In recent years, it has become increasingly obvious to me that ignorance in America has become a way of life. People in the United States have moved down a path that rejects logical, rational thought. In its wake, we can easily see the rise of a lot of negative things. The long list must include the state of education, the election of George Bush, creating needless and costly wars, and advocating war crimes like torture. But are these valid opinions? I don’t think so. Ask someone why they voted for George Bush or why we attacked Iraq, and it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll receive a thought-out rational response. Rather, you’ll experience people that are thinking with their “stomachs” – driven by unbridled emotions. They’ll reject candidates that seem intelligent and capable, while seriously considering (and electing) those that don’t believe in evolution.
It should be somewhat ironic that, in a time when most people have nearly free access to all of the information in the world, most Americans are glued to the latest celebrity gossip. We don’t really care about the suspension of habeas corpus in the United States, as long as we know what Britney Spears is up to every minute of the day.
Susan Jacoby writes about the American brain drain in a WashingtonPost.com article titled The Dumbing Of America. It has the subtitle “Call Me a Snob, but Really, We’re a Nation of Dunces”. I couldn’t agree more with this premise. From the article:
Americans are in serious intellectual trouble — in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.
This is the last subject that any candidate would dare raise on the long and winding road to the White House. It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an “elitist,” one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office. Instead, our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just “folks,” a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980.
And from the article’s conclusion:
The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.
There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. (“Hardly anyone believes himself to be against thought and culture,” Hofstadter noted.) It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality. If this indeed turns out to be a “change election,” the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects ought to be the first item on the change agenda.
Being “dumb” is one thing. If we define that term as a lack of knowledge or reduced intellectual capacity, it’s a problem that we can address. But what happens when people are proud of being dumb? You see this all the time in sitcoms and other popular media. Most womens’ magazines have articles that barely span an entire page. The space is covered with ads and arbitrary pictures of models doing random things. What little editorial content there is often focuses on extremely shallow coverage of some otherwise important topics. Yet these magazines far outsell, for example, Popular Science or National Geographic.
Hopefully, the damage caused by the dumbing down of America is self-evident. We’re easily one of the most violent nations in the world. A President that lead us to a war based on manufactured evidence has never responded to how and why we made that mistake. He’s even on the warpath to attacking another nation. Yet, he remains in office. Keep in mind that we impeached President Clinton for lying about his private life. Now, it seems OK to hire private military firms to police the United States and to elect Presidents that can barely compose a clear sentence, even when reading from a script.
Personally, this is a huge problem for me. At the risk of sounding elitist, I feel extremely alienated by many friends and acquaintances. While it’s fun to get a beer and talk about mindless topics every once in a while, I have recently run into many situations where people are openly racist, sexist, and just plain close-minded. I don’t see this view as opinion – I see it as fact. I’d love to be proven wrong, but ignorance certainly drives many people, and they’re either unaware of it or are not inclined to see any value in improvement. I’m not sure what will reverse the trend (assuming it’s possible), but a solution doesn’t seem to be anywhere on the horizon.
If you get a chance, I recommend reading through the comments from the article (the count is currently at 772). Clearly, this is a topic that has solicited a lot of response (and, hopefully, thought). I just hope it’s enough to cure a few people from chronic “dumbness.”