French intellectuals are often vain; German intellectuals are notoriously obscure; British intellectuals are merely embarrassed. But are they embarrassed to be British, or embarrassed to call themselves intellectuals? Unlike other Europeans or, for that matter, Americans, the British have traditionally tended to be self-deprecating about intelligence. The habit of nicknames reflects a society in which “highbrows” know their place, and that place is to be eccentric, or marginal to public life. Academics are faintly comical “dons,” scientists are “boffins”; they live in “ivory towers” or are “cloistered,” and all are “too clever by half.” Unless, of course, they are foreigners, who are allowed, indeed expected, to be intellectuals. For the concept of “the intellectual” still sounds vaguely foreign, even suspect, to British ears. It was a suspicion that W. H. Auden ridiculed in a famous...

 

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