Europeans Ask: “Why Don’t Americans Like Intellectuals?”

American expats are continually called upon to explain to British and European friends the perplexing trend of anti-intellectualism in America.

The overriding reason why Americans tend not to like intellectuals is that it goes against the grain of the principles our nation was founded on.  Even though we have rich and poor in America, one of the most basic tenants of American society is that great social mobility is available to all who work hard enough to better themselves.

In America, we believe in equality of educational opportunity (even though that doesn’t always happen in practice).  However, we always have many avenues open to further our education and improve our circumstances (jobs and social position both), which are never closed off completely to any individual who applies himself.

In contrast, in Britain, Europe, and many other parts of the world, this is just not so.  Education remains an elitist experience where students are sorted into tracks very early  (by American standards).  Only the “cream of the crop” attend the top educational institutions, which have extremely selective admissions criteria.  If a students do not get in on the first sorting, there is NO chance to get in later.  To Americans, unfortunately, it is not readily apparent why this a problem.

What Americans don’t realize is that in Europe, it’s all about what school someone graduates from.    Those who graduate from top schools have perpetually  higher status in society than those who graduated from a lower tier of schools.   One French graduate from a top engineering school told an American colleague, “Essentially, it means I’m set up for life.” (Asselin and Mastron, Au Contraire!, p. 80)

In France, poor performers at work who graduate from top schools are forever on a higher salary track than those who are stellar performers  who graduated from more ordinary schools.  In France, new hires come in to a company in a particular “band,” and the graduates of the top schools start out in the highest band.  These graduates stay perpetually within the same band which continually rises on a higher level than the other bands.  All bands rise in terms of salary with time; however, it is never possible for someone from a lower band to reach the top levels of the company, no matter how stellar his performance and knowledge.  (Asselin and Mastron, Au Contraire!, p. 83)  Also, there is never any mobility from a lower band to a higher band.

French Salary Bands, Gilles and Mastron, "Au Contraire!", p. 83

In America, it’s less as much about which school you graduated from (except that  a top school improves your chances in finding that first job,and in meeting future useful contacts); it’s more about what you DO and ACCOMPLISH with your degree once you’ve got it.  A few years down the line, employers and people in general are less interested in which school you went to that what you have DONE.

In France, what you have done since you received your degree is of little importance, compared to WHICH SCHOOL YOU WENT TO.

Elitism - The biggest "faux pas" in America

To Americans, these sorts of attitudes smack of elitism, which is the biggest “no-no” in American society.  This is why in America, you sometimes see a boss who arrives early occasionally making the coffee for the staff.  It’s not because this is his job, or that he has nothing better to do.  It’s because, in American society, it’s important for the boss to appear humble, NOT ACTING AS IF HE IS BETTER THAN ANYONE ELSE.

This is the same reason why you see even American presidents acting in humble ways from time-to-time, to demonstrate that they are also “just ordinary folks,”  which earns them the respect of the ordinary voter.  This behavior is very confusing to Europeans, who view such behavior on the part of a president (or company boss) as being completely inappropriate.  What Europeans don’t understand is that anyone who acts in an elitist manner in American society is not respected.

In America, intellectuals are equated with elitists.  Therefore, anyone who is truly an intellectual and who does not want to be despised by others, makes a great effort to be “down-to-earth.”  This phrase, often heard throughout American society, means that an individual is practical, sensible, and without pretense.  It also generally means that the person is a problem-solver, and does not talk in theoretical rhetoric.  Talking in inappropriate depth in a social setting is viewed as showing off, and as elitist behavior.

In America,  one has neither the right to act superior to others, nor to have the law or rules applied differently depending upon who one is, or upon who one knows (which seems to be the de facto way of doing things in much of the rest of the world).  The recent debacle with Dominique Strauss-Kahn is a case-in-point.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn - with a sense of "entitlement"

What most disturbed Americans was that he seemed to think that because of his position and who he was gave him license to act above-the-law.  What Americans read in reports from France indicated to them that this was how he got away with such behavior in France for many years.  It was brushed under the carpet because of his social position.

For anyone interested in reading further on these issues, I highly recommend the book Au Contraire!  Figuring Out the French, by Gilles Asselin and Ruth Mastron.  It is one of the best books available on intercultural issues, and is available  HERE in America, and HERE in Britain.

–Lynne Diligent

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2 Responses to “Europeans Ask: “Why Don’t Americans Like Intellectuals?””

  1. Floyd Russak MD Says:

    Fascinating. Americans and Europeans really do look at the world differently.
    Floyd Russak MD


  2. Kevin Says:

    An interesting view, though I could come up with counter arguments on certain points, On a whole I agree with most of it.

    Still one thing I would like to point out, is that much of what is pointed out to be ‘unique to Europe’ (elitism, education only being for the elite, and the like) is also very common in the USA, because it is common with human beings. For example Ivy League schools, Private Primary and Secondary schools, and so on.

    But more than that, if you look on a more basic level – how kids are towards each other on in that regard – you see much of the same both in Europe and in the USA. One major difference is that in Europe the state separates children on educational potency (the Dutch do this in vMBO, Mavo, Have, Vwo and so on) while in the USA this is done socially via social cliques and peer pressure. You will of course find much of that within Europe as well, but not as well defined in my experience.

    As well, allow me to point out that although it is true that the school you studied at is quite definitive for the rest of your career, it is different in each country within Europe. I have not experienced each country in and of itself, so I will speak of what I know for a fact. In Holland you are almost expected to continue to study on a regular basis. As such, the bachelors or masters that you have is a foundation on which to build further. This makes it easier (and much more frustrating) if you wish to change vocation during your lifetime. I honestly have had little trouble with this is my professional life, but everyone has their own experience with that.

    Still, I do agree that Europe on a whole is somewhat more set in their ways. However, I strongly disagree with bosses making coffee in the USA and not here in Europe. I believe that is more personal things than a social and/or cultural thing. There are humble people and there are stuck up people, you will find plenty of both no matter where you go.


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