Why Spain despises its intellectuals

A common joke in France is that “Europe ends at the Pyrenees” (the mountain chain separating France and Spain). Unlike in Germany or France, where intellectuals can reach near-celebrity status, intellectuals in Spain are often considered suspect (at best) or may be outright despised. As Michel Houellebecq wrote in his novel The Possibility of an Island which is set in Madrid:

“Spaniards in general don’t like culture, it’s a terrain they find deeply hostile. Sometimes you get the feeling, when you talk about culture, that they take it as a kind of personal offense.” – from Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island

This can also be seen in how Spanish people pronounce foreign and in particular English words. Even if they would happen to know how to pronounce the word correctly, they basically need to mispronounce it if they do not want to be ridiculed and considered a snob. Anglicisms are now fairly commonplace in many European languages but Spain is the only country where I have seen people actively strive to mispronounce them. In other words, in Spain you need to dumb down and hide your education in order to be accepted.

While other languages also have their fair share of derogatory terms for smart or educated people, nowhere are they used with as much passion and ease as in Spain (perhaps with the exception of the US). In Spain, terms like cultureta (loosely translated as “educated snob”) or listillo (a diminutive of “smart person” used with contempt) can be used at the mere display of education or talent (similar to egghead, brainiac, nerd, or poindexter in the US). In contrast, to be scalded for your education in the UK, Germany, or France, you really need to show off your education in some exaggerated and self-aggrandizing manner. It is not enough to simply be educated.

Why is this? I can offer some suggestions.

For one, Spain is a country where job recruitment is often based on personal connections rather than merit. As a result, many high profile jobs are filled by individuals that are less qualified than their subordinates. Obviously, they do not like to be reminded of their lack of ability/suitability for the job and consequently need to stifle any display of knowledge or education by scalding it.

A second factor is that Spain had the longest lasting military dictatorship of any European nation in the 20th century: 39 years. As in any military/populist regime, also Franco had declared intellectuals to be the enemy of the people and persecuted, killed, or exiled them. So with two generations of Spaniards having been told that intellectuals are the enemy, we cannot expect this attitude to change over night. In addition, Spain never really broke with Franco (to this date it is forbidden to investigate this period) and people have never really been told (officially) that Franco’s policies were wrong. This is perhaps the biggest mistake and an outright scandal for a supposedly modern democracy, which may explain why the current Catalan nationalists have no qualms about mounting their own little Catalan version of cultural discrimination and outright racism against Spanish speakers.

A third factor is that Spain has been a relatively poor country for a very long time. It remained largely agrarian under Franco and only when Spain joined the EU in the mid 1980s did things start to pick up economically for a broader middle-class. It is difficult for people, who are forced to take on all sorts of menial jobs just to stay afloat, to not distrust people who can make a living by simply using their minds. This is particularly the case in rural areas. In the 1980s, Spain chose the path of cheap mass tourism as its business model. Maybe this was without alternative since you cannot create a high-tech manufacturing industry out of nothing when Franco had been wiping out the educated class for nearly 40 years. But as a result, Spain became what is now often called “the country of waiters and construction workers”. Young people, not seeing the value of education, drop out of school to make some quick money in restaurant and construction jobs (and generally in jobs that require no or only little education). Once the economy cools down, these jobs are the first to go and people eventually end up as so-called ninis (ni estudia ni trabaja which translates as “neither studying nor working”), a term similar to NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) that was coined in the late 1990s in the UK. And even to this day (see the policies of the Aznar and Rajoy presidencies), the R&E and cultural budgets are typically the first to be cut in Spain when the financial situation becomes tight. And thus, the exiling of intellectuals and artists continues even today as they are forced to leave the country if they want to keep working in their respective professions.

A fourth factor, not particular to Spain though, is the internet. Put bluntly, the internet allows stupid people to find other stupid people who then, as a fairly coherent group, loose any awareness of their own intellectual limitations. Before the internet, people were exposed to all sorts of opinions and levels of education in their daily interactions. This made the less educated people more aware of their own limitations and thus more coy and cautious about voicing their opinions. Now, due to the internet’s echo chambers, this coyness has all but disappeared and people with extreme or uneducated opinions feel increasingly justified and encouraged to (loudly) voice these opinions (the climate change debate in the US is a prime example). People who did not read any newspapers in the pre-digital age can now be reached (and manipulated) via Twitter, Facebook or some pseudo-journalistic blog irrespective of the validity or truthfulness of its content. As such, the internet is much better for targeting and catering to people’s individual predilections, something that was much more difficult to achieve with a medium like TV. Populist parties and their supporters use it to their great advantage as we can see in many election results today.

Clearly, none of the above points will change any time soon. Nevertheless, the horrors of the 20th century should provide sufficient motivation to the political classes in Spain and elsewhere not to neglect or underestimate the value of an educated and enlightened society.