Archive for Sunday, January 13, 2002

Kansas is no intellectual wasteland

January 13, 2002


An irate professor called not long ago, fuming about some cheap shots I'd made to the effect that many members of academia are hostile towards America.

"What are you an anti-intellectual?" he asked. I took umbrage at that. It sounded suspiciously like a suggestion that I wasn't very smart. I'd rather be called ugly than dumb.

But it was something else the professor said that really hurt. "I've been running into this ever since I moved to Kansas," he said. That cut deep. The ideas that Kansans are low brows and that Kansas is an intellectual wasteland are outrageous generalizations. But ones that I'm afraid are widely held.

Dorothy's famous exclamation upon entering the Land of Oz "We're not in Kansas any more" is the signature gasp of the wide-eyed rube. It characterizes Kansas as a dull place inhabited by simpletons. Once removed from their empty spaces and the familiar world of bib overalls, cow flops and chicken fried steaks, Kansans are bewildered, lost.

Let's face it. The intellectual elite regards us as clodpates. Is this true? Is this fair?

Unfortunately, the recent campaign to teach Kansas school children that the world was created in seven days and that human beings aren't descended from apes confirmed Kansas' international reputation for hidebound ignorance. Once again, Kansans looked like the type who believe in a flat earth and fear that cameras can capture their souls.

He who would refute these prejudices has his work cut out for him. But self-esteem is at stake. Let's begin with a reminder that everything is relative. If you grew up in Missouri, as I did, you'd see Kansans as a race of Einsteins.

I remember Missourians as barbaric hill people dresssed in wooden barrels held up by suspenders who often went blind from drinking alcohol produced in their backyard stills. Nosebleeds were a frequent cause of death on account of interbreeding. You could tell a Missourian by his corncob pipe, toothless grin and his use of split infinitives and double negatives.

The first thing I did when I came of age was to move to Kansas. I thought I was improving my stature. It would be intolerable to find that I was wrong. So I'm constantly on the lookout for signs of intelligent life in Kansas and I'm happy to report I find it more often than not.

Example One: We were recently seated around the dinner table of a Kansas farmer on the opening weekend of pheasant season. When our host prefaced a comment with "I never change..." he paused just long enough for one of the company to interject, "Your underwear."

It's true that the author of the gibe was from Kentucky, not Kansas. But it was uttered in Kansas. That counts for something, doesn't it? That ought to refute the notion that nimble minds are scarce as hen's teeth in the state of Kansas.

Example Two: The day before, at the hunter's lunch in Greenleaf the quintessential small town in Kansas I apologized to the server for returning for a fourth bowl of soup.

"I promise this is my last trip," I said. "I can't control myself."

"Wasn't it Oscar Wilde who said, 'I can resist anything but temptation'?" he said.

What are the chances you'd hear a quip such as that in Peculiar, Knob Noster, Solo or Glidewell, Missouri?

I read somewhere that Oscar Wilde, on his famous visit to Kansas, was making irreverent remarks about Samson when some droll Kansan skewered him with an analogy between the lecturer and the jaw bone of an ass. To get the best of Oscar Wilde, the paragon of wit, was no mean accomplishment. It happened in Kansas and a Kansan did it.

"A good many people seem to feel an inner compulsion to laugh whenever Kansas is brought into the conversation," wrote Charles C. Howes in "This Place Called Kansas." Kansas politicians have encouraged this compulsion by introducing oddball bills, such as one to imprison police officers who destroy children's faith in Santa Claus, one prohibiting women from appearing in public in skirts extending less than four inches below the kneecap, and another prohibiting bands on cigars.

But Howes also discovers examples of intentional humor on the part of Kansans.

"Some states have high winds, but not Kansas," went an editorial in the Lakin Eagle. "We have zephyrs. But a two-gallon funnel flaring end windward and gimlet end downward will collect enough of a Kansas zephyr in seven hours to drill a hole in solid rock 108 feet deep. We never dig wells in Kansas. Condensed wind does it for us."

It's not a knee-slapper. But you can't deny it represents a certain droll humor a sure sign of intelligence. Perhaps it's time people stop laughing at Kansans and start laughing with them.

True, a Kansan would never say, "I think therefore I am." Leave intellectual sophistry to the French. A Kansan would be more likely to kick a stone and conclude he existed from the pain in his foot. But that doesn't mean Kansans don't think, does it?

George Gurley, who lives in rural Baldwin, writes a regular column for the Journal-World.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.