Anti-intellectualism: “dumbing down” of America

There is a disjunction between Americans’ rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history

anti-intellectualismSomehow, reading Ray Williams’ article The cult of ignorance in the United States: Anti-intellectualism and the “dumbing down” of America made me sadder than other pieces I’ve read on the subject.

For one thing, Williams’ article is from 2014. He cites Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American Unreason from 2008, who said in an article in the Washington Post, “Dumbness… has been steadily defined downward for several decades. She specifically cites “a disjunction between Americans’ rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science, and history.”

This is not a recent trend. Richard Hofstadter won a Pulitzer Prize in 1964 (!) for his book, Anti-Intellectualism In American Life.

We’re creating a world of dummies. Angry dummies who feel they have the right, the authority and the need not only to comment on everything, but to make sure their voice is heard above the rest, and to drag down any opposing views through personal attacks, loud repetition, and confrontation.

The article blames a variety of factors for this disturbing trend includes:

* Training people to get jobs rather than educating them
* Anti-science religiosity influencing education
* “The new elite are the angry social media posters, those who can shout loudest and more often, a clique of bullies and malcontents baying together like dogs cornering a fox”

Sure, there is vapidness in pop culture. “Fashion, entertainment, spectacle, voyeurism – we’re directed towards trivia, towards the inconsequential, towards unquestioning and blatant consumerism.”

The article addressed many problems but offers little in terms of solutions beyond that the trend “should be a cause for concern for leaders and the general population, one that needs to be addressed now.”

No doubt in my mind this is all true. But what does one DO about it? Je ne sais pas. And THAT’S what frightens me, not just for myself but for my child.

Is intellectualism dead in U.S. politics?

“It was almost no trick at all to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth…”

There is a distinct lack of intellectualism in the politics in the United States. One can disagree on policies, but that does not appear to be the crux of the arguments.
I came across this article in The Daily Beast from March 2014, which lays out the case that this phenomenon is not just a 21st century trend:

There is great intelligence in Americans, just as there is great professionalism. The problem is that professional intelligence is mechanical and functional – utilitarian. It is about the completion of an assignment, and the execution of a formula…There are only so many ways to do a job, and since many Americans learn at a very young age, that their entire lives are about the job they will one day have, they begin to think with the variety of appliance assembly methods in an instructional manual.

“The mystique of practicality,” to use [Richard] Hofstadter’s increasingly relevant words, stupefies people into voluntarily enlisting into the “curious cult of practicality.”

This seems to explain at least one candidate for President, who I’ve read described as a fachidiot, pronounced “fak ee dee oat”. It is a “derogatory term for a one-track specialist who is an expert in his field, but takes a blinkered approach to multi-faceted problems.” It could be a person highly accomplished in his field who is out of his depth in politics, for instance.

When has it ever been “practical” to study philosophy? Or art history? Or English literature? No one studies the humanities or fine arts for their practical value. They meticulously examine Van Gogh’s paintings, or closely analyze Hemingway’s novels, because it makes them feel more fully human. It enlarges the imagination, rattles the emotions, and offers the promise that through the intellectual mine work of artistic and philosophical discovery, they might emerge from the pit of the mountain with something more valuable than silver, gold, or coal — the truth.

The truth that is accessible only through the exploration of ideas is no longer in fashion.

Here’s a Catch-22 quote by Joseph Heller that singer Bette Midler recently tweeted that sums up at least some of the current crop of candidates:

“It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.”

Someone else recently noted the state of American politics by quoting the magnificent language of Aaron Sorkin:

“People want leadership,” says the presidential aide. “In the absence of genuine leadership … they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, and they’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”

To which the President replies, “People don’t drink the sand because they’re thirsty. They drink the sand because they don’t know the difference.”

— from the screenplay for “The American President”

Here’s hoping we don’t drink the sand.

ABC Wednesday – Round 18

DOMA, GWB and large sugary drinks

Yeah, I hate agreeing with Tucker Carlson too.

Recent news stories of interest to me:

The U.S. appeals court in Boston became the first appeals court to strike down as unconstitutional the federal Defense of Marriage Act. This seemed obvious to this old poli sci major that DOMA violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.

The prosecution of former presidential candidate John Edwards is officially a waste of time and federal resources. Not surprising to me: I had predicted his acquittal. My, I hope the government doesn’t decide to prosecute again after the jury was hung on five of the six charges.

President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama host former President George W. Bush and Former First Lady Laura Bush for the unveiling of their official portraits. It’s true: GWB can be a funny guy. He starts speaking at about the 10:40 mark; Laura had a good line or two.

Obama Ordered Wave of Cyberattacks Against Iran. “Concerns have been raised that the revelations will set a dangerous precedent for the future of cyber warfare and international relations.” Makes me feel rather unsettled as well.

The SpaceX Dragon, after its trip to the International Space station, splashed down safely. While I’m still wishing NASA were doing this, I’m glad some entity in the US is going into space.
On the heels of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s announcement that he is seeking a citywide ban on all sugary drinks larger than sixteen ounces in restaurants, movie theaters, food carts, and ballpark concession stands, Jon Stewart spent the first third of Thursday’s edition of “The Daily Show” excoriating the proposed law— and Mayor Bloomberg himself.

For Stewart, Bloomberg’s proposed soda ban put him in a particularly tough position: being forced to concede a point to a political adversary who blasted Bloomberg’s idea on Fox News. “I agree with Tucker Carlson,” Stewart said, holding back mock-tears.

Yeah, I hate agreeing with Tucker Carlson too.

The ban reeks of …here’s a term I almost never use, because I generally agree with the legislation protecting people from themselves; I mean, wear that damn seat belt! But this is…nanny state run amok. And The Wife, independently, used the same term. Not that I recommend a Big Gulp – it would give ME a royal headache; I DO recommend these cartoons on the topic.

Anti-intellectualism is taking over the US; “The rise in academic book bannings and firings is compounded by the US’s growing disregard for scholarship itself.”

Green Lantern relaunched as brave, mighty and gay. This was reported a “major character,” but this GL “is not the emerald galactic space cop who was, and is, part of the Justice League and has had a history rich in triumph and tragedy. Instead…, Alan Scott is the retooled version of the classic Lantern whose first appearance came in the pages of ‘All-American Comics’ No. 16 in July 1940.” The marketing of this by DC feels like a stunt.

ALEC Slips Exxon Fracking Loopholes into New Ohio Law. “While the new law will allow doctors to obtain disclosure of fracking chemicals, it places a gag order on them…meaning some chemicals aren’t disclosed to the public at all.” My barber asked me this week what I thought of fracking; I am generally suspicious of the use of so much fresh water. But the secrecy really tips the scale against it.

I’m giving my daughter a sample spelling test. Seven of the first ten words are: break, sleigh, steak, eight, great, weigh, prey. I realized I had to give her definitions, because every single one of those words has a common homonym; English is so tricky.

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