Universities should not subsidize intellectual
curiosity. This oxymoronic statement was uttered
by none other than then candidate for the governorship
of California Ronald Reagan in the late 1960s.
The astounding thing is not that somebody like
Reagan would actually say something so outrageously
stupid, but that this helped him winning the election
and ushering a new era of official anti-intellectualism
in America. This is continuing to this day, witness
the fact that the current president, George W.
Bush, has run a campaign as the (Yale-educated!)
champion of the everyday man against the pointed-head
intellectualism of rival Al Gore.
Anti-intellectualism has always been a powerful
undercurrent in American culture, and it will
probably play a major role in our society for
a long time to come. Regardless of how depressing
such thoughts might be, the first rule to win
a war is to know thy enemy; which is why Id
like to discuss the major types of anti-intellectualism
and how they threaten the very existence of a
Richard Hofstadter, in a classic book on anti-intellectualism,
first described the phenomenon in its entirety,
and what I succinctly propose here is an elaboration
on his main categories and on the more recent
work of D. Rigney. The first kind of anti-intellectualism
can be termed anti-rationalism. This
is the idea that rational thinking is both cold
(as in lacking sensitivity) and amoral (which
is apparently a bad thing, in some peoples
mind not sufficiently distinct from im-moral).
The perception that scientists and philosophersthe
very paragons of rationalismare cold and
insensitive is as widespread as it is false. If
you know any individual belonging to these professions,
you surely realize that they can get as emotional
as the guy next door. The idea that rationality
and emotions, science and poetry, cannot mix is
simply unfounded. As Richard Dawkins has pointed
out in Unweaving the Rainbow, science simply expands
your ability to experience awe and wonder, it
does not constrain it. As for a-morality, this
view is best summarized in the words of John Cotton
(back in 1642): The more learned and witty
you bee, the more fit to act for Satan you bee.
I honestly never understood why God would not
appreciate humor and culture. Then again, there
is that story of Eve and Adam stealing the fruit
of the tree of knowledge
One can be anti-intellectual also by rejecting
intellectualism because it is elitist. Anti-elitism
is very peculiar to the American psyche, and it
is virtually unknown in the rest of the universe.
Most other people recognize that in matters of
the intellect, as in any other human activity,
there are people who do it better and others who
are not quite as good. That does notand
should notimply anything about the intrinsic
worth (or lack thereof) of such people. Astonishingly,
Americans dont have any problem with elitism
per se: just watch the adoring crowds at a basketball
game and the recursive tendency to set up athletes
as role models for our youth. The
underlying assumption seems to be that everybody
can become an Olympic athlete, but that the way
to science and letters is only reserved to the
lucky few. Ironically, the truth is quite the
opposite: while the chances of making it in professional
sports are almost nil, a country with a large
system of public education and some of the best
schools in the world can give the gift of intellectual
pursuit to millions of people.
Suppose you are a mathematician and you are attending
a cocktail party. Somebody approaches you for
small talk and asks: what do you do? Chances are
youd rather answer that you are a traveling
salesman than that you spend your time contemplating
problems in set theory. This is because you are
afraid of a third form of anti-intellectualism,
unreflective instrumentalism. This is the idea
that if something is not of immediate practical
value its not worth pursuing. Hence, most
of science and all of philosophy should be thrown
out the window. The root of this attack on the
pursuit of knowledge is to be found in capitalism
at its worse. Andrew Carnegie, for example, once
quipped that classical studies are a waste of
precious years trying to extract education
from an ignorant past. But the very idea
of a liberalnot politically, but as opposed
to practicaleducation is that it is far
better to train somebody to think critically than
to give her specific skills that will be out of
date in a few years. Yet, captains of industry
are not interested in your mental welfare; what
they want is a bunch of mindless robots who are
especially adept at carrying out whatever tasks
will turn the highest profit for the stockholders.
In this sense, intellectualism is a very subversive
enterprise, which explains its persecution by
rogues of the caliber of McCarthy and Reagan.
I recently had the pleasure and honor of attending
a lecture by Kurt Vonnegut. He asked the audience
to remember one thing from his visit: start calling
your TV the tantrum and for Gods
sake, turn it off and start talking to each other.
Or reading. The idea that intellectual pursuits
are a lot of work and that it is far easier and
more pleasurable to watch TV is the fourth kind
of anti-intellectualism, unreflective hedonism.
While I do not suggest to kill your TV, as some
radical friends of mine would want you to do,
do try to read a good book. I bet that the experience
will be much more pleasurable than you thought.
A novel by Vonnegut might be a good place to start.
We have net the enemy, and it is us, as Pogo
concluded in the famous comic strip. The most
pernicious kind of anti-intellectualism comes
from other intellectuals. In recent years a movement
called post-modernism (or decostructionism) has
made headway in humanities departments throughout
the US and has been given a sympathetic hearing
by major media outlets. The idea is that knowledge
is relative because it is a cultural construct.
So, you are equally fine if you believe in evolution
or creation, because these are both narratives
constructed by pockets of our culture.
Of course, if everything is relative and no theory
has any particular claim to truth or reality,
then why should anybody believe deconstructionists?
Postmodernism has actually been imported in this
country from France, and as philosopher Ted Honderich
has remarked, one can think of it as picking
up an idea and running with it, possibly into
a nearby brick wall or over a local cliff.
What do we do about all this? Once again, the
only available road is the long and tortuous path
to education. But it should help knowing what
we are dealing with before engaging in battle.
Contrary to what a postmodernist might say, Napoleon
really did loose at Waterloo, and it was because
of poor intelligence on what the other side was
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