Americans have always had an uneasy relationship with learning and those who pursue it. We are a nation that has made free public education a birthright, but we pay teachers the lowest salaries of any group of college-educated professionals.
In the last two presidential elections, we’ve chosen a man of less-than-mediocre intellect whose thinking is as garbled as his syntax, while the braininess of politicians such as Adlai Stevenson, Mario Cuomo and Bill Bradley has put them at a disadvantage in trying to reach the nation’s highest office.
Our heroes are athletes and entertainers, while we fabricate un-endearing terms like “nerd” and “egghead” for successful students. Our national myth celebrates the self-made man who succeeds by native wit and guile; we’ve always been a little suspicious of the “pointy-headed” intellectual who succeeds by using his brain.
Until recently, African Americans’ relationship to learning has been less conflicted. Through slavery and segregation, whites tried to keep it away from us, while we, recognizing it as the key to attaining whatever freedom was available, risked life and limb to get it. Only in the last 35 years, a period that produced the greatest expansion of opportunity for black Americans since the Emancipation Proclamation, have we adopted a kind of paradoxical schizophrenia about education that mimics the majority culture.
Thus America today is host to two kinds of anti-intellectualism —the mainstream culture’s, and our own unique African-American brand. I’ve just finished reading two books — one new, the other a few years older — that take close and disturbing looks at each one. The new book, Susan Jacoby’s The Age of American Unreason, paints a compelling portrait of a nation sinking into a quagmire of ignorance that renders America increasingly ill-equipped to confront the massive challenges we face.
The older, John McWhorter’s Losing the Race, portrays an African-American community turning its back on the most effective tool available to end centuries of under-privilege. As an American, I find the combined message of these books sobering. As an African-American, I find it downright scary.
With passion and considerable insight, Jacoby argues that the anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism stalking the nation today are fundamentally different from, and more dangerous than, the suspicion of learning that has been a persistent feature of the American landscape since the Second Great Awakening. “It is difficult to suppress the fear that the scales of American history have shifted heavily against the vibrant and varied intellectual life so essential to functional democracy,” she writes. “During the past four decades, America’s endemic anti-intellectual tendencies have been grievously exacerbated by a new species of semiconscious anti-rationalism, feeding on and fed by an ignorant popular culture of video images and unremitting noise that leaves no room for contemplation or logic.
“This new form of anti-rationalism, at odds not only with the nation’s heritage of eighteenth-century Enlightenment reason but with modern scientific knowledge, has propelled a surge of anti-intellectualism capable of inflicting vastly greater damage than its historical predecessors inflicted on American culture and politics.”
Jacoby, the respected author of previous books on Russia and freethinking, lays the blame for this depressing state of affairs at the feet of three interconnected phenomena: