Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Are Americans Inherently Anti-Intellectual?

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 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:

embrace your inner moron!

There are more sources of information than ever if you want it. And it's not clear that we're really worse off in terms of intellectual health than before. American pop culture has been idiotic for decades, and people have moaned about lack of knowledge on the part of the public for decades as well. Interestingly, I remember reading a comment about 19th century England after the Sherlock Holmes stories were first serialized. The upper classes weren't celebrating that ordinary people were reading -- they were complaining that people who should be working were wasting their time reading novels!

Here's an analogy for you. If we were asking about American physical health, we'd be talking about increased obesity, lack of exercise, poor diet, etc. You could make the same comparisons about average American intellectual life, as the Jacoby article does. On the other hand, if you were asking about American athletics, you'd be talking about the increased numbers of serious athletic programs from grade school to college, the increased number of people who take athletics seriously, the improved training methods and broken records in practically every sport. In other words, nothing but serious improvement.

Again, you could say the same about serious intellectual life in this country. There's more and more to do and learn, better ways to do it, our best universities are world class, and there's never been more possibilities for making a living at intellectual pursuits. The results are obvious in science and technology. I'm not familiar enough with the arts to even guess at whether you can say there's been an improvement, but there's certainly more of it, from serious art to commercial art down to YouTube.

So overall, I'd say at worst, there's a widening split between the part of the country that enjoys intellectual activity, and the average person who doesn't. I really blame the school systems for that, not any increase in anti-intellectualism in the population. It's amazing anyone gets through K-12 public education in the U.S. and still wants to learn anything.

There is another interesting point of view I've heard on all of this. The story is that originally education was seen as "male" and had status. When mandatory education became widespread in the 19th century, and many cheap school teachers were needed, it was mostly women who filled that role. And so education became seen as "female", and its status dropped. For boys, education was some boring, spinster schoolmarm who slapped your wrist with a ruler if you didn't sit still. Within 50 years, the entertainment industry had converted the college professor from a "wise man" image to an overeducated dunce with no common sense -- a bit of a clown. The overall culture followed that same line, with women reading and men avoiding books.

That trend continues, with women outnumbering men in college. The change is that more women than ever go into fields requiring formal education, and fewer men are doing that. There's this "war against boys" argument about schools, and some moaning about the lack of careers for men involving work with your hands.

I don't know how seriously to take all of this, but it's certainly possible that the "dumbing down" of the culture she notes is partly a war of the sexes phenomenon. Certainly a lot of the stuff she scolds about, from video games to stupid movies, are "boy" things. Of course, it could be she's reacting to that in-your-face "boy" culture, rather than a more classically "girl" culture, not any actual decline."

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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