There is a growing contempt for thinking amongst certain quarters in this country and it is as dangerous as any foreign power has ever been. Contempt for knowledge, real innovation and critical thinking have become a rallying cry for anyone in disagreement with the dogma of the far right. And while it didn’t begin with the far Right’s outcry about the president’s statement about everyone having the opportunity to go to college, the speech certainly galvanized the anti-intellectual movement. Now, I’ll be the first to agree that not everyone need go to college. There is value in learning and practicing a trade and it is, admittedly, something that has been devalued in recent years. However there is equal value in education, regardless of what you do for a living. Education doesn’t mean elitism anymore than being skilled at hunting or farming or woodworking means you are an oaf. The world is not as binary as they claim, and I say this as someone who has done both what amounted to trade school as well as graduate school. Both have been exceedingly valuable. Unfortunately, for the Right it has become an either or declaration of value and a moral litmus test. So much for the people complaining about class warfare – they are as guilty as anyone of fanning any such flames.
America has always had a critical thinking deficit. It has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. This is particularly perverse and contradictory, since America’s Founders were the most intellectual group that ever founded any nation we know of. Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, etc. were all brilliant thinkers, well educated and dedicated to the idea that reason was the best guide to any endeavor. The desire to foster free and critical thinking, both in government and in the society at large, was one of their notable goals. The Enlightenment was the heritage on which America’s Founders depended. But anti-intellectualism has become a mainstay of the not-so-far Right in America today.
Anti-intellectualism is hostility towards and mistrust of intellectual pursuits, expressed through antagonism of science, art, education. In public discourse, anti-intellectuals usually perceive and publicly present themselves as champions of the common folk proposing that the educated are a social class detached from the everyday concerns of the majority. This has become the new mantra of the Likes of Rush Limbaugh, Michael Savage, etc. And while it was never a pillar of the Republican Party, it has crept in as a mainstay of the post-Tea Party conservative identity. Hopefully, that will change. In the meantime, it is a fundamental threat to everything the Right upholds as sacred – defense, personal liberty and economic development.
Opinion has become what serves for reason and now trumps critical thinking in the public discourse. But the fact of the matter is that training and education are more than esoteric pursuits. Expertise in an area, whether plumbing or biology trumps opinions grounded in vague statements of belief, and the bulk of the arguments being presented in the anti-intellectual movement are just that – vague, unreasoned, unfounded speculation or rehashing of familiar dogma. Flat Earth theory is somehow seen as valid though everything points to its absurdity. So, while I would be inclined to defer to an engineer about matters of structural integrity or to a carpenter about matters of home building, so to would I defer to a biologist on matters of evolution or an psychologist on matters of cognition. The point is that while opinions are valid, education does indeed confer special knowledge and expertise that is not so much a matter of opinion as training. There is nothing elitist about it.
Education allows for a wider range of perspectives and creative thinking. That leads to more innovation and growth of the economy, political freedom and civil discourse. Leonard Susskind, Felix Bloch Professor of Theoretical Physics at Stanford University, began his career as a plumber. It was that work that led to his seminal work on the nature of black holes and the nature of the universe. It was at the intersection of these two seemingly binary occupations that imagination and reason flourished. The imagination deficit we currently seem to be fostering in the US is closely tied to our critical thinking deficit. Minds that are perpetually muddled in uncritically accepted ideas and psuedo-facts, incapable of grasping clear-cut truths are hardly prepared to grasp projected possibilities and judge them soundly. Hardly a positive situation for innovation and economic growth. Contrary to the arguments being presented on the far Right this is about opportunity, not indoctrination.
But the current anti-intellectualism was never about elitism or a return some mythical past where everything bordered on the utopian. It was about power and fostering division. It is about training people to be blind followers. It is about control. It allows for power to be held in the hands of a few. The most vocal about the issue use anti-intellectualism to gain popular support by accusing intellectuals of being a socially detached, politically-dangerous class who question the extant social norms, who dissent from established opinion, and who reject nationalism, hence they are unpatriotic and thus subversive of the nation. And there is nothing new in this, nor is it the sole property of the Right. It was used by Mao, Pol Pot and the Nazis. Unfortunately, the long-term results of the anti-intellectual movement result in devastating consequences for the rights of citizens, the growth of innovation and the development of the economy. None of these seem particularly smart.