Pete Martin: Dumb and glummer

FOR a people who have long fought for education and raised their country up as an example to others, we Scots are often world-beaters when it comes to wilful ignorance, writes Pete Martin

IN PERTH’S South Street, there’s a small plaque where the grammar school once stood. It records that the Admirable Crichton was a pupil there, around the time William Shakespeare was a grammar school boy down in Stratford.

But before Shakespeare was even a struggling actor in London, James Crichton was famous in the academies of Europe. Very much the Renaissance man, he was a scholar, swordsman, charmer. Gifted in the arts and sciences, he could dispute with Europe’s most learned dons in a dozen languages.

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By the age of 22, he was dead: treacherously murdered in Mantua by the jealous son of the duke.

There is another Admirable Crichton, too. The name is a nod to the genius and courage of the original, but the later character was invented by Scots playwright JM Barrie, author of Peter Pan.

Barrie’s Crichton wasn’t a dashing young blade: he was a butler with a brain. Washed up on a desert island with his betters, Crichton the butler proves himself the better man. Barrie’s scenario may be the forerunner of arch-English comic creations like PG Wodehouse’s genius-butler Jeeves or Monty Python’s upper-class twit of the year competition, but it remains a very Scottish idea.

The education acts of the mid-17th century created the foundation for universal schooling in Scotland. The impact on democratic literacy and international competitiveness may well be legendary. However, 100 years later, 75 per cent of Scots could read, and Scotland was home to some of the greatest thinkers in the world. One hundred years after that, we were more literate than the English, and a Scottish ploughman could be a literary celebrity.

Take the Renaissance man, add Enlightenment and the egalitarian ideals of a man’s a man, for a’ that – which Burns picked up from the French Revolution or even Barrie’s own self-mocking quip, “There are few more impressive sights in the world than a Scotsman on the make”.

Pulled together, you can see some powerful strands in Scottish culture. Learning isn’t the great leveller. It’s the great raiser-upper.

Those are alluring ideas for anyone brought up on a council estate. Or, at least they were when I was growing up. You knew the Simple Minds of Scotland’s working class was ironic – because you’d seen vocalist Jim Kerr in NME talking about Albert Camus and Graham Greene. Other than rock’n’roll or football or boxing, books were the way forward.

It gave you the idea that to be Scottish was to be smart, erudite, urbane, cosmopolitan: a citizen of the world and every man’s equal.

So, it’s with some sadness that lately – painfully, reluctantly – I’m starting to think every Scotsman may not be every man’s equal. Where are today’s working-class intellectuals? For years we’ve known the country faces an epidemic of obesity. Now it seems we’re undergoing a tsunami of stupidity.

This inkling began when Craig Whyte was whooped into Ibrox, price of admission £1. He looked suitably startled, as if caught shoplifting in Poundland and made to pay up. The only thing “bouncy, bouncy” about Whyte was his chequebook. You’d expect better from Scotland’s football pundits. The craven coverage is something their reputations will never recover from.

Even when the BBC revealed that Whyte was a charlatan, the Vanguard Bears marched on the corporation’s Pacific Quay headquarters in protest. The parade was largely made up of feral young guys with few “grown-ups” around. It’s hard not to see a childlike willingness to be duped. As George Bush once famously stuttered: “Fool me once… um, shame on … em, you; fool me twice, um, can’t get fooled again.”

But the xenophobic “Yanks go home” stuff which followed Bill Miller’s bid marked the low-point of a ludicrous affair. How can you laud a Scot who’s been lucky that the arm of the law isn’t just a bit longer, while in the next poster/e-mail diatribe accuse an innocent American?

Now, the sudden acceptance that all the world is Green also seems to lack any real understanding of the wider social, ethical, financial and legal ramifications. Even if the deal is “successful”, why should anyone celebrate the public purse (or even Ticketus) being cheated for “pence in the pound”?

But it’s not just football that’s depressing me. Why doesn’t the Scottish Labour Party support minimum pricing on alcohol? On the basis that it will disproportionately affect the less well-off? Have they looked at the demographics on alcohol abuse and liver disease in Scotland? They’re standing up for the rights of the poor to poison themselves with cheap alcohol? Really? Keir Hardie will be spinning in his grave.

Of course, it’s all political posturing. Or is it? A friend of a friend presented to a committee of MSPs at Holyrood and was disappointed in their intellectual calibre, describing them with genuine dismay as “a bunch of thickies”. I know – in public sector parlance you’re not allowed to say that any more. The phrase is “low educational attainment”.

But, while stupidity is the classic symptom of general ignorance, education can’t innoculate you completely. I went to university with some of the stupidest people I’d ever met. I’m fairly sure they didn’t get there by failing their exams. Indeed, I’m told David Cameron has a first from Oxford.

It’s also true that as a country we’re getting smarter – with more success in exam passes and basic literacy. Yet there’s still a hard rump, especially among more deprived communities, of low education attainment with about 15 per cent of children struggling to reach basic levels.

Unpolitically-correct as it may be to say so, stupidity is one of the great hazards for the individual as well as Scottish society. For example, for heart disease, low IQ is more dangerous than obesity. If you want to die younger, it helps to be dumber. More generally, the idiot often hands down dangerous attitudes and actions to following generations, creating a vicious, costly, hard-to-break cycle of social ills and inequalities.

The word “idiot” had a more technical meaning in intelligence quotient (IQ) tests in the early 20th century. The idiot had an IQ of 0-25, lower than an imbecile (26-50) and a moron (51-75). The terms have fallen out of use in psychology for obvious reasons but acquired new shades of meaning in popular use.

Today, an idiot could be someone doing something wilfully stupid. That’s a socially-laden idea. But, perhaps more usually, it’s just someone who doesn’t see things your way.

Strangely, I’d hazard we now consider an “imbecile” to be stupider than an idiot, conjuring up images of the vacant incompetent at work, doggedly doing the wrong thing. The term “moron” seems to have acquired a malevolent overtone which perhaps springs from the original definition of a more mobile or active idiocy.

Indulging in stupidity is one of the classic signs of a society in distress. People stick their head in the sand or “party”. When they feel they’ve got no future, they watch Britain’s Got Talent in greater numbers than they vote. Leaders doggedly stick with failed policies. Even when austerity isn’t working, you just need a bit more austerity for the have-nots.

When baffled, instead of reaching out to your fellow man with an open mind and an open heart, some seek refuge in credos that demand credulity, in religious bigotry, in racism, in violence, in crime.

From the brazen duplicity of Craig Whyte to the wilful blindness of the Murdoch empire or the culture secretary’s dirty dealings with Digger’s team, there beats the rotten heart of stupidity. Its chambers are the inability to grasp the evidence, coupled with the ability to ignore it. Everything is okay as long as we look away. There’s one comforting thought though. These fools and knaves think we’re as stupid as they are. And, of course, they’re wrong.