Monthly Archives: May 2016

American Anti-Intellectualism

Carl Sagan Cosmos

“We can judge our progress by the courage of our questions and the depths of our answers, our willingness to embrace what is true rather than what feels good.” — Carl Sagan

Yes, President Obama brought this quote to the fore recently, but I lead with Sagan intentionally … it’s an apolitical point. American anti-intellectualism has been weighing heavy on me lately. When professors are scared to lead class discussions on gender or race because their college students demand a safe space free of emotional triggers, this is anti-intellectualism. When we reject solid science because the finding doesn’t fit with our belief system or is economically inconvenient, this is anti-intellectualism. When supporters of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump start throwing fists because they can’t emotionally manage a challenge to their worldview, this is anti-intellectualism.

A post like this is not much better than shouting into the void, but the vast majority of my friends are well educated or smart people (sometimes both). I hope my conservative friends will insist that facts lead your issues, not bluster that feels good as an ends-justifies-the-means path to #winning despite the fact that it’s intellectually bankrupt. And to my liberal friends: I hope you wipe the smug, holier-than-thou looks off your faces, because our set is not exactly trending positive, even if it feels like liberal mob wisdom is on the good side of history while rationalizing another instance of muzzling free speech.

Mr. Sagan was right about the means by which we can judge progress. And by those measures, we’re going the opposite direction of progress. With the last 500 years more or less on the side of progress, I’ve always had the sense that it is inevitable. But the current tide against progress, rising from both sides, society acting like a stubborn family that insists on riding out a storm in their barrier island home while the sands shift away and the sea pinches in from east and west, is a black mark in the ledger that says inevitable progress is a myth. It reminds me that 1,000 years of medieval Europe came after the progress of Greece and Rome.

Anti-intellectualism is a frightening trend that any thinking person has a vested interest combating. President Obama is right: the rejection of facts, of reason and science, is the path to decline. If the fact President Obama made that statement causes you any desire to reject the sentiment out of hand, you need to think hard about who you are and what kind of person you want to be.

Mike Judge made a very silly movie about American anti-intellectualism in 2006 called Idiocracy. In what is truly sweet irony, the guy who created Beavis and Butthead satirically predicted that America would devolve into an unthinking society guided pliably by dumbed-down marketing and specious ideas within 500 years. Just 10 years later, what seems most silly is that Mr. Judge thought it would take that long.

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