With intellectuals and experts currently under siege from some rather high places, and a coterie of national leaders who appear to disdain contemplative thinking and even reading, it’s easy to think that the disease of anti-intellectualism is beginning to infect the world; but especially the United States. While it’s certainly true that there is a strain of anti-intellectualism and anti-elitism (in this case, elite in a positive sense) prevalent in many parts of the western world, it would be wrong to think that this is something new.
The Trump Administration didn’t invent this phenomenon, but it has regrettably taken full advantage of it, showing a negative attitude toward science, art and humanity in general, and a general tendency to value entertainment, a casual attitude toward truth and facts, and a glorious self-righteousness. Negative attitudes toward intellectualism, however, are a deeply-ingrained, long-held fact of American life that predates the founding of the country.
In the 17th century, the Puritan, John Cotton, wrote, ‘The more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan you will bee.’ Despite the fact that Puritans established America’s first institutions of higher education, among many, especially the rural and working classes, there was a general disdain for secular education. According to the economist, Thomas Sowell, the early colonial people of America were wary of the educated upper classes who had been their persecutors in Europe. There were intellectuals among the early settlers, but very few, as few had the skills to survive in the harsh environment of the American frontier. The early whites who came to America were first mostly indentured servants, and later, peasant and workers fleeing economic, religious, or political deprivation in caste-bound Europe.
By the 19th century, when most of the country was rural or worked at hard labor in the few urban settlements, bookish education was seen by many as unimportant and unprofitable. Nor was there much high regard for so-called experts. Woodrow Wilson, when he was governor of New Jersey in 1912, said, “What I fear is a government of experts.’ The common interpretation of the freedom and equality enshrined in the Constitution (for white males property owners, but not for women, blacks, Native Americans, or certain undesirable non-northern Europeans) was a core belief that everyone was equal, regardless of their lack of knowledge.
The author, Isaac Asimov, summed it up succinctly. “There is a culture of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.”
At the risk of offending some of my religious friends (and, I do have a few), religion has played a role in embedding this disdain for knowledge in the American psyche. In the late 19th century, the evangelical preacher, Dwight Moody, said, “I do not read any book, unless it will help me understand the book. I would rather have zeal without knowledge; and there is a good deal of knowledge without zeal.” His successor, the fiery preacher Billy Sunday, said, “If I had a million dollars, I’d give $999,999 to the church and $1 to education. When the word of God says one thing and scholarship says another, scholarship can go to hell!”
This philosophy is seen in the parsimonious funding of public education in this country. Our public school teachers are among the poorest compensated of professionals, in comparison to other developed nations, and that seems to be rearing its ugly head again with the current administration’s attitude toward public education. It’s also seen in the fact that most of our colleges focus not on educating students, but training them to get jobs.
What this attitude has led to, for anyone willing to think about it, is truly frightening. We like to think of ourselves as a great nation, the most powerful on the planet. True, as far as the ability to project military power and destruction, but what about building things? A World Economic Forum report in 2010 ranked the USD 52 out of 139 nations in the quality of college math and science education. Half of our graduate students in the sciences are foreigners who go home after getting their degrees. A 2012 Gallup poll indicated that 40 percent of Americans under 44 have not read a book at all since leaving school, and 42 percent of Americans thought God created us in our present form 10,000 years ago. This same poll found that just over half of the people surveyed read anything for pleasure. A 2008 University of Texas study showed that 25 percent of public school biology teachers believe that humans and dinosaurs inhabited the earth at the same time.
As if these statistics are not frightening enough, a Gallup poll some years ago found that 74 percent of Republicans in the Senate and 53 percent in the House deny the validity of climate change, despite overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.
With some religious and political figures mired in such a swamp of ignorance, and the lack of a credible counterweight in the education system, it’s no wonder that we’re in the state we’re in. We live in a time when social media and communications technology, products of the intellect of some pretty smart people, have become the engines that have helped accelerate the decline of intellect across the land. People no longer have to think. They can just ‘google’ it, and with the judicious use of the proper search terms, they don’t have to subject their un-inquiring minds to any ‘facts’ with they disagree.
I am not ashamed to identify myself as an intellectual, as someone who is not content to merely ‘do’ things, but also to ‘understand’ how and why things are done. I’ve endured being called a nerd and geek for most of my life, and will wear those labels proudly to my final resting place. But, being a thinking person, I can’t help but despair. Experts are being ignored and pushed to the far margins of the policy making process in favor of ‘politically and ideologically reliable’ incompetents, who act often without thinking through the consequences of their actions. Thankfully, the checks and balances built into the system by the Founding Fathers are still in place to stem some of the more egregious errors. But, like the dripping water that eventually erodes the rock away to create a chasm, if we don’t divert the stream of ignorance that is now more a torrent than a drip, even those foundations are in danger of being washed away.
Instead of the slogan, ‘Make America Great Again,’ we should perhaps try to ‘Keep America Great.’