Staying Smart in Dumbed-Down Times

Judith Shapiro considers the state of anti-intellectualism and the responsibility of the educated to counter it.

June 13, 2008

In 1963, when I was graduating from college, a book was published entitled Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, by the noted historian Richard Hofstadter.

In exploring anti-intellectualism as a major current of American culture, Hofstadter examined various facets of our nation’s history over time. He described how those living in rural areas grew suspicious of urban life. He analyzed how utilitarianism and practicality, associated with the world of business, were accompanied by a certain contempt for the life of the mind. He devoted special attention to evangelicalism, although we should perhaps more specifically define his target as fundamentalism, a literal-minded approach to the Bible that involved hostility to all forms of knowledge that contradicted scripture or sought to interpret it as a set of historical documents reflecting the context of its production. He noted how all of this combined to make the term “elite” a dirty word.

This exploration of American national character, which was very much a product of his times, notably the atmosphere of fear and distrust that characterized the Cold War, is still quite timely today. Which is why I felt compelled to re-read Hofstadter’s book last summer. And why I was particularly interested in reading an update and homage to Hofstadter by Susan Jacoby, whose book The Age of American Unreason was published just this year.

Jacoby brings Hofstadter’s arguments into the present, illustrating them with examples from the times in which we live today. She talks about the powerful role played by fundamentalist forms of religion in current America; about the abysmal level of public education; about the widespread inability to distinguish between science and pseudoscience; about the dumbing-down of the media and politics; about the consequences of a culture of serious reading being replaced by a rapid-fire, short-attention-span-provoking, over-stimulating, largely visual, information-spewing environment.

She, like Hofstadter, invites us to consider how all of this has affected the great venture that is American democracy? So, let us do so.

Once upon a time, the leaders of our country were the kind of men -- and, let’s face it, it was a men’s club at the time -- who were learned, who valued scholarship and science. The American Philosophical Society, founded in 1743 at the instigation of Benjamin Franklin, counted also among its early members presidents George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison.

In adopting as its mission the promotion of “useful knowledge”, the American Philosophical Society reflected a time in which the sciences and the humanities were not divided from one another, and in which there was no opposition between what we might now call pure and applied science. What it did reflect was an opposition between Enlightenment values of reason and empirical research, on the one hand, and what we might call “faith based” beliefs, on the other. There were clergymen among the early members of the APS, but they were those who felt that their religious convictions did not stand in their way of their desire to be among the most educated members of their society.

That was then. This is now: We have a president who believes that “creation science” should be taught in our schools. As Jacoby points out, we should understand “how truly extraordinary it [is] that any American president would place himself in direct opposition to contemporary scientific thinking."

But let’s not just pin the tail on the elephant here and pick only on the Republicans -- or, to be more precise, on the extreme right wing of the Republican party, since there are, after all (though they may be increasingly hard to locate), moderate, thoughtful -- one might even say, liberal -- Republicans.

Let’s look at the Democrats, at the nomination fight we all followed – followed, it seems, since the early Pleistocene. Here we had two candidates vying to run for President who had been educated at institutions that are among the most distinguished in our country: Wellesley, Yale, Columbia and Harvard. Both candidates were obviously highly intelligent and knowledgeable. Yet both felt the need to play down their claims to intellectuality -- and the winner may still feel that need in the general election. Hillary Clinton chugalugged beer and sought to attach the dread label of “elitist” to her rival. And Barack Obama felt compelled to follow one of the most honest and sophisticated political speeches in recent memory with strenuous displays of folksiness.

And who are we to blame them? If anyone is going to serve as president, the first step is to get elected. What level of intellectual interest and background can political candidates presuppose on the part of our nation’s citizenry? What level of interest in the most important challenges facing us in the years ahead? What level of public demand that assertions be backed up with sound reasoning and actual facts?

To take just one example: citing data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, released in 2005, Jacoby notes that two-thirds of Americans believe that both evolution and creationism should be taught in our public schools. Who would have thought that, all these years after the United States became the laughing stock of the civilized world through international newspaper coverage of the Scopes trial, we would still see the fight we have recently seen in the state of Pennsylvania over teaching creationism in our public schools?

Nor is this simply a matter of religious belief. Many who advocate teaching creationism do so in the name of providing a “fair and balanced” curriculum. This misplaced pluralism, which draws no distinction between the results of scientific inquiry and the content of folk beliefs, is in line with the loose way in which the word “theory” is used, such that Einstein’s “theory” of relativity or Darwin’s “theory” of evolution is on a par with the loose way we use “theory” to describe any kind of wild guess. In this latter sense, “theory” is used as the opposite of “fact”, rather than as a systematic set of hypotheses to explain a variety of facts. Moreover, simply changing the label from “creationism” to “creation science” or “intelligent design” gives this set of untestable and unfalsifiable assertions the veneer of science, which is quite enough for a lot of people who have little or no sense of what real science is.

But let us not let the scientists and scholars themselves off the hook. Jacoby devotes some interesting passages in her book to forms of pseudo-science that were at various times in our history embraced by members of the most educated classes. Back in the 19th and early 20th centuries, we had social Darwinism, which sought to justify differences between rich and poor as a reflection of “survival of the fittest” (which, by the way, was not an expression coined by Darwin). And lest we look upon those benighted forebears too complacently, let us keep in mind that, much more recently, we have had sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, which share many of the same faults, though in more sophisticated trappings, as befits the trajectory of the natural and social sciences since the 19th century unilinear evolutionism of Herbert Spencer and others.

Returning to the world of politics, the first presidential candidate I campaigned for myself -- I was 10 years old at the time and we were having a mock convention in my elementary school (those were the days when candidates actually got chosen at the party’s national convention) -- that first presidential candidate was the quintessential, unelectable intellectual Adlai Stevenson, who ran against Dwight Eisenhower. One of the well-known anecdotes about him is the time a woman went up to him after a speech and said, “Mr. Stevenson, every thinking American will be voting for you.” To which he replied, “Madam, that is not enough. I need a majority.”

In her chapter on “Public Life”, which is subtitled “Defining Dumbness Downward”, Jacoby opens by talking about the extemporaneous speech given by Robert Kennedy on April 4th, 1968, when he had just learned, before taking the stage in Indianapolis, that the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. Kennedy began by invoking from memory the following lines from Aeschylus:

Even in our sleep, pain which we cannot forget
Falls drop by drop upon the heart,
Until, in our own despair,
Against our will,
Comes wisdom
Through the awful grace of God.

Jacoby notes how inconceivable it is today that a major political figure, an aspirant to the highest office in the land, would use such a quote, given the pervasive fear nowadays of seeming to be an “elitist." Yet Robert Kennedy was not showing off to his audience or condescending to them. He just assumed that he could address them in this way, whether or not they themselves were familiar with these lines, much less could quote them from memory.

Jacoby’s discussion of the dumbing down of our public, political culture follows a chapter on what she calls “The Culture of Distraction”. She worries over the consequences of our being constantly bombarded by noisy stimuli, by invitations to multitask in a way that fosters superficiality as opposed to depth. The major casualties of our current media-saturated life are three things essential to the vocation of an intellectual: silence, solitary thinking, and social conversation.

She delves into a problem I have recurrently nagged Barnard students about: the isolating effects of new technologies. Many a time and oft, I have urged students to get off their cellphones so that, as they walk along, they can engage in reflection, contemplate surroundings, and talk to those with whom they are actually sharing your physical space.

I also share with Jacoby great concern about the fact that more information is not at all the same thing as more knowledge. We are living in an age when we have GPS and Google maps at our fingertips, but most Americans are unable to locate Iraq on a map, even though we have been at war there for years. Nor do most people feel any interest in doing so. On the other hand, when President Franklin Roosevelt was needing to reassure citizens in the early days of World War II, when things were going very badly in the Pacific, he asked people to go out and buy maps so that they could follow his fireside chat on the radio and understand the geographical challenges facing the military.

Can we ever get back to something like that? To a more educated citizenry, since there can be no true democracy without it?

If there is any chance of achieving such a goal, those of us who have chosen the academic vocation must do our part. In addition to addressing one another, we must address wider publics. And we must make use of new modes of communication as they become available. That means, for example, using cyber channels not just for blogging the like-minded (the Internet fails to achieve its liberating potential insofar as it is composed of myriad gated communities), but for opening new doors. It means learning from and working with journalists who are seeking to achieve the highest ideals of their own profession. And being active citizens ourselves, so that we can help elect the women and men who share our goals.


Judith Shapiro this month ends a 14-year tenure as president of Barnard College. This essay is adapted from her keynote address at this year's Phi Beta Kappa ceremony at the college.


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