Originally posted by FMF
There is no reason to believe that large parts of any population wish to reject learning or those who are learned. People want the best for their society and themselves.
I disagree. A large part of America does indeed give every indication they wish to reject learning and those who are learned. Whether they want the best is an ambiguous and entirely subjective concept -- the entire concept of the Blue and the Red in American politics is all about who gets to define what is the best for our society and our people.
I've cited Hofstadter to show how a thread of anti-intellectualism runs through the history and culture of America. He dissects anti-intellectualism, goes into its history and origins in the US, and shows its impact in education, politics, and business. This thorough analysis won him the 1964 Pulitzer Prize in Non-Fiction.
Hofstadter is careful to define what he means by the intellect and intellectuals. The intellect is the critical, creative, contemplative side of mind that examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, questions, imagines. It is the province of writers, critics, skeptics, professors, scientists, editors, journalists, lawyers and clergymen. Just being a "mental technician" in these fields is not enough; one also acts as an active custodian of values like reason and justice and truth.
Unfortunately, America's culture has never embraced intellectuals. The intellectuals' education and expertise are viewed as a form of power or privilege. Intellectuals are seen as a small arrogant elite who are pretentious, conceited, snobbish.
They are generally depicted as white wine and brie elitists who look down on the common folk. Geniuses' are described as eccentric, and their talents dismissed as mere cleverness. Their cultured view is seen as impractical, and their sophistication as ineffectual. Their emphasis on knowledge and education is viewed as subversive, and it threatens to produce social decadence.
Instead, the anti-intellectuals represent that they believe the plain sense of the common man is altogether adequate and superior to formal knowledge and expertise from schools. The truths of the heart, experience, and old-fashioned principles of religion, character, instinct, and morality are more reliable guides to life than education. After all, we idolize the self-made man in America. This is often the kind of smoke screen put down by the moneyed, conservative elite to oppose progressives.
One saw this over the last 8 years under the Bushies as they subverted and politicized science and corrupted scientists and their organizations.
Hofstadter, though writing in the early 1960s, remains quite relevant, for the political technique of trashing intellectualism is deeply rooted in American history. He cited examples of anti-intellectualism from the nations founding to today. For example, the founding fathers were sages, scientists, and men of cultivation, yet the Federalists attacked the brilliant Thomas Jefferson by portraying the curiosity of his active mind as too trivial and ridiculous for important affairs. Today, military ability is the kind of test of character which is portrayed viewed as good for political leadership, and many voters view a show of intellect with suspicion.
I just watched Obama's first prime time press conference and I come away impressed, relieved and almost downright optimistic. The man is thoughtful, careful, articulate, funny, deft, and politically astute beyond anyone in that position I've seen in my adult life.
In business, commercial culture tends to breed acquisitiveness rather than inquisitiveness. Business often demands group cohesion instead of independent thought. Hofstadter points this out using a number of examples. A Harvard Business School Dean said, "we don't want our students to pay any attention to anything that might raise questions about management or business policy in their minds." A famous chemical company's training film spouts, "no geniuses here; just a bunch of average Americans working together." The general point is that business is indifferent to knowledge on a broad scale; only the money-making faculty needs to be cultivated to succeed. All that has come crashing down onto our heads -- which is a strong reason why Obama won the election. While he did not anticipate having to deal with what's on his plate right now, the menu is what got him the seat at the table.
Turning to education, Hofstadter points out that broad public education in the US was started not for developing the mind or the pride of learning for its own sake, but for its supposed political and economic benefits. Children were viewed not as minds to be developed, but as citizens to be trained for a stable democracy. He goes on to outlines the debates within the community of educators about what should be taught, especially in previous eras when most people did not go to college. Hofstader also cites studies that showed that even if students study "superfluous" intellectual subjects with no practical application, there ARE practical benefits; namely, learning any subject in depth teaches one how to learn something new.