This isn’t news to me

For some reason, the US national characteristic of anti-intellectualism is being noticed in the press with MacLeans (Canada) America Dumbs Down and the New York Review of Books, Age of Ignorance. I’ve also been doing posts on this since 2010, and am not the only person to have noticed this trend. As I said, this isn’t really news since Richard Hofstadter won the 1964 Pulitzer prize for a book titled Anti-intellectualism in American Life.  Hofstadter attributed this trend toward the democratisation of knowledge.

in 2008, journalist Susan Jacoby was warning that the denseness—“a virulent mixture of anti-rationalism and low expectations”—was more of a permanent state. In her book, The Age of American Unreason, she posited that it trickled down from the top, fuelled by faux-populist politicians striving to make themselves sound approachable rather than smart.  Perhaps we can add media consolidation to the contributing factors with fewer good news sources being available in the US and even public broadcasting being throttled by crypto-commercials called “underwriting”.

Hofstadter’s book was the landmark work on the topic, even though there have been a few more significant books and articles on anti-intellectualism preceded it (most notably Merle Curti’s The Growth of American Thought in 1943), and even though it has been followed, in recent years, by well known books from the Left and Right, including Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline, and so on. The list lengthens if one adds in broader books about the “dumbing down” of American society.

Of course, some of the US founders were intellectuals (Jefferson and Franklin) who founded Universities or who praised education (Madison), yet the trend toward anti-intellectualism has taken grasp in the US.  Hoffstadter pointed out that there is a conflict between access to education and excellence in education (although, I am of the opinion that one does not need to be formally educated to contributes to this trend, which is reiterated in the MacLeans article where a US Second Grader wrote to the South Carolina legislature that she believed the States should have a fossil, but was rebuffed by fundamentalist spewing mumbo-jumbo about evolution.\

Charles Simic point out in the NYRB piece that:

It took years of indifference and stupidity to make us as ignorant as we are today. Anyone who has taught college over the last forty years, as I have, can tell you how much less students coming out of high school know every year. At first it was shocking, but it no longer surprises any college instructor that the nice and eager young people enrolled in your classes have no ability to grasp most of the material being taught. Teaching American literature, as I have been doing, has become harder and harder in recent years, since the students read little literature before coming to college and often lack the most basic historical information about the period in which the novel or the poem was written, including what important ideas and issues occupied thinking people at the time.

Even better is where Simic points out:

In the past, if someone knew nothing and talked nonsense, no one paid any attention to him. No more. Now such people are courted and flattered by conservative politicians and ideologues as “Real Americans” defending their country against big government and educated liberal elites. The press interviews them and reports their opinions seriously without pointing out the imbecility of what they believe. The hucksters, who manipulate them for the powerful financial interests, know that they can be made to believe anything, because, to the ignorant and the bigoted, lies always sound better than truth

It seems that the big push for ignorance comes from the right since an educated, well-informed population, which is required by a functioning democracy, would be difficult to lie to, and could not be led by the nose by the various vested interests running amok in this country.  It is much easier to spread disinformation to a population which is incapable of critical thinking skills than one which only hears the things which they agree.  That was one of the reason for the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press: to have a healthy and informed debate on public policy.  But one cannot have such a debate if the field is filled with rubbish spread by those who have their own interests at heart.

To some extent, Hofstadter is correct when he mentions the democratisation of knowledge, where someone who has no real grasp of the topic gives an opinion and weight is given to that opinion which is out of line with its value.  The opinion of someone who has no knowledge of a topic does not have the same weight as someone who has studied the topic and developed an expertise of the matter.

Simic points out the common misconceptions which are being pushed and offers this conclusion for why anti-intellectualism has become epidemic:

Christians are persecuted in this country.
The government is coming to get your guns.
Obama is a Muslim.
Global Warming is a hoax.
The president is forcing open homosexuality on the military.
Schools push a left-wing agenda.
Social Security is an entitlement, no different from welfare.
Obama hates white people.
The life on earth is 10,000 years old and so is the universe.
The safety net contributes to poverty.
The government is taking money from you and giving it to sex-crazed college women to pay for their birth control.

One could easily list many more such commonplace delusions believed by Americans. They are kept in circulation by hundreds of right-wing political and religious media outlets whose function is to fabricate an alternate reality for their viewers and their listeners. “Stupidity is sometimes the greatest of historical forces,” Sidney Hook said once. No doubt. What we have in this country is the rebellion of dull minds against the intellect. That’s why they love politicians who rail against teachers indoctrinating children against their parents’ values and resent the ones who show ability to think seriously and independently. Despite their bravado, these fools can always be counted on to vote against their self-interest. And that, as far as I’m concerned, is why millions are being spent to keep my fellow citizens ignorant.

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