The Cult of Ignorance in America
An Essay On Intelligence by Brooke Nasser
For Rogue's Issue #3
Anti-intellectualism used to be the denizen of a certain group of aggressively conservative, god-fearing Americans, suspicious of innovation and determined to preserve the status quo, but it has now become a pervasive epidemic infecting all aspects of society. We’ve charted hundreds of debates about the relationship between technology and intelligence, and most anti-technology arguments verge toward myopic, overly simplistic justifications for mass stupidity. This is the Age of Technology, after all, and not the Age of Knowledge.
If you want to make a case for it, you should start with Nicholas Carr’s thoughtful Atlantic article Is Google Making Us Stupid? One argument Carr stresses over and over that is worth noting, however, is that this fall from intellectual heaven is occurring at all levels of our socio-economic strata. One of his friends, a pathologist who went “all the way” in the American educational system, admitted: “I can’t read War and Peace anymore. I’ve lost the ability to do that. Even a blog post of more than three or four paragraphs is too much to absorb. I skim it.”
The posit, that the current cult of ignorance in America has historical precedence, is not that difficult to qualify. Ralph Waldo Emerson, speaking to the Senior Class in Divinity College at Harvard University on July 13, 1838, issued a rousing call-to-arms. He asked the graduating class (and, arguably, the broader society of American intellectuals who were in attendance) to unburden themselves from the shackles of European influence and to become self-sufficient, thinking men.
His model for “Man Thinking” could have been, perhaps, American hero and self-educated Renaissance man, Benjamin Franklin. “We are more thoroughly an enlightened people, with respect to our political interests than perhaps any other under heaven. Every man among us reads, and is so easy in his circumstances as to have leisure for conversations of improvement and for acquiring information.” Franklin made this assertion in a letter written on September 6, 1783, to Charles James Fox, a Whig in British Parliament, an opprobrious critic of Lord North, and an ardent supporter of the American Patriots. Franklin, and his enlightened heirs like Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Herbert Spencer and Frederick Douglas, earned their intellectual distinction from European dominance and helped to hurtle America into the future.
Yet somehow, here we are in 2016, and a Reality TV star is improvising an election for the highest post in America. Even more disturbing, Donald Trump's arguments are persuading Americans to vote for him. Compare famously riveting political speeches in America’s illustrious past (Douglass' “The Hypocrisy of American Slavery”, William Jennings Bryan's “Cross of Gold”, Dr. King's “I Have A Dream”) with oratory calamities like Trump’s June 15, 2015 presidential announcement speech: “The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” Disregard, for a minute, his racist and xenophobic message and consider his phraseology: this is not fluid, intellectually dexterous linguistic excellence. A presidential candidate is stumping with speeches written at the 4th grade level.
Perhaps our Founding Fathers were right. Perhaps there is a historical precedence for gullibility and shallow, banal thinking in America. The 56, mostly European-educated men who comprised the Continental Congress believed that education formed the basis for a true democracy, and were hopeful for their young country’s intellectual future. Nevertheless, they put in place measures guarding against a true governing of the people, fearful that American’s understanding of and reverence for a democratic political process were not yet up to par. Continental Congress delegate James Madison (IQ 141.3) worried that "factions," or groups of citizens whose common interests, if unchecked, would persuade more than 50% of the population and "sacrifice to its ruling passion or interest both the public good and the rights of other citizens." Trump’s stupefying success certainly makes a compelling argument for the creation of the Electoral College.
Here we are, the prodigal children of the American Constitution, but where are Franklin’s “enlightened people?” Where are the readers and conversationalists, the educated masses devoted to innovation and learning? Thoughtfulness takes time. You have to sit with something for a while. You have to do research and check your sources. Today, however, there are no repercussions for intellectual laziness. You can emoticon your way through every human expression and get home in time for the latest episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
Susan Jacoby, author of The Age of American UnReason, uses language to expose the epidemic: She compares the way everyone from Presidential candidates to media analysts to televangelists have switched from using the traditional and respectful “ladies and gentlemen” to the ingratiating “folks”. She believes the colloquialism is “symptomatic of a debasement of public speech inseparable from a more general erosion of American cultural standards.” Perhaps that’s a lot for you to swallow, that the simple re-terming of “people” signifies an erosion of cultural standards, but once you start looking for it, you see it everywhere. Her argument is supported by hundreds of similar cases of seemingly trivial debasements that, when strung together, reveal a linguistic chokehold on the intelligence of average Americans.
Throughout American history, highly educated statesmen did not shame their intelligence or hide their messaging in colloquialisms in order to appeal to the public. They didn’t dilute their educations, nor did they underestimate the intelligence of the average American. But look where we are now! News has been boiled down to Twitter headlines. Is it science fiction to suppose we are nearing an era where a frowny face will follow a declaration of war? If Trump is elected, is he going to tweet "@KimJongUn “You’re fired :(" if North Korea makes another threat against the U.S.?
There is a current in modern American politics that the average, work-a-day American living outside of coastal cities and intellectual centers does not want a president who talks down to him. It's true that many Americans seemed to eat up George W. Bush's aw-shucks mentality, as if he were discussing a frozen water pipe in winter rather than Weapons of Mass Destruction. When Barack Obama came on the political scene, Harvard-educated and masterfully articulate, he was consistently criticized as elitist. The inherent assumption is that Americans want a President who “speaks at their level.” According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Institute for Literacy, 32 million Americans (aka 14%) can't read, 21% read below a 5th grade level and 29% exhibit a “basic” reading level. That means Americans want leaders who graduated from the 8th grade and can name all of the state capitals (except for Annapolis, Maryland, which is the most commonly forgotten state and state capital).
Communication, arguably our greatest and most powerful tool, is contagious. The degradation of language has trickled down through politics and media and now we’re all infected. We are parsing down an arsenal of highly nuanced emotions to two dots and a parenthesis. This is how we connect with each other emotionally. Is the Internet responsible or is the Internet merely highlighting this devastating debasement? The next generation will be much more connected than any previous one, able to reach a teenager in a fishing village in Sumatra or a Geospatial Engineer in Jackson, Tennessee or an animateur in Paris, France, but what will that connection entail, exactly? A photograph of the Ultimate Feast at Red Lobster with a bunch of thumbs-up emojis next to it?
Popular culture is cacophonous, hyperactive and dizzying. Going down the symptoms checklist of the current stupidity epidemic, high up on the list must be both a lack of motivation and a lack of focus. As Carr's pathologist friend expressed, Americans seem to have lost their ability to sit down and spend time with literature. We are no longer trying to understand challenging texts; we aren't even reading them! If CliffsNotes were the cheat sheet of the Boomer through X Generations, our new study guide is Twitter. The distress and elegiac beauty of the Sound & the Fury cannot be condensed down into a pithy Twitter post… but, of course, it can. And has. Obscure writer Tim Collins even managed to get a book published because of the humorous ways with which he mutilated famous literature. Ulysses, an arduous rite of passage for anybody interested in the English language, becomes: “Jamesjoyce: Man walks around Dublin. We follow every minute detail of his day. He’s probably overtweeting.” It’s funny, and we laugh, perhaps those of us who have actually read the book laugh hardest, but ultimately the joke is on us.
There is now an abbreviation for intellectual laziness... TL; DR. Translation: "Too Long; Didn't Read". It is pervasive and used without shame or apology. This disclaimer also typically precedes a solecistic, poorly worded opinion ranted out in what appears to be cipher until you unlock its abbreviation code. It is as if we have invented an adjunct language to reduce the amount of time required to share meaningless bits of data... Saving strength so that our fingers and minds have the energy to share even more meaningless bits of data... that nobody is reading anyway.
Homogenized language and homogenized art equals homogenized thought. If we aren't finding intellectual role models in media or politics, where can we find them? Perhaps the most telling indication of America’s disrespect for intellectuals is our treatment of teachers. We live in a society that pays educators very little, undervalues their role, restricts their abilities to perform their jobs, and then doesn’t reward them for persevering despite all obstacles. The people in charge of sparking and developing the minds of future Americans are undervalued and overworked. “Those who can do, do: those who can’t, teach.” This blaspheme is a universally accepted truism.
Michael Strong, author of Be The Solution, has a few radical responses. He started his career on the forefront of the education reform movement and calls himself a "radical social entrepreneur" – a term he and his colleagues coined to describe a global network of innovators who devise creative solutions for complex world problems. “The problem is most intellectuals passively accept the institutional status quo and just whine about not getting what they want out of the existing system,” he explains, putting the onus on us.
He sees our educational system as dysfunctional. “As New York State Teacher of the Year, John Taylor Gatto put it, 'Conventional school amounts to thirteen years of training in passivity and dependence'.” He also believes the current system is obsolete. “The longer people continue to embrace the corpse of government education, the more slowly the new life will grow,” he says. But he is optimistic: He encourages parents, educators, administrations and legislators to embrace variety. “The more varieties of schooling, the better.” One of his favorite slogans is: "If it can't be abused, it is not freedom." That mimics the radical thinking our Founding Fathers had when they broke from British rule 230 years ago.
Strong believes free, creative thinking in schools is key, but does not advocate intellectual bias or promote a strict liberal agenda. “Freedom will also bring many more religious schools, which are culturally alien to most in the creative class. Some may be actively anti-intellectual. Thanks to the Internet, everyone connected to the Internet has access to everything. It is much harder today to have cult-like control over young people as long as they have access to technology,” he explains. If we create and nurture an intellectually responsible public, they will use technology as a tool for accessing and sharing knowledge.
The question, then, is how can we as a nation be galvanized into caring – into being more intellectually and socially responsible? Strong believes that, contrary to popular pessimism, most Americans seek value. “They love to be engaged in activities and communities that are based on meaning.” He has practical advice: “Turn off the TV, ignore Kim Kardashian, Donald Trump, and the circus of popular media, and create or join a real on-the-ground project. You'll find an undercurrent of amazing people doing amazing things and loving it. Moreover, instead of exacerbating your frustration by screaming into the wind of media nonsense, you'll have the deep satisfaction of actually making a difference.”
His ideology reminds me of the Karl Marx quote: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it." What makes Strong’s work (and others like him) so important is that he isn’t writing snarky, scathing, theoretical essays on America and then sitting back and watching the intellectuals battle it out: like Emerson, he is issuing a call to arms for action and fighting against public inertia. It is a refreshingly positive approach to change and it starts with the individual.
“The 21st century economy will be the experience economy. As people move up Maslow's hierarchy, they will want more beauty, joy, adventure, love, companionship, empathy, and community,” he says. That sounds pretty damn good. Let's be engaged. Let's re-focus and un-clutter. Let's reverse this careless slide into a sodden seethe of intellectual sewage and rise from the muck to embrace the Age of Experience.