads more like a self-serving complaint than a true argument in defense of a persecuted segment of high school or greater American society.

This essay is an excellent example of ‘an interesting topic,’ but poor execution. Penrod never provides evidence that his supposedly archetypical high school is representative of American culture as a whole. While there are many examples of how intellectualism is frowned upon in the media, the author instead selects a random comment by an unidentified user on a message board as proof that all people ‘hate nerds.’ “ArCaNe recently posted the following quote on an online discussion board: ‘Man how I hate nerds… if I ever had a tommygun with me… I would most probably blow each one of their… heads off” (ArCaNe)” (Penrod 2003: 2). If this poster is so representative, why does ArCaNe hide behind a pseudonym?

The author claims that ArCanNe is representative of many persons posting online, but only makes a vague, sweeping generalized reference to this ‘many.’ Besides, people may say many things online that they do not truly mean. The presence of online conspiracy threads and other harsh comments on message boards is no proof that the ideas are really pervasive in society. While there are quite a few websites written by persons of questionable mental stability about the reality of the attacks on the World Trade Towers, the proliferation of such sites does not mean that these opinions are common or a representative of serious social problem. The fact that people ‘bash nerds’ online does not mean that these attitudes are representative of a large segment of society.

Although the essay is a rhetorical treatise making an argument, at no point does the author truly define what a ‘nerd’ is: is it someone who is smart? Someone who is clumsy? Someone who is a social pariah? Although the first examples he uses are of students on academic bowl teams and other cerebral extracurricular activities, it is perfectly feasible that someone could do debate and get straight As and also play on the football team. Not every single honors student embodies the typical ‘geek.’ It is unclear when Penrod truly means when he says a ‘nerd,’ since usually the word means someone who is not particularly socially accepted, not just smart, but the examples used by Penrod tend to simply revolve around doing well in school, like one quote he cites from yet another online message board. “One online venter describes the image well: ‘A+ this and… got a 1600 on my SAT and got all AP class[es] next year woohoo. That’s all these people care about don’t they have lives damn nerds (Dan6erous)'” (Penrod 2003: 2).

Is doing well on one’s SATs an automatic qualification for nerddom, and proof that someone is intellectual? Penrod seems to suggest this is the case, although scoring a perfect 1600 or 2400 on the SATs might just as easily be the product of parents who can pay for expensive prep school courses, and someone who does well on the SATs can still be quite accomplished in other facets of his or her life without being stereotypically ‘nerdy.’ The fact that someone succeeds on the SAT might make him or her a subject of jealousy, but that is not proof of anti-intellectualism, but rather the fact that many students are likely to covet the types of opportunities that will be open to someone who has such a ‘calling card’ to get him or her into his or her university of choice.

Penrod’s notion of the ‘nerd’ seems to recall old films about high school like The Breakfast Club in which high school was neatly divided into categories of jocks, brains, and beauties. Penrod would counter this argument by suggesting that “the image of intellectualism is disliked as anti-social, and the harms of even a fallacious perception to this effect spread to all of the intelligentsia” (Penrod 2003: 3). However, in high schools where achievement is highly prized — including the achievement of getting into a good college — this is unlikely to be the case. Given the nature of the job market today, it is unlikely that someone with such bright prospects as having great grades and test scores would be viewed with disdain.

Penrod also notes that celebrities who are famous for dropping out of school like Christina Aguilera, Kid Rock, L.L. Cool J., and Sammy Sosa are celebrated. But it is more likely that these figures are famous ‘talents’ that our culture is obsessed with them, not the fact that they have no higher education. Our culture is obsessed with celebrity — both intellectual as well as non-intellectual celebrities. As a counter-example, while Steve Jobs also dropped out of college, he is celebrated with the cache of ‘geek chic.’ People celebrated the late Jobs’ memory precisely because of his geekiness. And geekiness has become cool, given the degree to which knowledge of technology is seen as a key to the nation’s future, to success, and to simply understand the direction in which the world is heading. Where is the coolest place to work right now, after all? Google! And the example of President George Bush’s election as being proof of the disdain of intellectuals likewise does not hold water when considered in light of his successor, President Obama. Obama has had to wrestle with his professorial, intellectual image it is true — but ultimately he triumphed and was reelected, showing a particularly eager willingness to embrace the intellectual, the geeky, and the nerdy in today’s modern culture (Penrod 2003:3).

While there may be serious questions which arise about the value of the American education system, the examples cited — such as financial planning guru Robert T. Kiyosaki mocking school in favor of street smarts — hardly outweighs the still-overwhelming social pressure to seek higher education, to go to college, and to pursue intellectual aspirations as part of the American Dream. While there certainly are anti-intellectual strains that run deep in American culture, a few quotes from message boards, celebrities, and a sense of being unfairly treated in high school by jocks are not serious arguments in favor of saying that hatred for nerds (whoever those nerds may be) is a pervasive problem in American society. And at the end of his essay, Penrod admits that people with doctoral degrees earn considerably more than persons who lack them (Penrod 2003:4).

A lack of extensive evidence supporting his claims and arguments from emotion rather than reason, plus an absence of research makes the essay “Anti-Intellectualism: Why we hate the smart kids” unconvincing reading. While such an essay could have been humorous to read, it seems to try to make a serious point about how academics and learning is viewed in American schools and by the public at large, but fails to present real evidence that hatred for nerds is hurting either nerds or America.


Penrod, Grant. (2003). “Anti-Intellectualism: Why we hate the smart kids”

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