The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, October 15, 2010

A Stain on Intelligence

The American Middle Class Is Devolving, Thanks to Anti-Intellectual Populism

In a society where adults gather nightly about a glowing box in their living rooms to watch other adults squirm at the rigors of pitting themselves against the vast storehouses of knowledge represented by fifth graders, laments about Americans growing continually stupider are legion to the point where they have become clich̩. In recent years, however, we have seen a rise Рor, more accurately, a reoccurrence of unprecedented proportions Рof disdain for education and intellect itself. Calling someone intelligent is still a compliment; yet calling that same person an intellectual would fall more in the category of stigmatization.

The Devolution of Intelligence
“The mind of this country, taught to aim at low objects, eats upon itself,” Ralph Waldo Emerson observed in 1837. “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public,” H.L. Mencken wryly concurred in the 1920s.

However, it was Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 seminal work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, which first formally identified a tendency among Americans to distrust, resent, and even feel moral revulsion toward intellectuals. Hofstadter argued this phenomenon reasserts itself in cycles, prodded on by factors such as religious fundamentalism, populism, the veneration of common sense over academic knowledge, the pragmatic values of business and science, and admiration for entrepreneurship and self-made successful persons. The American sociologist Daniel Bell affirmed this thesis, predicting the rise of an anti-elite-education populism in 1972.

In 2008, journalist and author Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason maintained that American anti-intellectualism is at an all-time high, resulting from the influence of junk science, fundamentalism, celebrity-obsessed media, identity politics, urban-gang culture, political correctness, declining academic standards, moral relativism, political pandering, and the weakening of investigative journalism. She also believes information/communication sources have barraged our sensory input to the detriment of focus and critical thinking skills.

In the 1950s, the Ivy League purposefully began to shake loose from its old traditions as bastions of wealth and privilege. Its schools sought for diversity based on merit rather than family connections and largely succeeded. However, as New York Times columnist David Brooks points out, “The sorts of people who become stars in an information economy and a hypercompetitive, purified meritocracy” ultimately become “as elitist as the old [Ivy Leaguers], just on different grounds.”

Journalist Anne Applebaum, writing in the Washington Post and Slate magazine, maintains the rise of meritocracy described by Brooks is driving the current wave of anti-intellectual populism. “The old Establishment was resented . . . because its wealth and power were perceived as undeserved,” she writes. “Those outside could at least feel they were cleverer and savvier . . . they could blame their failures on ‘the system’.” Under a meritocracy, she counters, ordinary Americans face the unpleasant attribution of their own failures/shortcomings for their lack of success.

Politicians have exploited this discomfiture over the decades by recasting the highly intelligent and well educated as snobbish elites and, recently, ineffectual Ivory Tower academics, whose brilliance lacks common sense allowing them to implement solutions in the real world. This has led to a rise of candidates who play up their lack of accomplishment and genius, insisting that the intricate difficulties and challenges facing our country all have simple solutions – usually smaller government and lower taxes.

The GOP’s far right, increasingly the GOP’s mainstream, as well as the Tea Party embrace this philosophy. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman snickers that their motto should be, “Think small and carry a big ego.” Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post contrasts them with the conservative Tories that just came to power in Great Britain and concludes, “[It] is the difference between rational conservatism and magic-wand conservatism.”

Marcus’s colleague, Eugene Robinson, is incredulous. “Two years ago, with the nation facing a host of complex and difficult problems, voters put a bunch of thoughtful, well-educated people in charge of the government. Now many of those same voters, unhappy and impatient, have decided that things will get better if some crazy, ignorant people are running the show? Seriously?”

I was part of the first generation in both my mother’s and father’s families to attend college. My parents and grandparents were pleased and proud of this and taught me to be the same. The same was true for my wife. Today, calls to pull kids out of universities to avoid brainwashing by liberal educators or burning books to stop the spread of dangerous socialist ideas are becoming more common and viewed as less extreme fringe.

The American Dream is predicated on the notion that our offspring can achieve more than we did. Wealth is a common standard for measuring this. Today, Americans are decrying economic conditions that threaten this promise for our children and grandchildren, even as they stand poised to sweep candidates into office whose policies will continue to chip away at middle class viability.

However, there are types of worth that have nothing to do with money. My generation once heard our education and intellectual pursuits/accomplishments were what set us above the crowd. Now the message is to view it as a potential source of embarrassment, something we should deny or at least suppress to ensure we fit in with the least common denominator – a standard getting lesser and more common every day.

As Applebaum muses, “If working hard, climbing the education ladder and graduating from a good university only wins you opprobrium, then you might not bother.” The American middle class is under attack from multiple directions. We are devolving, even as conservative candidates assure us that moving backwards to simpler times with traditional values will cure all that ails us.

The New York Times posits this morning that Tea Party candidates conceivably could win as many as thirty-three seats in Congress, making them a caucus with real potential influence. The GOP is almost certain to reclaim control of the House and possibly the Senate. They will do so as the result of Democratic mistakes in governance as well as a continuing anemic economy. However, they will also do so because a wave of anti-intellectual populism successfully placed a stain on the very names of education, intelligence, and merit.

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