Anti-intellectualism has been around – sheesh, I don’t know, probably a long time. But Americans have taken to it, well, like a hog to mud.
That venerable American Thomas Jefferson was an intellectual. That means he liked to think, and to ponder the thoughts of other people, both alive and dead. Now I’m going to skip way ahead to Spiro Agnew, Richard Nixon’s Vice President who called reporters a bunch of effete intellectuals. But here’s the irony — in today’s world, about forty years later, his use of the word “effete” would seem too intellectual to many Americans.
American anti-intellectualism has gone downhill. It used to be a disdain for Frenchie men with their noses in the air and English fops with tights on. It used to respect the common man and his raccoon skin cap and corn cob pipe, sitting around discussing the common wisdom of things like dogs and marriage. My dad spouted some of that wisdom: “Lie down with dogs, get up with fleas” — that’s one of my favorites. It’s true, depending on the dog, of course. Mark Twain was a great one for putting down European elitist bullshit and promoting down home smarts.
But Daniel Boone, Mark Twain, and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) even Spiro Agnew would be too intellectual in today’s anti-intellectual parade of proud dumb-asses, who would be pissed off at someone using a word like “effete.”
As a teacher, I see anti-intellectualism at work in students who think reading a book or knowing history is a waste of time that could be better spent collecting “friends” on Myspace. Okay, they’ve been raised on television. They’ve been coddled by advertisers who do not benefit from anyone being intellectual. Advertisers rely on dumb asses who like shiny objects. If people were to think, to study history and culture, my God!!! – they might realize they don’t need a new car every five years or that drinking three Cokes a day just isn’t, you know, healthy. And then where would the economy be?
Worse than students not wanting to think is fellow teachers and educational administrators who are hostile, and arrogantly so, against intellectualism. The very word sounds like something elite and nasty. I have been in meetings — which are a condensed version of the dumb ass parade — in which the term “ivory tower” is used smugly. It’s a sad little cliche to indicate the privilege and idiocy of college professors who study useless stuff and impose their findings on the rest of the world that is just trying to figure out how to record their favorite reality show on tv and pay for a tank of gas. Yes, many of my fellow college teachers are clowns with vocabulary and attitude, and they do give intellectualism a bad name. They say “utilize” when they could say “use.” But is this any reason to celebrate a lack of knowledge? Is this any reason to consider ignorance a good thing?
I tell my students this: Ignorance is not good. Knowing stuff is good. Read. Think. Don’t let the idiot voices of high school, the ones that put all their mental energy into trying to make smart kids feel like losers, continue to keep you from being as human as possible. And those students in my classes who despise the idea that humans are related to apes — well, I say, the best way to assure that you are different from an ape is to read and think. Apes do not identify themselves as intellectuals. We’ll discuss the dumb ass disdain for Darwin another time.
adminMarch 24, 2008 at 2:28 pm
haruuumph … Methinks Spiro said, “… effete intellectual snobs …” and please don’t forget “… nattering nabobs of negativism …” and Richard Hofstadter’s, Anti-Intellectualism in America, truly a classic. Anywho, hear hear.
suzMarch 25, 2008 at 9:58 am
Recently (Feb. 2008) I made the comment below on another blog (BurqueBabble) about the lack of depth in comments on blogs but it might as well be about anti-intellectualism.
The lack of more thoughtful comments on blogs might be part of the failure of public education. Or it might be part of a change in the shape of public life today.
Harvard and Boston College sociologist, Juliet Schor’s research on work and the economy seems more pertinent. She notes that in 2000 American workers worked 200 hours more per year than workers a generation ago. Old-school translation – we’ve managed to add roughly 5 weeks of work while actual wages during that time period have lost ground through inflation & the devaluation of human labor.
Schor asks where that time comes from and offers her own interpretation. With all due respect to Einstein’s notion that time is elastic, we know that time is about as elastic as our front fenders. In reality people take time out of commitments to family, friends, community, education, religion, and their personal physical and mental health. Many of us have become good at finding shortcuts and developing our multi-tasking abilities. I see it in my students’ work. Increasingly they’re not looking to do their best but are satisfied with just getting by and moving on.
I asked students a couple of years ago what they would do if they had an extra hour each day. The most popular choice was to spend more time with family followed by more attention to personal physical and mental health. Education & religion didn’t do as well & unfortunately outside of volunteer work, civic engagement wasn’t mentioned at all.
All that extra work pretty much cuts out any time we might spend going into depth on topics of public concern, even those that will eventually cost us a lot (should I cook dinner for my family or investigate the impact of TIDDS?)
Yesterday Ted Cloak passed along a piece by Susan Jacoby on the anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Just how uninformed are we? What have all the shortcuts cost us?
“In 2006, a Gallup Poll found that only 30 percent of Americans continue to believe in the literal truth of the Bible, with its six days of creation – a 10 percent decline over the last three decades. It is difficult to reconcile that finding with the results of a 2005 poll by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, indicating that only 48 percent of American adults accept evolution (even if guided by God) and only 26 percent are convinced of the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution by means of natural selection. If only 30 percent believe that the Bible is literally true, why do so many more Americans reject the evolutionary theory considered settled science in the rest of the developed world?
The answer is ignorance – and Americans may be no more ignorant about evolution than they are about other aspects of science. According to surveys conducted for the National Science Foundation over the past two decades, more than two-thirds of adults are unable to identify DNA as the key to heredity. Nine out of 10 Americans – nearly 63 years after the United States dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima – do not understand what radiation is or its effects on the body. One in 5 believes that the sun revolves around the Earth.”
Susan Jacoby has been writing about it a lot recently. Here’s a link to a Washington Post article in February.
Ernest GarciaNovember 4, 2008 at 8:43 am
eh, ignorance is bliss, knowledge is fraught with peril but so is ignorance – dammit; may as well get some knowledge.
Eugene LesserJune 27, 2009 at 8:51 am
Kate–I’ve never told you how much I dig your writing. And your mind. All the best from your buddy,
KazDecember 16, 2009 at 9:20 am
I am enjoying a 1-minute break from corporate slavery, so I thought I would at least take a look at your website. Pretty good stuff. Really. I were a college professor, I would blog here quite often. But I am an “instructor”: back to the grindstone. Take care. I will be around, though, for a while.