Egghead Pride!

Reading between the lines.
April 5 2013 12:00 PM

The Way of the Egghead Is Hard

America’s complicated relationship with its brainiest citizens.

1304_SBR_egghead_ILLO

Illustration by Luke Pearson

The term egghead has mostly been retired to the Hall of Lost Insults, hung up alongside Poindexter and gomer in the “Making Fun of Nerds” section. But being accused of being an “egghead” in the 1950s wasn't the same as being called a “geek” today. The epithet connoted high-minded idealism, self-indulgent impracticality, and a vulnerable breakability in the face of real-world conditions. Wrote novelist Louis Bromfield in a 1952 issue of the libertarian journal Freeman:

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Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

“Egghead: A person of spurious intellectual pretensions. ... Over-emotional and feminine in reactions to any problem. ... Emotionally confused in thought. ... a self-conscious prig, so given to examining all sides of a question that he becomes thoroughly addled while remaining always in the same spot."

Adlai Stevenson, the Illinois governor and 1952 and 1956 Democratic presidential nominee was probably the most famous egghead of his time. A Unitarian (of course!), Stevenson would write and rewrite (and rewrite) his speeches. He bought half-hour blocks of television airtime, thinking that he'd use it to explain complicated issues to the public. In competition with the avuncular Eisenhower, a plain-spoken war hero, Stevenson lost—twice. (Stevenson had a sense of humor about his image. He once replied, when asked about being an intellectual in politics: “Via ovicapitum dura est”—“The way of the egghead is hard.”)

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As Aaron Lecklider's surprising history Inventing the Egghead shows, the figure of the unworldly and fragile genius showed up across postwar popular culture, in comic pop songs, science fiction, television, and the theater. Lecklider shows how the suddenly omnipresent and mockable egghead was a creature of its time, born of postwar anxieties over Communism, gender roles, and race. He argues that the national sport of making fun of eggheads had far-reaching consequences. To stereotype people interested in ideas as elite, “soft,” white, and male was to restrain the definition of intelligence—to “limit those for whom intelligence was culturally available.”

In order to make his argument, Lecklider has to show that before the Cold War, a broad range of Americans admired the qualities later associated with eggheadery. In his influential 1963 work on the topic, historian Richard Hofstadter argued that anti-eggheadism—or, to strip the term of its slang, anti-intellectualism—had been pervasive in American life all along. Lecklider, on the other hand, thinks that instead of being a particularly virulent manifestation of an ongoing strain of American thought, the invention of the hated egghead represented an abrupt departure from previous popular attitudes toward intelligence.

Ranging across bits and pieces of popular culture from the first half of the 20th century, Lecklider presents us with a series of cases meant to prove that before the Cold War, everyday people both respected intellectual activity and claimed it for their own. In this “organic intellectual tradition,” women, working-class people, and minorities redefined “intelligence” as a quality that the marginalized could use to gain power. Moreover, “brainpower” was democratic—transmittable through the ad-hoc and cheap educational vector of popular culture.

Coney Island was a magnificent carnival in the early 20th century, stuffed full of games, roller coasters, and freak shows. Yet in 1909 it also contained the Luna Park Institute of Science, where employees wore nametags identifying themselves as “professors,” and people learned about wireless radio, the engineering of the Panama Canal, and the new technology of the baby incubator. Meanwhile, the Chautauqua lecture circuit, a staple of late 19th and early 20th century middle-class culture, promised brief, entertaining introductions to new ideas, given by experts. The experience of going to a Chautauqua in person was supposed to be fun, empowering, and exciting, all in one package. People traveled miles to attend lectures on their summer vacations.  Workers' education movements in the 1920s brought industrial laborers to college campuses for brief, intense “schools.” At the Bryn Mawr Summer School for Women Workers, held during the 1920s, students took courses in music appreciation, economics, science, and English.

"For greater knowledge on more subjects use your library often!"
"For greater knowledge on more subjects use your library often!"

Courtesy of V. Donaghue/Federal Art Project/Library of Congress

Placed in this context, WPA-produced posters promoting libraries and reading during the Depression make more sense. These striking images now look like quaint examples of a bygone culture that put more stock in the “right” things. (They are oft-circulated in the parts of the Internet that like libraries, history, and books.) Lecklider shows how the posters promoted reading for industrial workers and African-Americans during a time when those groups were increasingly economically threatened. The posters associated the work of the body with the work of the mind.

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