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Anti-Intellectualism and Contemporary America

Anti-Intellectualism is everyone's problem

This post is in response to
Anti-Intellectualism Is Killing America
Carlos Graterol, CCL
Source: Carlos Graterol, CCL

I am not a fundamentalist, but I am a Christian. I'm also a philosophy professor at a state university. And I agree with David Niose that anti-intellectualism is a very deep problem in America. (I also agree with Ravi Chandra, as I believe that another major issue is the rampant self-centeredness present in our culture.) Here I'd like to give my perspective on issues related to anti-intellectualism. It is connected to some fundamentalisms, but the problem is much deeper and more widespread in our society.

We may read more now than in the past. We read a lot of blog posts, tweets, and the like, and we may read a few books, too. But we don't read enough complex books, and we don't read well. This isn't just a comment about what we read in our spare time, but on the level of reading required in high schools across America. One study found that between 1917 and 2012, the level of complexity of the books assigned in high school significantly decreased. As Matt Lee Anderson recently put it

...a people whose curriculums are shot through with Shakespeare will have more tools to deeply understand the world than those who are assigned The Hunger Games, however enjoyable they might be or well they might be written...We should struggle through books like Shakespeare because the sort of understanding about the world that we need often doesn’t come on a first read of it, but on a third or fourth. Confronting a text whose meaning is initially obscure to us and being impelled to press onward, to work and think and wrestle, gives us the sort of discipline and training that genuine wisdom demands.

We need to read books that stretch and challenge our minds. We need to read books that can improve our lives. We need to learn how to follow the steps of an argument. It may not be entertaining, but ideas matter. And some of the most important ideas require time, effort, and repeated engagement before the payoff of understanding and enlightenment comes to us.

As a philosophy professor, I see the result of our anti-intellectual culture in the abilities and attitudes of many of my students. I have taught critical thinking courses, and in all of the classes I teach critical thinking plays a central role. But in my introductory general education classes, I doubt that more than 10% of my students have actually done the reading, and this is true for my colleagues across the nation as well.

College is now seen as mere career-preparation and a consumer good. But it is more than career preparation, and it is not a consumer good. It is a chance to learn to think deeply, and well, about questions that matter. It should help one cultivate the intellectual virtues that a functioning democracy requires of its citizens.

An informed public needs to be able to read something longer than a blog post in order to engage in reasoned dialogue and debate. A university education is supposed to supporth the cultivation of the skills needed for this. But many students don't care, and see general education courses as a waste of time rather than an opportunity to engage some of the greatest minds in human history. Unfortunately, this is also true of some in state governments, as evidenced by the recent battle in Wisconsin.

For decades our culture has exalted feelings above reason, and we're now seeing the fruit of this mistake. As Dallas Willard, who was a philosopher at USC for years once said, feelings make great servants, but horrible masters. Emotions matter, and they even include judgments. But just because I feel deeply that something is true, that does not in and of itself make it true. If we could learn and apply this fact, we'd be well on our way to undermining much of the anti-intellectualism that exists in the United States.

I agree that fundamentalism has anti-intellectual tendencies. But I see those same tendencies in people across the spectrum of religious and political belief. As one philosopher put it, "As soon as someone tells me--straight-faced--they are a 'free thinker,' I can immediately guess what they think about almost everything." There are many people who engage in groupthink but nevertheless think of themselves as enlightened, and who are just as guilty of being anti-intellectual as the fundamentalists they look down upon and criticize.

So what is the point? What can we do? Parents need to get their kids away from screens long enough to read everyday. Schools need to support this, and they need to choose books that will help kids grow in intellectual and moral virtue, rather than for entertainment. As a society, we need to do more than just say education matters; we need to put our money where our mouth is and support schools, teachers, colleges, and parents. If we want an educated citizenry, we must educate them.

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Photo by Carlos Graterol, CCL