The roots of English anti-intellectualism and willful ignorance are long, deep, and twisted. The consequences you can see all over, in terms of literacy levels, reading habits, social order, and even prison numbers, and many other metrics that TeleRead tracks, but the causes are buried in the English past. Just every so often, however, it helps to lay them bare to explain just what the hell is going on in England, and what kind of hope, if any, there is for the country.
The odd thing is that most Protestant countries outside the Anglo-Saxon sphere are renowned for their high standards of education and intellectual life. Even Celtic Scotland is renowned for its emphasis on learning and diligent study as the traditional way for the poor wee laddie from the glens to make good. Not so England. Why? Because just after the English Civil War, the Cavalier Parliament concluded that the emphasis on mass education and individual learning associated with Biblical Protestantism had been responsible for nonconformism, rebellion, and regicide – and proscribed it. And in doing so, it cut out the linkage between Protestantism and general education that was later to be so important in scientific and industrial developments in Scotland, Germany, and elsewhere.
The Clarendon Code articulated this policy in a series of acts. The Corporation Act of 1661 essentially kept non-Church of England Protestants (and Catholics) out of civic office, and from being awarded degrees by Oxford or Cambridge universities. The 1662 Act of Uniformity pushed Protestants who did not use the Book of Common Prayer out of the Church of England. The 1664 Conventicle Act banned unauthorized religious meetings. And above all, the 1665 Five Mile Act stopped nonconformist ministers from teaching in schools. So the link between literacy, Bible study, learning, and advancement that proved so fruitful elsewhere in Europe was cut forever in England.
Effectively, the English gentry had decided that the English people should be kept ignorant to be obedient. No coincidence that one of the greatest apologists for the Civil War regicides, John Milton, was also one of England’s greatest ever intellectuals. English intellectuals have been on the endangered species list ever since, and the country is culturally, intellectually, economically, and even morally poorer for it. Often it has to import them from less unenlightened nations – step forward, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
That tradition of know-nothing prejudice has been nurtured in England ever since. Is it any wonder that the “Ukip’s bigoted populism” thrives in a country that has been so systematically undereducated? Even the Daily Mail – famed in past decades for its flirtations with Nazism – now runs discussion forums on England as “the nasty man of Europe” and “the stupid man of Europe.” Just spare a thought for England’s educators and librarians – see what they have to work against.