America: Dumb and Dumber

I found a picture in my Facebook newsfeed this week of a carefully drawn, hand-painted sign displayed somewhere in the United States. The lettering says everything: "LIBETY or TRANNY?"

Today's Americans are woefully undereducated. One in five American students do not graduate from high school. Twenty percent of high school graduates need remedial course work to succeed in college. We blame teachers and schools, but in truth, the cause is more fundamental than our school institutions. Parents, community leaders, public figures, popular culture icons, and peers tell our children--in words, deeds, and attitudes--that education is worthless. There is an aversion to education, a rising tide of anti-intellectualism, contempt for scientific investigation, and condescension towards the study of the humanities. It has to end.

Americans have long celebrated the "common sense" of the "common man." This philosophy blossomed in the 19th century. It was radical for its time and it opened the floodgates of democracy. The American "common man" embodied the belief that through hard work and perseverance, any person could rise to the highest reaches of the nation.

Abraham Lincoln was the personification of this American mythology: "Honest Abe," the Rail-Splitter, the westerner of humble origins. We revel in stories describing his "folksy" way and "down home" common-sense humor. Even though elite politicians denigrated the backwoods-lawyer president, Lincoln's common sense prevailed. The Union was worth saving and slavery was a moral wrong.

We have forgotten, however, that the "common man" mythology rested on learning. Nineteenth-century American men and women of every social group revered education. American citizens were hungry for information. Literacy blossomed. Newspaper and book publishing expanded dramatically. After all, the Lincoln story is built on the quest for knowledge. Young Abe borrowed books and, after a day of hard physical labor, read by the light of a cabin fireplace, hungry for knowledge. In fact, throughout our history American men and women have hungered for intellect. Education--"learning"--was essential to the young westerner, the enslaved, the immigrant, the entrepreneur, the explorer, to every American embracing the social, scientific, philosophic, economic, and political challenges, changes, and advances of the United States. They created a better world--a legacy that we may well destroy with our proud unabashed ignorance.

It's time to embrace American intellect again. It's time to once again embrace learning. Education fuels our ability to innovate, adapt, and succeed. We must raise children to understand that education is the most important endeavor they undertake. It enriches the individual, it improves our families, it meliorates our communities, it fuels our economy, it encourages innovation, and it secures our future. Education creates better, richer, more informed citizens. And better citizens make a better nation.

We--the common women and men of America--must teach by example. Ask difficult questions about our natural world, our society, our beliefs, and our politics. Dig deeply into data to understand and evaluate the evidence. Submit data to be challenged by others. When it is found wanting (all data is, after all, in some measure incomplete and inadequate), openly and honestly discuss and improve the quality of the data. Make decisions based on the power of intellect.

There have always been naysayers. Religion condemned the lightning rod because it stayed the hand of God. Luddites claimed manufacturing technology would ruin the ability to earn a living. Some saw no purpose for energy technologies such as the internal combustion engine. But in defiance of naysayers, American citizens have always led and advanced the world. Embrace education. Devote yourself to intellectual pursuits. Teach our children to do the same. Save the American dream.