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Essay:On anti-intellectualism in the United States of America

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Anti-intellectualism refers to the resentment or mistrust of intellectuals, intellectual pursuits, and the sciences. Its prevalence in the United States of America is perhaps one of the nation's most major hindrances to solving the problems it faces collectively. Anti-intellectualism is a prejudice that produces an unreasoned fear of objective study and scientific expertise, often taking the guise of anti-elitism in the face of outrageous dystopian caricatures of a world run by an aristocracy of callous monoliths in laboratory coats or by an armada of machines and computers. Obviously, anti-intellectual sentiment has its basis mostly in misunderstanding, but a persistent stream of misinformation spewed by the impassioned yet hollow rhetoric of shallow politicians and self-proclaimed orators has only served to maintain ignorance. Over the course of this essay, I hope to explain the history and causes of anti-intellectual sentiment as it has manifested and grown in the United States of America and to demonstrate the detrimental effect it has had and will have on our nation, from there seeking to encourage whoever might view this essay to reverse this trend by embracing objective problem-solving and developing an interest in critical thinking and the sciences.

On the influence of agrarian lifestyle[edit]

In the 19th Century, the population of America was still largely rural. Agrarian lifestyles demanded a capacity for consistent physical labor and a highly specialized knowledge. The study of classical knowledge, of poetry, philosophy, mathematics, history, etc., was seen as largely unnecessary. The old adage "Curiosity killed the cat," perhaps best exemplifies some of the quasi-spiritual association of intelligence with a tendency towards wickedness. For example, Rev. Bayard R. Hall is said to have written of frontier Indiana in 1843, "We always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one, and hence attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since unhappily smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and incompetence and goodness" ("Renaissance"). Perhaps the idea was that, as every man is supposedly just as likely as the other of being evil, it was a safer bet to disarm all men intellectually that they might not have an arsenal of wit with which to commit some heinous crime. Also, as America was (and is) still a relatively young nation, a bitter taste was still fresh in the mouths of colonial descendants, of aristocracy and the so-called "high class". The image of the self-made man, the underdog, or a bumpkin who had no need for anything but his own determination, developed into an ideal, perhaps even exemplifying the American dream. After all, we were nothing but a series of little colonies that had rebelled against and won our independence from the great British Empire.

On the influence of Christian revivalism and historical fundamentalism[edit]

It is of worthy note that in the 19th Century, there took place a wave of rural Christian revivalism called the Second Great Awakening, and another wave of revivalism later in the century, quite aptly named the Third Great Awakening. This latter "awakening" had its roots in events actually taking place in the former, as in 1823 William Buckland, Dean of Westminster Abbey, published Reliquae Diluvianae, describing accumulations of bones found in caves, which were interpreted as indications of Noah's Flood, or relics of a pre-deluge world. Geology at the time was an emerging science and already we can see a clash between science and religious fundamentalism, particularly in regards to a literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis. Attempts to pacify simmering conflict are manifest in Hugh Miller's Foot-Prints of the Creator in 1849 and Testimony of the Rocks eight years later. These exemplify some of the earliest attempts in America by the dogmatically superstitious to construe scientific findings as evidentiary support for a biblical history, relying particularly on a misunderstanding of the evidence at hand and an often impressive display of mental contrivance. However, perhaps most influential in the conflict between religious dogmatism and science is the 1859 publication of Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The Third Awakening, recognized as being the most fiercely evangelical of the four that would occur, was characterized by mass-conversions and relentless missionary work, perhaps solidifying the place of religious fundamentalism in historically rural America.

On the impact of World War II, the Holocaust, and Stalinist Russia[edit]

As we move onward through history, we can begin to see a misguided association between science and ruthlessness or dehumanization. The strongest example of this would have to be the National-Socialists' pseudo-scientific justifications of racism and genocide, the butcher-like finesse of Hauptsturmführer-SS Dr. Josef Mengele playing no small part in connecting inhuman atrocity with a cold, calculating indifference to human suffering. Even in the realm of dictatorial pseudo-Communism, it could be said Stalin dehumanized his own select list of "undesirables" by some inexplicable, cold scientific process. Accusations that either regime founded its actions in science (DeWitt, Morris 179, Weston, Weston-Broome, "What happened"), of course, have no basis in fact as the National-Socialists and Stalinist dictatorship both dressed their own prejudices and irrational, unwavering dogmas in pseudo-scientific language as an attempt at legitimacy, a tactic often employed by creationists and fervent anti-intellectuals. (It is also worth noting that, among the Nazi book burnings were included evolutionary texts, Hitler himself advocating creationism and grounding his ideas in a "divine right", 65, 214, 383, 398 & "When Books Burn".) To say otherwise would imply, among other things, that science is inherently anti-Semitic, a notion contradicted not only by Albert Einstein, David S. Eisenberg, and the World Congress of Jewish Scientists, but by anti-Semitic rhetoric itself, including a claim from the infamous forgery, The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion that evolutionary biology and geology were attempts by the World Jewry at subverting the Christian religion and social order (Nilus 45).

On leftwing currents[edit]

In modern times, we can still see that these attitudes persist, notably in the rhetoric of rightwing and fundamentalist politicians, but to some extent in movements, such as PETA, often considered "liberal". The atrocities committed in wartime camps not yet a century old in memory, it is easy to find on the conservative end of our political spectrum an association between "Darwinism" (by which is meant methodological naturalism) and social Darwinism, as might be manifest in Nazi-fascist or dictatorial policies (DeWitt, Morris 179, Weston, Weston-Broome). (That such ruthlessness and authoritarianism be always associated in the collective mind of the American Right with communism is unfortunate and, with some thought, paradoxical.) We do see, however, leftwing currents of anti-intellectualism, most notably in the 1960s, in which anti-war sentiment was also very strong. Illustratively, the Secretary of Defense at this time, Robert McNamara, was considered as having viewed war casualties merely as statistics, his indifference to humanity a token stylization of the lab-coat monolith. Particularly common in the leftwing mindset of the era was the conspiratorial idea of the educational system and scientific experts as functioning to maintain the status quo and ensure conformity. Marxist, music man, and sociologist Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund Adorno noted a trend in the youth as relying not on reasoning and evidence to achieve the societal change they wanted, but a romantic image of uneducated mountain men and moonshiners and preferred symbolic gesture as a means of affecting change (Adorno 165-168). He labeled this tendency "actionism". Another more contemporary liberal current of anti-intellectualism is the idea of un-schooling, that a child will learn everything he needs to by his own play or exploration.

On rightwing currents[edit]

Modern rightwing currents of anti-intellectualism are far more apparent, particularly with the association of American conservatism and Christian fundamentalism. Former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin demonstrated a rather ignorant, if smug tendency for dismissing sciences as eccentric, so often found in neoconservative rhetoric, in her first policy speech urging the federal government to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Here is the quote itself:

Where does a lot of that earmark money end up anyway? [...] You've heard about some of these pet projects they really don't make a whole lot of sense and sometimes these dollars go to projects that have little or nothing to do with the public good. Things like fruit fly research in Paris, France. I kid you not.

Palin did not seem to be aware of the fact that, one year previous, a study at the University of North Carolina, of fruit flies, demonstrated the need for a specific protein called neurexin for nerve cell connections to form and function properly (Li, Jingjun et al. 741-55). To quote: "The discovery, made in Drosophila fruit flies may lead to advances in understanding autism spectrum disorders, as recently, human neurexins have been identified as a genetic risk factor for autism" ("Specific Brain Protein"). In fact, there was another such study done the very same year ("Drosophila Drug Screen" & S, Chang et al. 256-63) and plans to further explore the implications of these discoveries (Leuven). I hesitate to make any conjecture based on this alone, but I can't help but wonder what state Sarah Palin's youngest offspring Trig would be in for the rest of his life had the Governor's version of reality been enacted as policy.

Concerning "academic freedom" and intellectual paranoia[edit]

Compounding a perceived uselessness and eccentricity held over from the 19th Century, neoconservative anti-intellectualism manifests also in an interesting paranoia over "liberal indoctrination" in academia. The founder of a reactionary wiki known as "Conservapedia", self-proclaimed to be an unbiased and reliable source, Andrew Schlafly (Simon), has maintained a website whose so-called sciences are dedicated to biblical literalism, creationism ("Theory of Evolution"), and anti-relativism ("Conservapedian Relativity" & "Theory of Relativity"), for the simple fact that scientific relativity is similar-sounding to moral relativism (a philosophy abhorred by most of his wiki's contributors) ("Conservapedian Relativity"). In fact, quite often is a user banned for making any changes to the open wiki that are perceived as having any connection to liberalism ("User talk:Jpatt"). What is most disturbing about this is that Andrew Schlafly, a man of limited education and scant credentials (in fact, no evidence in the public domain for his training or qualification in the fields of education or childhood/pre-college development), runs a home-schooling business. Considering this is a man who rejects relativity for its phonetic similarity to an entirely different idea and accepts three-word, incomplete sentences ("Student Eleven") or factually incorrect answers ("Student Four") as A-grade AP-level responses to essay prompts ("American Government 101"), I think I can be allowed my concern. Also perpetuating the liberal-schooling conspiracy theory is David Horowitz (FrontPage Mag), exemplifying a persecution complex common amongst the religious right in his founding of what he calls the "academic freedom" movement (Media Transparency). On several occasions, when Horowitz has been asked to substantiate his claims of liberal indoctrination in academia (Marklein), such as a student receiving an F for not condemning Bush as a war criminal (Horowitz "Victory!" & Call) and a professor showing his students Fahrenheit 9/11 as a means of influencing their votes for the 2004 presidential election (Horowitz "Freedom"), he has consistently failed to do so ("Retractions", "Tattered Poster Child"), despite odd, yet victorious claims to such accusations being "confirmed".

On sensationalist media[edit]

The most damning source of anti-intellectualism in our nation, however, comes from a seemingly more legitimate source than the sophomoric demonstrations of a student protester or the borderline-insane ramblings of a dogmatic religious nut: our own media. Our media necessarily grabs the most sensational stories it can find and has, historically, paraded half-baked hypotheses as being dire predictions for humanity's immediate future. A few examples of sensationalist trends are vaccine, SARS, and swine flu panics. Of course, when such craziness is later corrected or shown even to the layman to have not been viable, science takes on the appearance of constantly shifting from one extreme to the other in prediction. People are turned off by the idea of some eccentric eggheads who think one day that the world will freeze and the next that it will flood. Some of them even come to believe that scientific experts are really no more knowledgeable than they, and so set out on their own trek of inadvertently spewing misinformation while convinced that they, through their own philosophical conjecture, know, fully, how the world works. And then there are just some people who really don't care that much about anything past their next party or fix; a nihilistic apathy.

On the effects of anti-intellectualism[edit]

The effects of mass anti-intellectual sentiment are themselves devastating to any civilization. Our most fundamental system of supplying our people with problem-solving abilities and useful skills, our educational system, comes under attack from anti-intellectualism, sometimes by radical leftwing sophistry, but more often by rightwing fundamentalism and paranoia. Already cited as examples were Andrew Schlafly's home-schooling program and wiki, and David Horowitz's so-called "Freedom Center". Both are hypocritical affronts to education on the grounds of political indoctrination and both are founded in their respective creator's personal prejudices and preconceptions. But history has shown us numerous instances in which anti-intellectualism has endangered us, both in education and freedom. The Butler Act of 1925 in Tennessee demanded that the biblical account of man's origin be taught as science, not only superseding evolutionary biology and evidentiary science, but also the creation myths of all other conceivable religions. Likewise, the laws leading to the Scopes Trial and Epperson v Arkansas forced education to tailor to the superstitions of one particular religious sect, at the cost of our children's education. The Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science Act (McLean v. Arkansas), Balanced Treatment for Creation-Science and Evolution-Science in Public School Instruction Act (Edwards v. Aguillard), as well as creation-"science" and intelligent design (Kansas evolution hearings, Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District) all represent dogmatic religious prejudices and superstition being disguised as science to generate an artificial air of legitimacy. Likewise, they show that even these ridiculous ideas do represent danger to actual science, as these are attempts at creating an illusory controversy or balance of evidence between evolutionary biology and creationist magic. Even worse, there are still schools today, such as Providence Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Florida, Pensacola Christian College, and countless others, that cater to creationist dogma in their own science texts and force constant political indoctrination on their students. (I honestly don't know how the sinfulness of Brazilian culture came up in Geography back in seventh grade, but we were only going by the book.)

Concerning appeal over efficacy[edit]

In politics, anti-intellectualism, outside of religious leanings, takes a more subtle form. Our entire system is currently based alone on the appeal of character of our candidates. Our leaders and bureaucrats are often admired for their "convictions" over their expertise or credentials. This often sets the stage for personal opinion as precedence for policy, obviously not the most effective way to deal with the issues facing us considering most people do not know a thing about North American resources or quite exactly what our effect is on our environment or the world economy. Our entire economy, in fact, is based on a monetary holdover from the days of perceived scarcity and the necessity of assigning subjective value to goods for the allowance of bartering, as opposed to, say, objectively valuing goods by units of energy used in their production and distribution. Such an idea would be abhorred, if not for that it upsets the status quo and is unusual, then that, since it is obviously not capitalistic in theory, it must be communist and, therefore, a step towards dictatorship.

Concerning belief as validity[edit]

When subjective impressions or "convictions" become the mode of problem solving over reasoned logic, arbitrary decisions are made and no problem is ever really solved effectively. Appeal becomes credential and leaders, engineers of society, are selected for what can be called their general "attractiveness". This has a tendency of entrusting societal problems to the incompetent and incapable. Further, it creates unnecessary conflict. When reason is superseded by subjective impression, then there really can be no true consensus other than what is coerced through rhetoric, peer pressure, or indoctrination, and when no objective mediator, like reality, can set the criteria for viability, passionately conflicting opinions enter an arena from which they are likely never to return from battle. Even worse, that the most arbitrary opinions are endowed equal validity, it is assumed that the sciences and objective reasoning are themselves as viable as any conviction or deeply-held belief. When this is the case, we see more stagnating and completely unnecessary conflict arise, particularly the largely illusory "battle" between science and religion. This non-conflict is actually seen by some anti-intellectuals as being a tool for deliberately confusing issues in such a way as to force an undeserved sense of legitimacy on their positions, most notably in the "wedge strategy" as proposed by the Discovery Institute. When our society is so focused on non-debate and on bickering, it is doubtful we will ever come to a consensus and move forward on effective solutions to our society's problems.

A plan[edit]

The problem of anti-intellectualism in our society (perhaps now more accurately called anti-rationalism) at first seems overwhelming and may even seem to be so thoroughly sewn into American culture that it is impossible to ever eradicate. Of course, the most viable approach to this seemingly daunting task is a levelheaded, rational one. It is first necessary to realize that rationalism, logic and reason, is a tool like any other for achieving what one seeks to accomplish. Rationalism is not the cool absence of passion; it is desire's ultimate medium. What is faced is not the elimination of subjective impression and altogether irrational emotions, but rather a reasoned, scientific approach to satisfying them. "Scientific" here need not connote a sterile laboratory or cosmic-scale devices of computation, but even the most mundane application of the scientific method, of careful consideration of the facts and, perhaps most of all, the humility in understanding one's own quite human propensity for error and bias. (It is quite possible this essay itself demonstrates bias in many areas; due to its persuasive nature, it necessarily carries a bias in favor of reason and intellectualism.) Accepting that one is fallible and one's conclusions are all potentially falsifiable, all within the realm of question and test, one loses the fear of being shown to be in error. One seeks not the ultimate confirmation of one's ideas, but the constant improvement of them. No word or idea is beyond the realm of questioning, not even rationalism. The only judge of viability in this regard is a naturalistic and objective universe common to men of all creeds, cultures, races, and backgrounds, independently of whether they admit such.

Advancing with this in mind, this fundamental tenet of reason, the daunting feat of encouraging critical thinking be applied to the societal structure of our America no longer seems quite so daunting. It becomes simply a matter of effort.

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