Anti-intellectualism in Today’s America!

In 2014, an article titled “The cult of ignorance in the United States: Anti-intellectualism and the ‘dumbing down’ of America appeared in Psychology Today. But what the author saw then as a trend is now our reality.

There is a growing and disturbing trend of anti-intellectual elitism in American culture. It’s the dismissal of science, the arts, and humanities and their replacement by entertainment, self-righteousness, ignorance, and deliberate gullibility.”

And the author, Ray Williams, warned …

“We’re creating … 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.”

Many people anticipated the arrival of confrontational politics. Yet most overlook anti-intellectualism as a major contributing factor to our nation’s toxic political divide. Hence, we must acknowledge our history of anti-intellectualism so we can understand its ingrained influence on us.

Anti-intellectualism in America is nothing new.

Our anti-intellectual tendencies are historical. That history tells a story about our American character as a people — with an ever existing fault-line.

“We, the people, must redeem” …  fulfill the pledge … make America again!

Our anti-intellectualism is, in fact, older than our national identity, … [and our] regard for intellectuals … is subject to cyclical fluctuations …” wrote Richard Hofstadter in his 1964 book,  Anti-intellectualism in American Life.

Hofstadter ventured “toward definition” of anti-intellectualism in terms of human attitudes and ideas. He chose words like “resentment and suspicion. However, he saw a smorgasbord of political and emotional factors making anti-intellectualism “a broadly diffused quality in our civilization”. Therefore, he did not see the public as “simply divided into intellectual and anti-intellectual factions.”

[The public] “is infused with enough ambivalence about intellect and intellectuals to be swayed now this way and now that on current cultural issues.

Our ambivalence means mixed feelings about a given topic leaves us vulnerable to simply following leaders — with or without good reason.

But Hofstadter died in 1970 so he did not witness the depth of our current cycle of anti-intellectualism. With the online culture becoming deadly to reasoned discussions, this anti-intellectual cycle looks more like a death spiral for rational policy debates.

Hofstadter saw “dissenting intellectuals” as necessary for “their services as an independent source of national self-criticism.” Yet he realized “the intellectual is either shut out or sold out.” They either aren’t allowed to be heard — unfiltered — or they become inclined to speak in-line with the organization that pays them.

So we can’t blame anti-intellectualism solely on the education system.

The public education system traditionally takes all the blame for the “dumbing down” of America. But what the public fails to recognize is how political forces took over the system to use for political and personal gains. The politics of education policies is transforming the mission of the public education system.

“We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs,” said Professor Catherine Liu in discussing the changing mission of universities.

In that 2014 article, Williams listed multiple statistics upon which the public and policymakers judge the quality and effectiveness of the U.S education system. But if researchers and educational writers —the public’s sources of information— continue to ignore the 1991 evaluation and conclusions by Sandia National Researchers, the nation will continue to be misled by misinformation. For this reason, the country must come to grips with its mistakes of the past.

A decade after the release of A Nation at Risk, researchers at the Sandia National Laboratories conducted their own study of elementary and secondary education.

Although education alone cannot change ingrained attitudes and beliefs, proper science education focused on fostering scientific habits can lead to more rational, critical thought.

“Students should develop a conceptual understanding of the natural world, critical-thinking skills, and scientific habits of mind, including curiosity, respect for evidence, flexibility of perspective, and an appreciation for living things.”

—2002 South Carolina Leadership and Assistance for Science Education Reform (LASER) Institute

Regrettably, education policies of the last three decades lessened learning opportunities in science and civics for too many students in under-resourced schools. Policymakers can correct this mistake now!

Anti-Intellectualism in America today?

“Today, we define American anti-intellectualism as a social attitude that systematically denigrates science-based facts, academic and institutional authorities, and the pursuit of theory and knowledge.” Source: Understanding Anti-Intellectualism

Today, political propagandists tap into American anti-intellectualism and use it to further divide us. But a nation founded upon the People’s consent can fight back against politically-cultivated anti-intellectualism. First, we must understand it. To that end, I ask readers to view the nation’s current political state of affairs as an assortment of “movements.”

Political and social movements — constructive or destructive— require the presence of certain emotions, including both discontent and faith in the future. But for a movement to grow, it requires people feel a sense of power in their ability to effect change. Therefore, when the powerful “ruling class” cultivates empowerment AND distrust of experts and institutions, they essentially sideline intellectuals while growing their movement.

Why exclude intellectuals — those that tend to question facts and reasoning?

Authoritarian rulers are in a better position to rise to power under a growing anti-intellectual movement. (Image from Anti-intellectualism in Nazi Germany slide serve.)

Multiple social and political movements are underway in the United States. From the continued march towards equality, to Tea Party resurgence, to rising White and Christian Nationalism, Americans are stirred up! But while citizens feel these movements underfoot, most still have trouble seeing how American democracy is under attack from within. Too few see how weaponizing anti-intellectualism has transformed well-meaning Americans into destroyers of the republic they believe they are defending.

“… anti-intellectualism is evoked as a way to halt the acquisition of new knowledge that would undermine groups with power and privilege,…”

“Politicians, corporations, and religious institutions stand to benefit from this most— to maintain or assert authority, anti-intellectualism is the default weapon employed to fuse patriotism, American identity, and support for their own agendas.” Source: Understanding Anti-Intellectualism

We’re never going to rid our culture, or even ourselves, from every anti-intellectual thought or action. But we must try to rid our political culture from accepting intentional use of anti-intellectualism against our republic.

When you recognize propaganda that is cultivating rejection of a person, institution or “fact”, you must question intent. Ask yourself, is there sufficient reason for rejecting a leader, an established institution, or prevailing belief? Or is there an ulterior motive at play?

Consider This:

We are all capable of logical, reasoned thought. But it does require a concerted effort to resist being ambivalent. Consequently, it requires people devote a little more of their time to looking for truths, thinking clearly, and calling-out propaganda and propagandists.

The capacity for intellectual thought exists in all of us. There is nothing “elitist” about it.

“Constant and delicate acts of intellectual surgery” (Hofstadter) will contain the ill-effects of anti-intellectualism .

Combat anti-intellectualism with facts, reasoned thinking, meaningful discussions, and a better understanding of the intentional use of politically-cultivated anti-intellectualism.

And please, respect existing intellectualism within your fellow Americans.


Following the posting of this blog, I had the honor of being interviewed on Politics Done Right with Egberto Willies. Typically I shy away from a camera, preferring private one-on-one conversations. But the topic is important enough and the Times require stepping out of our comfort zone. Please join us!

Indoctrination: Old Versus New

PledgeOfAllegiance1899The older version of indoctrination in the U.S. had a common purpose — Americanization.

As James A. Michener explains in This Noble Land, after discussing how a school day always began with the Pledge of Allegiance and patriotic song, “In those days the indoctrination of children began at age six and continued daily for the next twelve years. I have often thought back on that simpler time and concluded that it is better for a child to have some strong moral and social beliefs rather than none at all, even though his indoctrination may have been chauvinistic, muddled or even erroneous. Later he can correct error, but if he has allegiance to nothing he has nothing to work on in his later reeducation.”

Maybe my humor is warped but I find his muse amusing.

I find no humor in the indoctrination that we are talking about today that holds a very different meaning. To indoctrinate is “to teach” which in the case of Americanization meant to teach foreigners English, U.S. history, government, and culture. And one reason (need, really) for compulsory free public schools was the sudden, large influx of immigrants.

Today, with Common Core and the control of curriculum being ambushed by it, but not fully and publicly being questioned nationally, indoctrination of a political point of view is what we are obligated to protect children against.

We understand the power of “knowledge”; question is, will we allow vulnerability of our public education system to be created?

Crisis and the Groundhogs Day Phenomenon

Crisis: a turning point in the course of anything; decisive or crucial time; a time of great danger or trouble, whose outcome decides whether possible bad consequences will follow. With the term “crisis” thus defined, has the public education system been in a crisis? Hell yes! And repeatedly!

And for those that have been paying attention to “education reform” for more than a decade or two, you understand why I reference the  “Groundhog Day” phenomenon — the déjà vu feeling of having to wake each day and repeat the same scene over-and-over. Well, the Bill Murray character in the movie was on a cakewalk compared to the real nightmare of decades upon decades of debate about whether or not public education is in a true crisis.

“Whose outcome decides whether possible bad consequences will follow”— please, think about it. How many times have you heard, especially in relationship to No Child Left Behind, that there were unintended consequences?

What Can We Do?

What Can We Do?

In the American Education Reform War, one side defines the crisis as mediocre international test scores while the other side claims there is no crisis at all. Meanwhile, around kitchen tables there are mothers, fathers, grandparents, and students fretting about and struggling with problems related to education. Many times these same people have solutions that can’t be done without the cooperation of the public education system. And without support and help, they know what the consequences will be. These people face a crisis. The system is not responding to them.

There is No Controversy?

Told by spokespeople for our representatives, reporters in Idaho are repeating the “fact” that the portion of the immigration bill giving citizenship to highly skilled immigrants in order to fill jobs Americans can’t (?) do is not controversial. I repeat (as they have multiple times in print and on air), there is no controversy. Really? There should be!

At Our Own Risk

At Our Own Risk!

The following was originally published in Idaho as a letter to the editor in 2011:

Easing visa restrictions for high-skill immigrants is necessary according to Representative Labrador [ ID] and his American Innovation and Education Act. The problem he targets is “to help people who have offers of employment but face a [immigration] processing backlog…” He claims it will help domestic students. Those closely associated with efforts to improve our STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education in this country have heard similar verbiage for over a decade.

Congress won’t address problems they created through No Child Left Behind so we need to import talent that we failed to cultivate in our own country. They see a “brain drain”; I think it’s more of a loyalty drain.

This country messed up a perfectly good public education system and took down three generations of students in the process. We feel no obligation to make things right?

It’s not hard to see “How Online Learning Companies Bought America’s Schools” (Lee Fang). What’s harder to see is how we the people allowed Congress to sell us all down the river. We had better open our eyes to the slippery slope of importing high-skilled talent because we have overlooked our own American potential. Is this how we make America strong as a nation?