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American Anti-Intellectualism February 24, 2008

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Culture, Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Teaching.

In all the hand-wringing about our dysfunctional education system, the issue that is almost never discussed is that most Americans really do not value education as an intrinsic good. We value it only instrumentally– as a means to getting a job or improving one’s salary–but not something to be intensely pursued as something worthy in itself.

Susan Jacoby assembles evidence of American anti-intellectualism.

“According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it “not at all important” to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it “very important.”

That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.”

There is no regime of student testing, program of teacher training, or voucher system that will correct for this defiency. If we want to know why American students are falling behind the rest of the world in educational achievement, we need look no further than the idea that knowledge is nothing but a meal ticket.



1. Moriae - February 24, 2008

This has been noted for quite some time. Witness Richard Hofstadter’s Anit-intellectualism in American Life, 1963.

2. Paul Moloney - February 27, 2008

It would seem that some people would even consider education to be an intrinsic evil. To be educated for the sake of money is to limit knowledge to the making of money. There is an absolute difference between earning a living and working for the sake of money.

There is nothing more fulfilling and satisfying than to be able to philosophize. There is nothing more ennobling and dignifying than to be able to philosophize. In order to philosophize one has to think for themselves. In order to think for oneself one has to be educated for the sake if its intrinsic value. It is better to think for oneself and be wrong than it is to let the making of money do our thinking for us.

To work for the sake of money is unreasonable and therefore degrading. It is unnecessary because one can get all they need by simply earning a living. Those that work for the sake of money have more money than they can use. If working for the sake of money were not degrading, those that work for money would not have to consider themselves superior to others. The flaunting of material goods is supposed to be an argument for superiority. It is implied by those that flaunt their material goods that they are superior to us. The flaunting of material goods is no argument at all and, therefore, cannot be answered.

Those that work merely for the sake of money do so at the expense of others. Those that try to teach people to think for themselves do so at their own expense and to the benefit of those they try to teach. All social interaction is based on the communication of understanding. In oder to understand, one needs to be educated for the sake of its intrinsic value. Fortunately there are still people that value intelligence. One does more for society by trying to teach people to think for themselves, even if most people may not have the intelligence to appreciate it.

3. cato on the greens - March 2, 2008

Reading this article, leads into the ultimate source of what could perhaps be contributing to the anti-intellectualistic and ant-ratoinalistic tendencies that are happening in our country today: the parental factor.

In a nation where two parents need to work, and are at times physically and mentally exhausted to the point that it is an adsditional stress to raise there own children; in a society where children will be exposed to television as an alternative form of baby sitting for such echausted parents. Ultimately, where a parent does not know what is happening at school to there offspring; how they are being picked on for being a nerd, geek, or herb: Anti-intellectualisim is fostered in the busom of our own exhaustion.

Where peer pressure comes to play, or where a parent is naive enough to say to there child: I ll love you even if you get an an F in History; where our society is to busyh watching re-runs of shows like Hawaii or Lost, and not wanting to travel to some of the far away places, not wanting to learn about the culture, this is where we are failing.

If the parents emphasis is on learning for its intrinsic value, rather then the material conceuqence, we can see an more educated individual, as well as electorate, to avoid having leaders whose simple explanation for there actions are, that Ï am a decider. A more intellecual America can only happen if we look at how we are raising our children and remained focus on what they are learning or feeling as they are growing up.

Cato on the Greens

4. Nina Rosenstand - March 10, 2008

To my surprise, American young people are not alone in this arrogant celebration of ignorance. According to Danish friends of mine, the college-bound generation in Denmark exhibit exactly the same disdain for knowledge, and lack of understanding of education as an intrinsic value. Furthermore, they seem to be proud of this attitude. So this is not exclusively an American phenomenon. But perhaps we can blame it on American movies, TV shows and popular music? I doubt it. The dumbing-down doesn’t happen because of the entertainment; the entertainment is popular because the ground is already fertile. There’s something else happening, a general Western disconnect with the past, with knowledge of the past, its mores, and its stories. Now I’m sounding like an old grump–but to me the anti-intellectualism is part of the general disinterest in the past. But is the lack of interest in the past symptomatic of anti-intellectualism, or might it actually be the root cause of anti-intellectualism?

5. Huan - March 11, 2008

Seems to me that anti intellectualism is a symptom of modern individualism, moving away from the past like Professor Rosenstand has said. It boils down to a belief with serious consequences, the belief that “What I like/want must be good for me”, putting extreme trust on values and desires that one has. I’ve often heard the argument of “well these are my opinions and my values, who are you to say otherwise” as if they are automatically great opinions and values and lack horrible consequences. Indeed this kind of thinking gives way to capitalistic marketing to these desires, and of course this enhances those desires even more. This results in the said anti-intellectualism, the desire to understand and learn has been reduced to the desire to compensate for a lack of understanding(with personal dogmas and instant gratification). Even if we have a true democracy how could opinions based on these premises result in anything positive?

6. Jose - May 26, 2010

It’s because the USA are capitalists. If the USSR took reigns of the US, then maybe they would consider the depth of knowledge than the surface of it. Russia is considered one of many knowledge-concerned countries, so perhaps communism would be more idyllic. Maybe Stalin was a hero.


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