Anti-Intellectualism in America

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.”

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15 Comments

  1. Sporkman said,

    March 3, 2008 at 12:29 pm

    This is nothing new – anti-intellectualism has been a key component of American culture since the nation’s inception.

  2. Nicholas Galvin said,

    July 29, 2008 at 12:35 pm

    It’s true that anti-intellectualism is a key component of American culture, but not since our nation’s inception. Scratch below the surface of what we’re told in primary school about our forefathers and you’ll see that they were academic intellectuals by and large, who saw the future of America as an academic and cultural haven. To quote John Adams, “I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy. My sons ought to study mathematics and philosophy, geography, natural history, naval architecture, navigation, commerce, and agriculture, in order to give their children a right to study painting, poetry, music, architecture, statuary, tapestry, and porcelain.”

    It’s depressing beyond words to see the current state of our country, where intellectuals are vilified and rational discourse regarding our prospective leaders is impossible because people are more concerned about why you aren’t wearing your flag pin or who you sat next to in church ten years ago. I don’t understand why this happened;how did ignorance become a heroic trait to the American public?

  3. Meg said,

    December 22, 2008 at 3:38 pm

    *Excellent* article- you could not possibly be more correct.

  4. Jae said,

    March 17, 2009 at 9:37 am

    Thanks, I feel the exact same way – so much so, that I’ve been living outside the US for the past eight years. I plan to move back this coming Summer to pursue graduate study (I would prefer to study in England, but it’s a bit too costly at the moment). The biggest thing that worries me is the ‘counter-culture shock’ and frustration I’ll likely face when I move back due to anti-intellectualism.

  5. muse said,

    June 15, 2009 at 7:57 pm

    You are correct with this article. For the longest time, I thought I was the ‘odd one’ out, so it’s refreshing to see other Americans that think the same. What’s also worth mentioning is how some of us are so easily brainwashed and lack critical thinking skills. It amazes me how many people I come across that cry the U.S. is becoming a ‘Socialist’ or ‘Communist’ country, when truthfully they don’t really understand the words–they’re just repeating what they’re ‘told to think.’ Whenever I ask them to explain how it’s becoming a communist nation, I can never get a clear cut answer. This is evident from some of the responses I see on some of the boards–it seems that people with ‘irrational’ thoughts get high marks, while those with ‘rational’ remarks receive negative marks. Is there any hope or are we doomed?

  6. bob said,

    July 9, 2009 at 5:49 pm

    Democrats have equally stupid people as republican. Ask a black how democrats are more for blacks and they can’t give an answer.

    How about this for republicans:

    Martin Luther King was a republican, Nixon started afirmative action, Abraham lincoln (republican) fought for their freedom. Now name something the democrats started for them. They can’t name one.

    Why don’t we move to the Iraq war. SEVENTEEN sanctions were put in place by Clinton in RESPONSE to Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction” which Clinton Acknowledged. Yet everyone seems to have forgotten that. Everyone forget about 300k people were killed by saddam in a genocide that matched wwII. Everyone forgets that in Bush’s first speech when we went to Iraq he never lied, he said we would not leave until they were a free country.

    As for you muse:

    How about the rich pay more taxes in order to make up for the poor as a method of wealth distribution for a move to communism? How about the rich pay your medical? How about universal healthcare? How in the world is that not communist? In Canada there is usually a 1 month waiting list for a check up. How about the government determining they can punish you based on what you are thinking (regulating your thoughts is socialist)? If you punch a guy you punched a guy. What you were thinking when you did it shouldn’t harshen the crime. A crime is a crime, not a thought. Yes, I’m talking hate crime punishment.

    You’ve been mislead by democrats…Wake up.

    And as for things regarding Bush…2 years after the democrats took the congress (who make all the spending decisions) the economy collapsed, the democrats lied about ending the war, are taking credit for it’s success without appointing any new generals, and are commending the general that Bush appointed.

    Let me get this straight…Bush did everything right, they aren’t changing anything, they are spending out the kazoo, they bought GM and own them, they are trying to own health care, they are trying to own the auto industry, they control bank loans…

    A free nation has the people own it. So how are we not communist muse? Please, enlighten me, because I’m clearly a stupid republican.

  7. Kristin said,

    July 16, 2009 at 10:32 am

    Wow,

    I was just reading this great blog post and feeling re-assured that there were others out there thinking about this problem and then this previous comment just reminded me of how bad the problem is! Sigh…. Thank you, as well, Nicholas Galvin for the quote from one of our educated elite founding fathers. Good god! what they would think of our society being dumbed down like this. Back to my studies…

  8. bob said,

    July 29, 2009 at 3:44 pm

    Kristin,

    Point out what was incorrect about the last comment before you make a comment on it’s stupidity. Making a vague comment with no studied facts is in fact…The form of stupidity ruining America.

    17 sanctions which I’m sure you’re unaware of…Point out which doesn’t exist. They were targeted to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction by Clinton.

    2 years after the democrat take over the collapse happened after we had previously had some of the largest increases in bank profitability in Bush’s term just about ever. The collapse was on loans which were given to low income earners. Disprove the fact that in both 2003 and 2005 Bush attempted to stop these loans. Disprove the fact that Clinton fined Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac (The two largest contributors holding over 2 trillion in loans) into giving out the very same loans which failed. Prove that this economic mess was any other person’s fault than Clinton, and the Democrats in a party line vote (all of them blocked voting on bills to fix this crises. Over a 2/3rd’s majority is needed to pass a law with no resistence, so the republicans majority does not translate to the bank failure being theirs to inherit).

    Use facts. Do it. I’m perfectly capable of debate. You’re ignorant democrat typical arguments of “That’s a lie” “wow that’s stupid” etc on proven facts is just ignorant. I wouldn’t listen to the media so much if I were you.

    This country is moving towards communism and wealth redistrubtion. Obama has made efforts with another democrat senator to require all people between 18-25 be a part of a new “American security” not army, in which they would do 3 months of training to become a “unified” people. That’s socialism. I’m sorry but lack of facts on your end makes you ignorant.

    And I’m also sorry that you were so ignorant that you believed people saying this is Bush’s war, when nearly every democrat supported it, and Clinton’s sanctions allowed it, and a DEMOCRAT judge was asked to investigate the matter to see if the information was in order, and he found it to be perfect.

    Essentially, as I said before, the democrats are the instigaters in nearly every event that they push onto someone else. They are currently using the same general for the war with Iraq. The timeline for withdrawal is the same as Bush. Obama is about to move more troops into Afghanistan. These are all things people dissapprove of.

    So please, point out my stupidity…I encourage it Kristin.

  9. bob said,

    July 29, 2009 at 4:08 pm

    Well Kristin, Since I doubt very much that you are educated in any way other than the media wants you to be, I would advise looking at this website,

    http://bellalu0.wordpress.com/2008/09/17/bush-and-mccain-proposed-oversight-of-fannie-mae-and-freddie-mac/

    You CANNOT dispute those comments, so don’t try. They are facts.

    Then think about how stupid the U.S. is. Hmm…what happened to cause the current crises? Isn’t everyone saying…It was…Deregulation? Isn’t one party trying to kill the free trade market with this statement? Isn’t one party trying to have the government decide who gets health care and who does not? Isn’t one party trying to have the government control auto, banks, free trade, healthcare, and other issues? I don’t know if you know this, but if you have an unresolved court issue, you cannot get certain aid from the government in WA with current medicare. What happens if you have a $200 speeding ticket, and they won’t pay for your heart transplan until it’s paid off? One day difference will result in the inavailibility in a donor. That means you don’t get the ultimate choice and you die. Sorry.

    How about the fact that currently the states where euthanisia is legal, they have a program trying to “encourage” (in other words intimidate) seniors to do assisted suicide every 5 years after they reach age 60? You honestly believe that the goverment won’t start a campaign stating that the elderly need to accept their death, rather than receive treatment, and then euthanize them rather than allow them treatment? The goverment should not be choosing my treatment. That again, is communist. You are more likely to die of disease by odds FOUR to ONE in Canada. That is the country with universal healthcare. It doesn’t work. Our healthcare is good. The only thing we need is a re-do of our damn prescription issues, which actually comes down to the companies knowing they will get paid whatever they want by the government or a private company.

    Facts facts facts…Got any? Got any independant thought? *knock knock* or have you been hopping the democrat bunny trail with no independant thought? The one thing that is true of republicans (though they can be radical) is that they think for themselves. Democrats vote per their party over 90% of the time. Republicans split roughly 50/50. That shows independant thought, which is more important than IQ or supposed “book smarts” or an education. Every rich man in history was not rich from “education” they were rich by “ingeniuoty” without it…You are just a fool. So is America stupider? Yes and no. They are actually smarter. They are in fact less intuitive and ingenioutive though, like you are.

  10. bob said,

    July 31, 2009 at 1:20 pm

    To those that question some of the monstrous things I said were coming and have happened:

    http://cclevel.vox.com/library/posts/2009/03/

    Showing the required service I referred to

    http://cclevel.vox.com/library/post/dems-behind-predatory-lending-act.html

    More on the loans which caused the collapse, strongly supported by Carter and Clinton, strongly opposed by Mccain and George Bush.

    http://www.opinioneditorials.com/guestcontributors/lbutler_20051115.html

    Regarding the truth on Iraq, including the democrat who was appointed to find out if the information was cherry picked. Meaning a democrat had the last word.

    http://www.examiner.com/x-536-Civil-Liberties-Examiner~y2008m11d6-Obamas-chief-of-staff-choice-favors-compulsory-universal-service

    Regarding Obama’s select man and the service requirements for future youth, a second article.

    You can find these from any other source you want. They are just facts. Obama wishes to take choices away from the people and make those choices the government’s. That’s just wrong. Sorry to say it but Bush left those choices in our hands. That’s why he’s the better of the two.

  11. Richard said,

    September 30, 2009 at 7:32 pm

    As a teacher I see this not caring all the time. My students, who by the way are in one of the top HS in San Francisco could care less about anything but their I pod and phone. None and I mean none of the them which the news, read a newspaper or show any intellectual promise it’s all about the money.

  12. Chelsea said,

    December 9, 2009 at 3:48 pm

    I would like to think that while Anti-intellectualism is no doubt a problem in the United States, there are still intellectuals around. I am a college student, and I love learning. That is what being an intellectual is about. Its not about arguing a point, or trying to sound smarter than anyone else; it is about striving for an education, and striving for knowledge about the world around you. By saying that all students, or all people, or all republicans or democrats are anti-intellectual, you are being stereotypical, which is, in fact, another form of anti-intellectualism. We cannot generalize or stereotype. I am a democrat, but my parents are republicans-republicans who have taught me to ALWAYS strive for knowledge. Lets not sell everyone short here. I would call them intellectuals. We cannot stereotype, and we cannot fully understand where people have come from until we have lived their lives–which obviously we cannot do. If you are a true intellectual, open your mind…otherwise, you are as bad as those you are refuting. 🙂

  13. AtypicalGuy said,

    December 9, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Chelsea: Thanks for your comments. I completely agree with you about the importance of learning and the dangers of labeling or judging people based on an affiliation such as a political party. However, I re-read my original post, and I think I can stand by the comments. My issue is not with specific Presidents and those who elected them. My issue is the belief in conclusions that are not based on evidence, or (perhaps even worse) complete apathy for knowledge, truth, and logic. I’m sure we can find examples of that type of thinking (or lack thereof) in pretty much all areas of American life. The examples I included are, sadly, just a few indicators of the problem. Overall, though, I’m glad to get some positive confirmation that there are intellectuals and people who love to learn still around. 🙂

  14. sean doyle said,

    August 30, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    This is not a democratic republican thing. they are basically two sides of the same coin.,

  15. sean doyle said,

    August 30, 2011 at 12:35 pm

    I also teach and am encouraged that two thirds of my kids know we are involved in the middle east because of oil. Ironically they can see what many american adults are blind to because they have not been propagandized by the corporate media. Why? They don’t watch the news on tv.


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