The politics of American anti-intellectualism
23 Mar 2010

The politics of American anti-intellectualism

Nothing is more political than education. The

23 Mar 2010

Nothing is more political than education.

The Texas State Board of Education reminded us of the phenomenon this month, rewriting textbook guidelines to match their conservative, theological worldviews. Not since the Kansas Board of Education voted to restrict the teaching of evolution has an entire state backlashed so strongly against science and reason.

In an editorial on the board’s actions, the Houston Chronicle wrote:

In its revamp of the state’s social studies curriculum, a majority of the board has consistently voted to reshape our history. Instead of the messy, complicated past, the extremist members prefer a simple story of triumphant Christian soldiers.

Last week the board voted to remove Thomas Jefferson — Thomas Jefferson! — from a list of Enlightenment thinkers who changed the world. The Enlightenment, with its emphasis on reason over tradition, doesn’t sit well with the board.

From the Wall Street Journal:

As Don McLeroy, one of the leaders of the board’s conservative faction, put it in last year’s debate over evolution, “somebody’s got to stand up to experts.”

Indeed, outrage against the conspiracy of intellectuals seemed to lurk just below the surface during last week’s deliberations, breaking into the open during moments of rancor. “I see no need, frankly, to compromise with liberal professors from academia,” railed board member Terri Leo when someone challenged the move to nix the word “capitalism.” “That’s part of the problem of how we end up with distorted and liberal biased textbooks is because that’s who’s writing them.”

Are the actions of Texas and Kansas anomalies, or is there a larger movement at play?

Mostly white, undereducated, and underemployed, the Tea Party movement has become the poster child for American anti-intellectualism. Whereas the group’s members fared well in the industrial era, they find themselves unable to compete in a global economy powered by ideas. Simply put, they have few new skills to offer, and nobody wants to hire them.

The world is changing around them, and they are frightened. They do not understand the changes, and they do not want to change themselves. Worse yet, they do not want to understand what is going on. We see this in the surge in popularity of radical commentators (i.e., Glenn Beck) who provide simplistic narratives of the world that often have little or no connection to reality. They redirect their fear of what they do not know or understand and transform it into anger.

In January, the conservative columnist David Brooks lamented American anti-intellectualism and the backlash against educated people:

The educated class believes in global warming, so public skepticism about global warming is on the rise. The educated class supports abortion rights, so public opinion is shifting against them. The educated class supports gun control, so opposition to gun control is mounting.

The story is the same in foreign affairs. The educated class is internationalist, so isolationist sentiment is now at an all-time high, according to a Pew Research Center survey. The educated class believes in multilateral action, so the number of Americans who believe we should “go our own way” has risen sharply.

What will you do when anti-intellectual politics comes to your school?

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