December 4, 2009

When, and Why did being educated become a sin?

Shortly before his death in 1970, Pulitzer winning author Richard Hofstadter published the tome, Anti-intellectualism in American Life; somewhat of an anti-McCarthy rant in which the author argues that America's historic hostility towards Intellectuals and intellectualism is misplaced, and that society has suffered as a result. In his closing, however, Hofstadter seems to forecast our modern political climate, almost to a tee, while maintaining honest optimism for better.

“…that it made such a variety of styles of intellectual life – one [could] find men notable for being passionate and rebellious, others for being elegant and sumptuous, or spare and astringent, clever and complex, patient and wise, and some equipped mainly to observe and endure. What matters is the openness and generosity needed to comprehend the varieties of excellence that could be found even in a single, rather parochial society… It is possible, of course, that the avenues of choice are being closed, and that the culture of the future will be dominated by single-minded men of one persuasion or another. It is possible; but in so far as the weight of one’s will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that it is not to be so.”

The last great intellectual politician to make a run for the Presidency was Adlai Stevenson. He was defeated by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower could relate to the common man, while Stevenson had some difficulties with that, and the vote tallies proved that in spades. Intellectualism, it seemed, was no longer a requirement of the electorate.

In a stump speech, Eisenhower capitalized on Stevenson's perceived deficiencies, calling him an “egghead”, and defining an intellectual as “a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows.” The Eisenhower camp inferred that as an intellectual, Stevenson had “socialist leanings.” We all know that all those eggheads are pinkos at heart, right? Sound familiar?

In fairness, Eisenhower’s Presidency was far better for this country than that of any Republican since, and quite possibly better than any of either camp, but anti-intellectualism in political campaigning has become the hallmark of the right wing ever since. The left learned some lessons as well, and now there seem to be no boundaries for either wing.

After Stevenson’s failure, the next intellectual entry into the political fray was John F. Kennedy. Stevenson’s campaign downfall was seen by the Kennedy camp as the public's perception of disconnection with the common man, and of “talking down” on them. Kennedy was not going to let that happen in his campaign, and managed the tricky feat of displaying his intellectualism without seeming big-headed or snooty. But Kennedy was no Adlai Stevenson either. While educated and erudite, Kennedy could not match Stevenson’s philosophical bent and knowledge of history. None the less, he was seen as the enemy of the right, suffering many slings and arrows in the political debate. Following the assassination, society continued the slow turn toward complete unreason and anti-intellectualism that we find in politics today.

American newspapers once stood against this anti-intellectualism, but no more, and it really doesn’t matter as not many take the time to read or study anything in depth. Too many seek only confirmation of currently held beliefs. Our news and opinion is gleaned from sound bites and brief blog posts by pundits who will safely spew the venom with which we already subscribe. Most of what we think or believe is implanted in the mind/brain via video images and unremitting noise; leaving far too little room for thought or reason. The result has been a cacophony of hate speech, never-ending lies, dittohead rallies, and a cascade of single-issue voters. We don't vote for a politician... we vote against our evil enemy.

This is so at odds with the 18th century American Age of Reason. While not the historian Stevenson was, JFK recognized the downward spiral of American politics and wrote frequently, both during and prior to his election, of the need for American society to abandon parochialism, the need for division between thought and action, and to return to the 18th century political model where learning and a philosophical bent were believed to enhance, not encumber leadership.

America’s revolutionary generation was marked by many genuine intellectuals; men of extraordinary intellect and learning; great thinkers who were banished from Europe for their threat to parochialism and the status quo. These were the men who authored that most durable of documents, and formed the philosophies by which our American lives were to be guided.

In short, 18th century politicians were the antithesis of what has populated the political landscape over the past three generations. Hofstadter’s cautious optimism has fallen far short of the mark and rational political debate seems to no longer be possible. There appears to be no room for compromise. Yer either fer us… or agin us.

The course of every intellectual… if he pursues his journey long and unflinchingly enough… ends in the obvious, from which the non-intellectuals have never stirred. “

-Aldous Huxley



jbrock said...

No knee-jerk response can do this topic justice.

Therefore, I'm thinking about it. Seriously.

Anonymous said...

I would suggest that it is not merely politics that has suffered a serious dumbing-down, but rather society as a whole. When I discovered reading in my early teens, school and municipal libraries gave easy access to much classical literature and the complete works of the then currently acclaimed authors (that have since become classics). I recently looked for books by Hemingway and Faulkner in my local library and found only a tiny fraction of their body of works.

I've had occasion in the last several years to read some of the reports on elementary, junior high, and high school students' reading ability - astonishingly poor and getting worse.

I've read that school curricula through the high school level have been dumbed-down to the point that no one fails anything - which seems to be a main focus of "educators" in today's world.

I notice every day that media of every sort is presented by people so incompetent they would never have been hired a decade or so ago.

Are there means of reversing any of the above trends? I'm nearing the end of my run, but I still would like to believe there is a improvable future for our world.

Mule Breath said...

I think I agree, jeg. The politicians and the media may merely be those school kids you mention all grown up.