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:
o A digitally-enabled mass media that subordinates the written and spoken word to an all-but-inescapable 24/7 onslaught of sound and video images that endanger the survival of serious thinking;
o A resurgence of fundamentalist religion that celebrates "willed ignorance" and "places observable scientific facts, subject to proof, on the same level as unprovable supernatural fantasy;"
o A malfunctioning public education system that has produced a level of ignorance in science (one in five American adults believes the sun revolves around the earth), as well as religion (a majority of American adults cannot name the four Gospels, or identify Genesis as the first book of the Bible), and a lack of simple curiosity (fewer than half of Americans, according to a 2002 survey, had read any work of fiction or poetry in the preceding year) that puts the citizenry's ability to think critically about any serious issue at risk.
Jacoby's arguments are compelling and well-crafted. However, they are by nature polemics, provocative and stimulating but impervious to proof. Is time spent in childhood reading The Bobbsey Twins or the Hardy Boys really better used than time devoted to twitching one's thumbs in response to video game images on a digital screen? It's easy for those of us who, like Jacoby, reached adulthood prior to the advent of the digital age to assume so, but we'll have to wait until our children gain control of our culture and economy to know for sure.
Jacoby's view of religious fundamentalism also assumes more than she can know with certainty. America's blatant religiosity has not prevented us from becoming one of the world's leaders in science and technology. For more than 230 years, the mind of our nation has been flexible enough to encompass both the unreasoning belief in supernatural religious myths that Jacoby condemns, and a dedication to understanding the natural world that has made us a leader in agriculture, manufacturing and engineering.
Jacoby quotes public television's Bill Moyers to argue that the role of religion in public life really is different today:
"One of the biggest changes in politics in my lifetime is that the delusional is no longer marginal. It has come in from the fringe, to sit in the seats of power in the Oval Office and in Congress. For the first time in our history, ideology and theology hold a monopoly of power in Washington."
But in the 2006 midterm elections, American voters resoundingly defeated the candidates of the religious right who opposed stem cell research and the teaching of evolution in the public schools. People of faith seem to have re-discovered the Biblical passages that enjoin believers to take care of the environment and their fellow man.
The Republican Party of George W. Bush and Karl Rove has been able to cynically manipulate evangelical Christians in the service of their political agenda. It is by no means certain, however, that those Christians will stay locked forever in thrall to Rove's machinations.
Jacoby's account of the failure of American education is the least arguable element of her story, perhaps because that failure is so evident, and so well documented. From the publication of the landmark "A Nation at Risk" study in 1983 to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development's ranking of U. S. students as 24th out of 29 countries in mathematical literacy, and 14th out of 25 in science, the available data leave no doubt that the quality of America's human capital is undergoing a long, slow erosion.
In that context, the second book, John McWhorter's Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, raises even more alarm today than when it was published in 2000. While Jacoby's story of America's increasing unreason should be unsettling to most Americans, it should be profoundly distressing to African-Americans. The ignorant, anti-intellectual America Jacoby describes is the same America in which African-American students are falling farther and farther behind every year. This growing achievement gap is fueled by a specifically African-American variety of anti-intellectualism that puts our children at an even greater distance from Enlightenment values than their white and Asian peers.
The statistics on African-American underperformance in school are depressing and familiar, but just in case you've forgotten:
o Only about half of African-American students who enter high school graduate;
o Those who do graduate from high school test at the same level as white students graduating from the 8th grade;
o The National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency that tracks education scores across the nation, recently reported that "Black-white gaps in mathematics and reading achievement appeared at every grade studied…Compared with white children, blacks scored lower on mathematics tests at every grade level studied between grades 1 and 12. Black-white mathematics gaps were usually similar in size for both boys and girls…Compared with whites, blacks also scored lower on reading tests at every grade level studied between grades 1 and 12. Black-white reading gaps did not differ consistently for boys and girls."
This situation is a looming disaster for African-Americans, one that threatens to undo all of the progress we've made since the heyday of the Civil Rights Movement.
McWhorter (a scholar at the Manhattan Institute and contributor to The Root) is a controversial thinker whose work has not been accepted with universal acclaim by African-American scholars and commentators. Many experts who have studied the academic underperformance of African-American students point to racism, poverty, teacher expectations, school funding and other external factors as causes.
But no one who has spent any significant amount of time with African-American teenagers over the past 20 years can fail to have observed that far too many of our children see the behaviors that lead to success in school as fundamentally foreign to their conception of authentic blackness.
McWhorter may well be a bit glib in his dismissal of the still-present external factors to the achievement gap. But it is impossible to dismiss his thesis that a "cult of anti-intellectualism" is a major contributor:
"The main reason black students lag behind all others starting in kindergarten and continuing through graduate school is that a wariness of books and learning for learning's sake as 'white' has become ingrained in black American culture…To be culturally black, sadly, almost requires that one see books and school as a realm to visit rather than live in," he writes.
America is entering a moment in history when, for the first time, our future prosperity, if not survival, will depend more on our intellectual capital than on our military might. That makes Jacoby's argument that we are slowly succumbing to the weight of a new and virulent American unreason especially pertinent. And it makes the cult of African-American anti-intellectualism profoundly disturbing, so much so that I marvel at our willingness, as African-American adults, to accept it without more protest.
Harold J. Logan is a businessman, writer and social entrepreneur who lives in Atlanta. A former metro and national reporter of the Washington Post, he is a cofounder of the W.E.B. Dubois Society .