American Anti-Intellectualism

“There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there always has been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” — Isaac Asimov, January 21, 1980

Isaac Asimov penned those words forty years ago. As one of the most prolific writers of our time, he recognized that the ability to discern truth from propaganda is far more important than having access to cutting-edge technology (in an era before commercially-available mobile phones, personal home computers, public internet or even cable television). Yes, our technology has advanced; our status as a learned, educated population has not. To paraphrase the idiom, you can lead a horse to the library, but you can’t make it read the right books.

Assuming we can get the horse to read a book at all, the point of public education is to create a society that can discern reliable facts from hearsay and propaganda. We cannot build anything, provide services or understand the sciences in any real way without producing citizens that can think critically. People must know how to test the hypothesis, weigh conclusions and put into practice what they discover, not just in the sciences, but in every aspect of their daily lives.

A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing

Understanding where self-taught learning is useful enough and where true expertise is needed isn’t always a cut-and-dried process. Sometimes the difference is obvious, such as when I attempt to repair some doohickey on my wife’s car, while at other times it’s completely unobvious and many people fail to recognize when an expert really is the best source for help.

As an example, there was a very popular book in the 1960s and 1970s called “I’m OK, You’re OK,” which described a derivative of psychoanalysis developed in the 1950s called transactional analysis, or “TA”. TA outlined personality as being divided into three facets, child, adult, and parent (similar to the id, ego, and superego of Freudian psychiatry) and that positive changes could be initiated by examining interactions with others in that light.

The work implied children start life with an “I’m not OK, you’re OK” state of relating to the world, and that one doesn’t develop out of that mindset without therapy. Because the text was largely jargon-free and very accessible, many people swore by its methods even though they themselves had no actual education in psychiatry or psychology. Criticism from the psychiatric community included the book’s presenting TA as a sort of pseudo-religion with the psychiatrist as savior.

Taking pop psychology paperbacks at face value is akin to learning how to fix the transmission of your car by watching YouTube videos; while they may be both informative and approachable, they won’t make you a skilled mechanic. As a man whose mechanical ability extends as far as changing the oil and windshield wipers, I know that a repair shop is probably the safest bet for obtaining a smoothly-operating vehicle in all but the simplest repair tasks. I don’t know squat about psychology, really; certainly not enough to address my own issues, and I’m aware enough to know that I won’t gain enough knowledge to tackle something as complex as diagnosing my own issues from a single book.

I Know What I Know If You Know What I Mean

The perception that one is more intellectually capable than is the reality isn’t uncommon, nor unnatural. The mind’s ability to sort out all sorts of issues without prior experience or information is one of the hallmarks of having a big brain and is part of our survival technique. Pattern recognition and problem-solving are innate, and how humans became the dominant species on the planet. The real issues crop up when those abilities are applied to problems stemming from our own increasingly complex and technological societies, and many have used that human fault to specifically take advantage of others.

The Presidential campaign of Donald Trump, televangelist careers of Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker, and modern con-men like Frank Abagnale, Jr., or Bernie Madoff all play on people thinking they know what they don’t, and those people are the most easily duped.

Trump has enjoyed huge swells of support from such intellectual giants as Dennis Rodman, Ted Nugent, Jesse Ventura and a sea of right-wing nationalists by portraying himself as both cowboy and savior, and his ability to fundraise suggests his followers are willing to part with hard-earned cash to back his fascism. Televangelists bilk believers into sending them millions of dollars in cash because they play on the public’s belief that tithing and prayer will solve their problems. These scam artists are well aware that people “know what they know” and depend on their supporter’s wishful thinking to line their pockets.

If Intelligence is a Gun, Knowledge is the Ammunition

If I read a book on genetics, I am now a little more educated on the topic, that much is true. Am I also more intelligent? That depends on what I do with the education I receive. Increasing intelligence takes more work than gleaning the information ever would. If I don’t retain and refresh the information gleaned, I may earn that degree, but I won’t be any more intelligent than I was at the start of my college career. (How often have we heard people say they know stupid people with college educations? That’s a telling statement, from both sides of the perspective.)

I may have a 5-gallon gas can, but unless someone actually bothers to pump gas into it, I won’t have five gallons of gas — and once receiving the fuel, it’s good to remember that gas gets old, and must eventually be replaced. We’re all born with a certain capacity for learning, and that capacity can be increased through education. Attaining an increase of intelligence, on the other hand, depends on the effort made to use the education we’re given.

The anti-intellectualism of America has been increasing for decades. We have “militias,” hate groups, sovereign citizens, terrorists and the religiously radicalized because people haven’t the skills necessary to assess their belief systems with a skeptical eye. The premises behind the doctrines of these groups are usually full of pseudoscience, conspiracy theory, and superstition. These falsehoods are swallowed hook, line, and sinker because their adherents don’t know better, and haven’t been taught to know better. They can’t think critically about what’s presented to them because they haven’t been trained to, so even the most ludicrous falsehoods appear plausible.

Getting Our Just Desserts

I do understand this push against science and reason. Our citizens have not been raised to question, test or research anything properly. Americans have seen their education systems defunded decade after decade by a “ruling” class dedicated to keeping us stupid, pliant and docile. Dependent on religion from an early age, spoon-fed knowledge via the public school system, and in many states, indirectly encouraged to drop out of high school altogether once hitting the age of 16 via the availability of public assistance, the expectation to get married and raise children, the “nobility” of poverty, the “patriotism” of the blue-collar worker, and so forth.

We view the college-educated as “elitist,” and higher education as a noble goal disdained. Those on their way to college believe any further learning will be spoon-fed to them just as all the education they’ve received thus far had been — creating students unprepared for the scholastic pressures of college. I’ve seen this very outcome first-hand, in many first-year students, myself included. I was brought into the light, not gently by the hand, but kicking and screaming. Just like anyone else, I had to learn how to think, how to study, how to learn, and how to apply those skills outside the classroom if I wanted to be anything more than what I was when I first walked through the door.

The shortcomings of our educative systems are not preparing our youth for tomorrow. This entire process leads us down a path that will not result in an enlightened culture or a brighter future, but the one we are witnessing today; increased irrational prejudice, a post-truth era and the intellectual stagnation of our citizenry. We stand in the very shadow of fascism because of it.

I have often stated, “My country is full of stupid people.” With the poorly educated raising the poorly educated, it’s no one’s fault but our own.