Why Anti-Intellectualism Is Dumb


In 1642, the Puritan John Cotton said, "the more learned and witty you bee, the more fit to act for Satan will you bee." Today, more than three and a half centuries later, sound science is questioned and the study of the humanities is ridiculed.

The golden eras of the great empires of Greece, Rome, China and India, were marked, in part, by artistic and musical expression, literary and poetic output and philosophical and scientific advancement. These ventures were funded by governments and the wealthy and were celebrated globally.

Today, nearly a quarter of adults in the U.S. believe that climate change is not happening. Twenty-eight percent haven't read a book in the last year. And a third don't believe in evolution. Disbelief may be relatively benign, but many, particularly in the GOP, actively deride and mock scientific theories and the study of humanities -- an unsettling era of anti-intellectualism that has serious consequences in the struggle to keep our position as a country that innovates, creates, and discovers.

Origins of Anti-Intellectualism

In 1963, Richard Hofstadter wrote about anti-intellectualism in the U.S. In 2008, Susan Jacoby updated Hofstadter's work, arguing that the GOP has made the word 'intellectual' taboo, much like "liberal" -- odd for a country whose last 100 years is a history of awe-inspiring technological, scientific and artistic innovation.

This decline in support for education and for intellectual pursuits -- both rhetorical and otherwise -- isn't so hard to believe in a country where a serious presidential contender -- Rick Santorum -- called President Obama a "snob" for wanting "everybody in America to go to college."

There are two closely related but separate areas of ridiculed intellectual pursuit: the sciences and the humanities. Let's take them in turn.

The Scorn of the Humanities

To visualize the contempt that the study of humanities brings, one needs to look no further than Congress. Congress supports higher education the same way Exxon Mobil supports your gas tank -- by making piles of money from it. Student debt is crushing graduates and hurting the U.S. economy, and the government is making billions in the process. Public schools are constantly in fear of losing funding, especially in the (so-called) frivolous fields of the arts, humanities, and music.

Surely the humanities are important, and yet, we're studying them less and less. Surely Shakespeare and Rousseau and Austen are important even if English and philosophy majors don't have the same lucrative job options of a financier. And yet, we're fleeing the humanities. The idea that one's education needs to have immediate, direct financial benefits has become common belief.

It's no surprise that, at the same time society mocks the humanities, English majors are dropping and business majors are rising. When did we decide that literature and philosophy and art were less important and less valuable than a paycheck with 5 zeros?

Disbelief in Science

While conversations about the humanities usually lament the job opportunities available to English majors, science faces a different criticism. It's not the study, but the results that are criticized. People don't like what science is discovering about climate change, evolution, and the origins of the universe. But is this really a rational response to scientific findings?

Something really cool is going on in Europe. Scientists are testing theories that describe the universe in ways that Einstein could only dream of. CERN's Large Hadron Collider is a joint effort of nations and organizations throughout Europe and the world. If the enormity of the multi-billion dollar project doesn't excite you and convince you that the intellectual community pursue important goals in good faith, perhaps nothing will.

CERN represents what is, or should be, the future of scientific research -- international collaboration, with countries funding the best minds to look further and delve deeper. Unfortunately, U.S. scientists are being left out. As Europe and Asia forge ahead with new programs, physics research facilities across the U.S. are closing because of lack of funding.

Why the Hate?

We've created an image of an intellectual elite who are arrogant, politically motivated, aloof, and anti-religious. Maybe it comes from a colonial time where our ancestors fled Europe's educated class and instilled in us a mistrust for the learned elite. Surely some intellectuals are arrogant or have their head in a place it shouldn't be. But that doesn't make intelligence bad. It doesn't make college bad. It doesn't make rational thinking based on experiments, on the scientific method, on observation, and on facts, bad.

Could it be a fundamental misjudgment about what intellectuals do or who they are? Is there an idea that they're some kind of threat to our way of life or our religion? Is it a sign of a declining United States? A country that's peaked and is on the slow march downward and inward, inevitably becoming a former giant resting on its laurels? If it is, this hurts the economic and societal prospects of the U.S. in the short and long term because we risk losing the ability to innovate.

More likely, it's political. Criticizing climate change science or college can be good politics, particularly for the GOP, whose voters are more likely to disbelieve established scientific progress and pan higher education. As Eric Alterman asked, how is it possible that "97 percent of credentialed climate scientists concur that global warming is both extremely dangerous and caused by human activity, [but] 21 Republican candidates who ran for Senate in 2010 denied that this could be the case?" Maybe it is all political showcase used to drum up electoral support.

Science and Humanities Today

In 2012, Arizona banned books and college courses in state universities that didn't fit the Republican-controlled state's narrative. The sciences and humanities are intimately connected to the broader question of the role that intellect, intellectuals, and intellectualism play in the U.S. We're running from these labels when we should be embracing them at near light speeds, as fast as the Large Hadron Collider smashes protons.

President Bush's political success, in part, came from his position as the candidate with whom more U.S. Americans wanted to have a beer. Thus, the 2004 presidential election became less about policy and more about if candidate A (John Kerry: grew up wealthy in Massachusetts, went to Yale) or candidate B (President Bush: grew up wealthy in Connecticut, went to Yale) was more like you and me -- that is, more average.

To be successful politically, to avoid being called smug, aloof, elitist, or out-of-touch, you have to pretend you're not educated, smart, or qualified to run the country. That's a misguided metric for choosing our Commander in Chief.

Anti-Intellectualism's Ramifications

If we can ignore or disregard overwhelming scientific evidence, what is to stop us from denying the overwhelming evidence that universal health care saves lives and saves money? Or denying that economic inequality is keeping tens of millions of people in poverty and government programs can alleviate some of the pain? Or denying that the prison system is racist and counter-productive? Nothing. And so we deny.

Anti-intellectualism is a trademark of totalitarian regimes -- like the military junta in 1960s Argentina or the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, where people could be killed for wearing glasses, a sign, apparently, of intellect. Clearly that's not our fate in the United States today. But we're a democracy. And a misinformed and anti-intellectual citizenry is a politically docile and vulnerable citizenry. And that's dangerous to the freedoms we all want to preserve and protect.

To me, it's surprising that the GOP is so averse and critical of college, intelligence, and mainstream science. Shouldn't the party that fancies itself the defender of all things freedom be the party that defends the importance of education and the freedom of speech and expression that make the U.S. university and scholastic system so renowned and formidable, especially when doing so could help reinvigorate the economy?

We all don't have to cure cancer, write the next great U.S. American novel, or win a Nobel Prize. We can't. But a society that disparages academia, scholarship, and the use of reason to make the world a better place is doomed.

Agree or disagree? Let me know: tkw232@gmail.com