‘Cause I’ve got, like … dozens.
I’m about to tell you about the crappy TV I watch.
I was watching this week’s episode of Arrow (I love the CW shows) and one line really jumped out at me. One character, a mid-level guy at a shady government spy agency (that’s apparently good now?) is trying to convince his hacker guy to go into the field in disguise. It’s not totally clear why they want him to do this, except that he speaks French? And to convince the hacker guy, they use as justification that he has 14 PhDs and is fluent in 6 languages. They repeat this fact a couple times, so I know that’s what they meant to say and not some weird ad lib. 14 PhDs. We’ve reached peak absurdity in media depictions of smart people.
I think the first time I watched a show that made reference to a character having a ridiculous number of PhDs was the first season of Bones, in which the characters used the number of PhDs they have to throw their weight around as some kind of indication of seniority. Brenan has 3 PhDs, her intern (it’s not clear the show understands what that position entails) Zack is studying for 3, and Hodgins has 3. It’s not always clear what all these PhDs are in, but then again, this show repeatedly confused a PhD in physical anthropology with an MD (spoiler alert, one of these prepares you to research and treat the human body and the other doesn’t). Bones was also guilty of the many languages claim, also saying that Brenan spoke something like 6 languages, “some of which you haven’t even heard of”, whatever that means.
That people use having a PhD as a shorthand for being smart is pretty telling. A PhD is a job like other jobs – it requires a lot of training, and certainly if you have a good job or went to a good school it’s likely that you’re also very smart, but they’re definitely not synonymous. But somewhere around the early 2000s we became enamored with the category of smart people, particularly smart people with no social skills (they’ve got book smarts, but not people smarts!) and slapping them with an advanced degree is a great way to showcase their smartness. Even better is that most people don’t know anything about having a PhD, so writers didn’t have to adhere to any kind of reality (the same issue that doctors and lawyers have had with TV depictions of their careers for decades).
I’m going to say this started with Aaron Sorkin, and not just because I think he’s a lazy writer. Aaron Sorkin’s work is all about people who are so smart you should just listen to them ok? It doesn’t matter whether they do things the right way, they’re smart! This is the entire premise of the West Wing – it doesn’t matter that this president is ethically transgressive or that his administration is riddled with scandal, he’s got a PhD in Economics and he’s a patriot, so he’s the best man for the job and we should all just leave him to do his job. Sorkin presents the opposition to President Bartlet as willfully ignorant conservatives just objecting to someone smarter and with more class than them – after all, there’s that one respectful conservative judge and that one Republican lawyer girl, and they’re smart and fun and respect this president, so everyone should! And with this baseline, Sorkin was able to make a lot of real claims about politics and law (things that he personally has no education in, so much for that argument) that really influenced the way a lot of liberals thought at the turn of the millennium and beyond. The episode “Isaac and Ishmael“, which attempts to explain terrorism (we didn’t call it radical or Islamic yet) is so full of misinformation about Muslims, the concept of terrorism, and modern politics that just thinking about it again makes me want to scream. But these were commonly held opinions at the time, even though there were plenty of people who knew better. And Sorkin could put words about these topics into his characters’ mouths because he told his audience they were smart. The show even introduced a character in later seasons who was a cool, sexy, smart spy, and we know she was the last one because she’s fluent in a bunch of languages.
Following close on the heels of the West Wing was House, the entire premise of which was initially “it doesn’t matter than this guy is an asshole, he’s really smart and that makes him a great doctor!” The show equated being able to solve puzzles with being good at your job, which is a pretty big leap in a job that requires constant and varied human interaction. It frequently tried to counter our expectations that a good doctor has to be personal by having characters exclaim things like “he only spent 5 minutes with that patient and mostly insulted here – there’s no way he could have diagnosed her correctly!” Once again, it’s pesky people who get in the way of geniuses doing good stuff. And giving those geniuses impressive credentials is what justifies their shitty behavior – we know they’re smart because they have a piece of paper that says so, so let’s just try not to distract them with our stupidity.
I will point out that it was around this time that Apple really started to dominate the commercial tech industry by telling people their devices were smart and they knew what was cool. If only you would buy their products, you would be smart and cool too. Why would you carry around a big clunky discman and listen to just one album at a time? Here, take this tiny box with a wheel on it and listen to songs from dozens of albums out of order, that’s the smart way to listen to music. There, we saved you from the faux pas of being stupid. Apple got so into this image of being smart that it started calling its tech support people geniuses.
It was the era of the cool nerd. Computer programmers weren’t just occasionally useful dweebs, they were becoming the arbiters of taste as more people had to interact with tech directly and actually care about it. Hipsters blossomed in this contradiction – being uncool is so cool! That’s the whole hipster MO. This was the era of “I bet you didn’t know” and “well, ACTUALLY”. Procedural dramas were no longer about macho cops who couldn’t be contained by the system, now they were about brilliant technical nerds who … couldn’t be contained by the system. But wait, aren’t they part of the system? No, you see the system is run by stupid bureaucrats with only the barest education, like a Master’s or only one PhD – that’s why they went the easy route and became administrators. The geniuses put all their energy into getting smarter, and they did it, like, super quickly, so they have more PhDs than they know what to do with! So, they more PhDs they have, the smarter they are, and the more the system can’t keep them down.
In a way, this weird obsession with geniuses crossed paths with the contradictory distrust of authority figures. Where Sorkin was complaining that the masses were too stupid to know genius when they saw it, subsequent media liked to appeal to the masses by telling them that they were just smart enough to recognize when someone smarter was trying to screw them. It was the perfect nexus before these narratives split and it was smart people who run the world for nefarious purposes against average simple people with a strong moral compass. This really comes out in the rise of the anti-hero archetype – he’s so smart that he’s also really selfish and trying to destroy everyone else’s lives, but it doesn’t matter, because we met him first and therefore we agree with his perspective. Walter White is the pinnacle of this story – he’s so smart with his PhD, but life just keeps dragging him down until he uses his PhD to break the rules and get the status he deserves in a shadow society. Don Draper is the other side of this – he’s faking everything he has, showing that it doesn’t really matter what this smart person is saying, because if he has the credentials that show he’s smart then we believe him.
Being smart gives you the license to do whatever you want and say whatever you want because you’re smart – you’re right and everyone will be better off knowing it. Even as we fell out of love with the genius archetype, we were still professing this. But maybe if these bad people were even smarter, if they had even better credentials, they could overcome their social deficiencies and just be awkward and loveable. And so let’s just give them as many PhDs as possible and they’ll be completely unthreatening.
What irks me so much about this smart person trope is the obvious – I’m getting a PhD and it’s hard goddammit! Being smart has nothing to do with it. I couldn’t get more PhDs any faster because they don’t just hand out PhDs once they realize you’re smart. Most of the training is learning how to work in the field or gathering research, and those things just plain take time. My dad likes to tell this story about a mathematician who was so brilliant that when he handed in his first paper in grad school his adviser just gave him the degree right then and there, saying they had nothing left to teach him. But that doesn’t actually happen, because even the top universities aren’t just handing out degrees because someone is smart (honorary degrees are something else entirely, and those are about publicity anyway). I think this casual pop culture image of the smart person, like a lot of other uninformed media, seeps into our lives and our understandings of real issues even when we know they’re wrong. It certainly seeps into my life. Why is it going to take so long for you to get your degree? I don’t know, because that’s how long it takes. But you’re smart, can’t you just do it faster – don’t your advisers know how smart you are? Yeah, they know I’m smart, that’s why they admitted me, but no, I can’t do it any faster. But you know, like, 6 languages. Yes, and that’s not just for fun, that was the basic requirement for the work that I do. Wow, but that’s really hard. Yes, yes it is.
Where this is really starting to irk me is in the misalignment between common conceptions of the lives PhDs lead and the way we are actually treated. Breaking Bad was almost right – as a PhD, you’re more likely to be living modestly than filthy rich, but not because you gave up ownership of your work and became a high school teacher. Because professor is a thankless job that, like other teaching jobs, doesn’t pay very well. I am not being paid commensurate to my level of education, and I won’t be for many years, if ever. Right now, since I’m on a research fellowship, I’m only being paid exactly as much as I need to do research and live while I’m doing it – my fellowship won’t pay for any expenses for my children (even including the childcare I need so that I can go do research rather than take care of them during the day), it won’t pay for outstanding loans, and it won’t pay for health insurance. I’m ok, I’m not living at or below the poverty line, but I’m certainly not living it large the way that TV PhDs seem to be. And part of where TV PhDs seem to get their license to be jerks is the same place anyone in our society gets a license to be a jerk – their wealth. See, they’re actually doing really well, so they must be good people in a way. They can be as nasty as they want because they’re smart, rich, and likely physically attractive, and no one can tell them otherwise. But the reality is that this job is a struggle, and being smart doesn’t make it any easier (although being independently wealthy does). No, I don’t “get” to travel for work – I’m expected and in some cases required to spend an extended amount of time living away from my family because that’s where my work is. No, I don’t “get the summers off” – my job doesn’t extend into the summer and I’m not paid during those months. No, professors aren’t protected by tenure. Professors are protected by their administrations if and only if it seems beneficial to the reputation of the university. So, being a PhD doesn’t correlate with intelligence and it isn’t eternal permission to be mean – it’s just a job with a lot of training and disproportionately low pay.