Is Anti-Intellectualism Killing American Culture?

If you read the article in Psychology Today, the light-weight puff of pop psychology masquerading as science, David Noose’s assertion that the real harm to any society is right wing, ultra-conservative, faith-believing Christians.  These peoples as individuals and groups do not believe in “proven” science and reject rational thought as against their religious principles.  After all, everyone knows that religious belief is centered on emotional attachment to irrational dogma and requires an unquestioning adherence to religious authority.  Well, maybe.  Since one can neither prove nor disprove the existence of any god or supreme being or spiritual power, that question is moot.  Most “scientific refutation” is not proven theory but the piling up of facts as if the mere presence of these mountains of facts constituted proof.  It’s sort of like like piling up a large mountain of number on the other side of the equal sign of a quadratic and saying,”See, it works.”  I do want a better process than what these authors claim is scientific proof.

Anti-Intellectualism is a rather overly broad category and easily bent to almost any meaning any author or speaker may suggest.  In its early Greek days the intellect was used to question how one “knew what he knew”.  This is more the philosophical tradition of questioning one’s assumptions about the world in general and specific items.  In a sense, we can blame Socrates for this conundrum.  But in the world of neuroscience intellect is used in terms of how we understand the world about us.  This is a change from the question of what do we know is true to what does it mean?  It would seem that meaning is more important that an absolute truth.  Of course in medieval times the pursuit for absolute truth was rooted in the sure knowledge of god, who was, after all, the giver of absolute truth.  To know god is to know the truth.  Not very anti-intellectual, is it?  Of course for the peons whose education was stunted by the number of fingers used to count knowing was based on belief.  There was the individual belief and the officially proscribed belief.  Since the populace did not read and generally relied on priests who could neither read nor write but who could memorize by rote the entire bible, well, everyone was on an equal footing.  Belief became knowledge, how could it not?  Life for the peons was harsh, work was hard, and death always just around the corner.  There wasn’t time to speculate as to the truth of the world in which one lived.  Work, procreation, and digestion were the principle concerns, the “absolute truth” any peon could know.

So where does the anti-intellectualism come into play?  The assumption is that the world is divided  between two activities, work and thought.  Those who work don’t think and those who think don’t work.  The practical exercise of living in the real world and the impractical exercise of living in a non real world.  Working with one’s hands and getting them dirty and working in an Ivory tower where one’s hands stay clean all day long.  There is a certain truth to that divide.  I have not met many professors who ever held a job in a factory or worked on a farm.  Most of these individuals have, at most, held some part time job where the work was easy, such as in a campus bookstore or even a retail outlet.  These are hardly physically taxing jobs and certainly not much strain on the mental processes.  It is one thing to go straight from a public or private school system into the university and then on to a position as instructor or professor and quite another to work one’s way through college and into a professorship.  The latter usually takes longer and gives one a different perspective, even intellectually.  Many returning GI.s went to the colleges and universities on the government benefits and a few of them became professors and even administrators within academic organizations.  Adele Stevenson was perceived as one of those “Intellectuals” who had always been in politics, never having a “real job” in comparison to Dwight Eisenhower who fought a war (yeah, so he was never on the front line but kicking British butt counts as combat).  No one could ever accuse Ike as having the slightest tendency towards abstract thought.  He was a man of action, one of us, assuming you had served in the military or had been a war production worker (read factory work).  Stevenson was know for great thoughts, not great actions.  Yet Ike was hardly the intellectual dullard nor was Stevenson the armchair habitue.

You see, all men and women think.  They think when they work in routine occupations.  True, only a few may have thoughts about particle physics, but we all think of something.  A routine occupation means that one pay minimal attention to the actual work, hence one’s minds goes out to play, so to speak.  We may day dream, think about tonight’s television shows, our favorite sports team, and so on.  Some of us may be more concerned with our religion and its tenants.  We may have  thoughts about the next meeting of the congregation or whether our children have discovered that true belief.  In truth, we all think differently and according to our concerns of the day.  Just as the liberal progressive is concerned with the perfection of society in the social and political world, the Christians are concerned with the perfection of the individual in the here after.  Both individuals have their respective ideals of heaven but the one is worldly and the other is non worldly.  For the worldly, science is of greatest concern because they put their faith, oh what a turn of events, into the ability of science to improve conditions in the world, in the lives of individuals, in the progress of mankind towards that perfection they so much adore and believe should be.  For the non worldly the concern is about the future after death.  For them the world is corrupt and only their god can cure its ills.  For this we call them unscientific and anti-intellectual.and yet a great deal of questioning as to what is true goes on in these congregations.

You see, just as in those science classes you took where the teacher used the idea of experimentation to reinforce the validity of the laws of science you were learning, so too, those who undertake to believe in a religious doctrine take the time to study it and experiment in a different manner to ascertain what is true for them.  People, science is a religion and has its high priests and its temples as much as any other religion.  It may be, perhaps, a little more practical in that it has hands on experiments and observations to “prove” its truth.  But science is always subject to revision, it is never static and it is full of contradictions and interpretations.  Well, what else is new?  Happens in religion as well.  New ways of thinking and believing are constantly evolving and tried.  Miracles are a little more difficult to prove but belief is what pulls one through this world.

Is Niose the first to notice “anti-intellectualism”?  Oh hell no.  Individuals have been writing about this perceived problem for centuries.  In 1966 Richard Hofstadter wrote Anti-Intellectualism In American Life and did a much better job of explaining the conditions that he believe caused this problem.  Well, when one is a lazy “intellectual” and can’t be bothered to do his research, what can you expect but another best selling junk book for the choir to read and ooh and ah ha over.  And there have been many long before Hofstadter, it is a continuing problem if such a thing really is a problem.  After all, isn’t a matter of perspective and whether one believes there are correct thoughts and incorrect thoughts?  Ah, now there’s the rub.


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