Posted February 26, 2016
Politics, science, religion and social values USA
Member Commentary / Opinion*
Anti-Intellectualism in America
By Carl Freitag
Believing is so much easier than learning, believing creationism is so much easier than studying the theory of evolution and denying distasteful facts is so much easier than facing reality. Apparently many Americans take the easy way out. If the facts don’t agree with what you think is the truth, just don’t believe it.
Many Americans do believe in demons, spirits, ESP, numerology, astrology, and faith healing. These pseudosciences seem to speak to their powerful emotional needs while real science leaves them cold. However, technology like cars, airplanes, TV and smart-phones are OK. Technology is safe. It is guided by industry or the government. Pure science is dangerous because it can lead to facts that challenge our dearest beliefs. Better to remain ignorant.
Anti-science has been infused into America’s political and social fabric. Ignorance has been supported by states like Louisiana passing a science education act that encourages religious pseudosciences like intelligent design in the classroom and instructs students to be skeptical of all science classes. A Texas legislator suggested that we should not teach critical thinking in the schools because it undermines faith and family. A Louisiana private school textbook says that fire breathing dragons were real! A Bob Jones University Press textbook used in private and voucher schools says that 'It’s either God or science and students need to choose.'
Let’s face it. The anti-intellectual base in our society is largely those individuals from the red states called evangelicals, conservatives, Tea Partiers or right wing republicans. They ethnocentrically believe they are the chosen people and they have righteousness and goodness on their side. This version of Christianity is a large part of their certainty that we are a great and heroic nation and our enemies, like communism, socialism and most other religions, are the pure incarnation of evil.
Since they can’t tolerate ambiguity they have a Manichean view of the world. They believe everything is good or evil, right or wrong and black or white. That things can be shades of gray is not acceptable. No half way measures. Is it a sin or not? Love it or leave it.
Many uneducated people apparently have not developed an ability to discern the fine nuances of life. They simplify everything to make life less complicated. If something is so intricate or beyond their understanding they can always say, 'God made it that way.'
The most egregious cases of ignorance that is also anti-science and religiously inspired is how some parents refuse vaccinations for their children. Ohio, which granted over 100,000 religious exemptions to kindergarten students last year is struggling to contain a measles outbreak. One parent said if you trust in the Lord you will not get a disease.
What is happening in higher education is another example of how America is dumbing down. University corporatization has shown much disregard for the intellectual dimensions of higher education. The once valued life of the mind is now seen as flighty and counterproductive. Academic life has degenerated into a vast increase in administrative employees and high paid coaches. The average college president’s salary is about $250,000 per year. Football coaches make as much as over six million. The Florida State University assistant football coach for offense makes $625,000 per annum, more than the president of the United States. In 21 states the highest paid public official is a college football coach.
Several state university presidents have been under fire recently for not changing with the times. University of Texas trustees and business executives say universities need to change into engines of economic development and reduce their roles as centers of scholarship. The Governor and a conservative think tank take a skeptical view of academic research and say we should place greater emphasis on instruction, cost efficiency and preparing students for the job market. The STEM program promotes this idea. They say we must insure that the next generation has the skills to compete globally so it will lead us toward economic prosperity. The result has been universities tending toward an unreflective and shallow environment. The anti-intellectuals of America have infested our university systems as well as the K-12 schools.
Anti-intellectualism is everywhere. Students who show an interest in school, especially science classes, are considered nerds, dweebs, dorks or geeks. There seems to be a pressure not to succeed.
Suppression and disdain for intellectualism and the arts has become so political that they are considered by some as subversive to national security and patriotic ideals. Some think art and literature should exist only to serve the national interest.
I’m afraid the Republican Party has to take the responsibility for this ubiquitous 'war on science.' Science strongly supports the notion that climate change is occurring on this planet. Not so says virtually all elected Republicans in the country Florida Governor Rick Scott has worked with the legislature to dismantle climate change initiatives. Senator Mark Rubio and former Governor Jeb Bush have also challenged climate change. I can visualize the future where a Republican is treading water in Miami yelling, 'It’s a democratic conspiracy,' Glug, Glug.
We know that contrary evidence makes a conservative’s dogma even more extreme. Their denial grows stronger to the point that they get downright angry when someone says global warming is a fact. When the government announces positive employment numbers they say the government is lying or when they say there is no inflation in the economy, they say the government is just hiding the fact that there is.
I was listening to Al Gore at the Kiwanis Club many years ago when he was running for the senate in Tennessee. Someone asked if he really did graduate from Harvard. He announced 'Yes, but I don’t mention it. It doesn’t help your campaign. It’s mostly in the red states that politicians pretend to be 'good old boys' and make fun of eggheads and show their disdain for the intellectual life and the arts. They also like to show their decisiveness and sureness about issues. Maybe we live in a culture that values brazen certainty and loud conviction no matter how wrongheaded.
Fundamentalism appears to be the religious manifestation of right wing authoritarianism. It makes you recall Mark Twain’s comment that 'very often in matters concerning religion and politics a man’s reasoning powers are not above the monkey’s.' Anti-intellectualism has always been a powerful force in American life. This along with a basic hostility toward science is a toxic mixture that will surely have dire consequences for our society.
Carl Freitag is a retired psychology professor and a member of the Space Coast Progressive Alliance. Illustration also by Carl Freitag.
*ED. NOTE: The views expressed here are solely those of the author. SCPA does not endorse candidates and welcomes commentary on a wide range of issues, including political campaigns, local, regional and national. If interested in contributing commentary, contact SCPA, please click here.