Are Americans Inherently Anti-Intellectual? (February 20, 2008)
Is the U.S. a deeply anti-intellectual, anti-learning culture, and thus a deeply ignorant one? Every few years comes a book which argues persuasively, "yes." This year's entry is The Age of American Unreason . Longtime correspondent U. Doran alerted me to the book via this story link: Susan Jacoby: Bemoaning an America that values stupidity.
A generation ago the book du jour chastising the dumbing down of America was The Closing of the American Mind which judging by sales on amazon.com remains very much in the public consciousness.
I asked frequent contributor Michael Goodfellow for his take on the issue, and he responded with a number of fresh points of view:
This has been commented on a lot recently on the Net. I agree with some of the sentiment expressed here:Thank you, Michael, for the thought-provoking commentary.
I would add a couple of (free association) points:
I wonder if some of what is labeled "anti-intellectualism" is in a broader sense an anti-elitist world view which can be traced back to the American Revolution and a distrust of monarchy, nobility, centralized state churches and other political elites-- and foreign powers.
It is noteworthy that even our most patrician presidents, those born into the equivalent of landed gentry or nobility such as the two Roosevelts, had the ability to evince "the common touch" via "fireside chats" (FDR) or trust-busting (Teddy R.) and war-fighting (no sitting back safely behind the lines for Teddy--that's the spirit!)
So in this sense a distrust of any elite, political, spiritual or intellectual, is perhaps a healthy cultural trait.
I also wonder if the culture isn't caught up in this common mind-trap: expectations which are rising even faster than improvements. Thus two generations ago in the 60s, many slow-learning kids were simply dismissed as "dumb" and nobody thought it was cruel or wrong to do so. Many other kids barely made it out of high school while others simply dropped out. This was generally accepted as the norm.
At the other end of the spectrum, the U.S.'s failure in the 50s to keep abreast of Soviet space advances triggered a stupendous handwringing which launched nationwide improvements in science, math and even physical education/fitness programs.
Has anyone looked at their 5th grader's homework? It is challenging, especially in math. One can (and perhaps should) quibble with the textbooks, but in general the material being presented to pre-high schoolers is of high quality from what I have seen here in California. (School district quality varies everywhere, of course.)
That said, it is a worthwhile exercise to ask if our educational system is truly on track to turn out a populace prepared to be gainfully employed in a global economy in which many will be competing against workers in other countries, i.e. globalization.
What is rarely mentioned in the screeds is the U.S.'s ability--despite all the real negatives outlined in these books--to turn out a number of citizens who can think independently of group-think and who continue to learn throughout their lifetimes.
I do find it disturbing that the electronic clatter of TV, iPods, texting, video games et. al. is inherently more engaging than a book even as it scatters the mind of the multi-tasking user and lowers the ability to concentrate/focus. The multi-deviced teenager often has a very low threshold for "boredom" which translates into an inability to focus on anything long enough to learn it well.
Not all kids are drawn to this electronic overlay of competing inputs; some prefer quiet reading, playing music, building things, engaging in real sports and activities rather than video-enactments, etc. It might be best to reward these kids and encourage them, and accept that the rest will have to discover later in life that programming their iPod is not a marketable skill. They will adapt (go to community college or university, learn welding, etc.) when they tire of poverty and teenagehood.
In the meantime, many parents, teachers and school districts are doing their best to fight the anti-intellectual trends and to instill lifelong habits of critical thinking and basics such as reading and math in kids who would otherwise prefer to play around with their electronic toys all day.
And let's not forget that knowledge is an essentially "adult" function. In America's youth-obsessed culture of permanent rebellion against adult expectations and mores, that means the "cool thing" to do is do whatever adults criticize, i.e. watch TV all afternoon while listening to your iPod and texting friends (while not experimenting with unsafe sex and drugs, of course).
If only ageing Baby Boomers were to adopt the electronic lifestyle and lecture kids of today to stop wasting their precious entertainment time on studying and learning--well, learning might well instantly become cool. There is little more repellent to a teenager than a stoned parent bragging about how many tunes they have on their iPod and how they're texting all day long while they hog the Playstation. That might be enough to spark an entire generation of Unrepentant Intellectuals.
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