2008-02-17

Are Americans Hostile to Knowledge?

From the department of yes:
Walking home to her Upper East Side apartment (after witnessing the destruction of the World Trade Center), she said, overwhelmed and confused, she stopped at a bar. As she sipped her bloody mary, she quietly listened to two men, neatly dressed in suits. For a second she thought they were going to compare that day’s horrifying attack to the Japanese bombing in 1941 that blew America into World War II:

“This is just like Pearl Harbor,” one of the men said.

The other asked, “What is Pearl Harbor?”

“That was when the Vietnamese dropped bombs in a harbor, and it started the Vietnam War,” the first man replied.
Of course this problem isn't confined to the US - there are plenty of countries around that have ignoramuses (ignoramasi?). But, and you know that I'll say this, I think that there is a higher percentage of anti intellectualism in the US than in the rest of the world (at least in the industrialised world).

I'm surprised, for example, whenever I occasionally debate an American online about their own history, that they are quite unaware of many things about their own past and have a rather jingoistic and blinkered view of their own country - American readers of and commentators on this blog excepted, of course!

20 comments:

BLBeamer said...

I wouldn't be so hasty to blame anti-intellectualism.

Why don't we blame a more likely culpable target: the public school system?

BLBeamer said...

BTW, I hope I don't sound entirely cynical, but I read that article and several red flags went up as I did:

1) She is trying to sell a book.

2) There's no way to verify her story.

3) "Neatly dressed in suits" was a nice touch.

Ron Lankshear said...

The evidence piles up

Beware
a video team could ASK difficult questions anytime


Even a question on Who Won the Vietnam War

Now lets see Pearl Harbour was when the Spanish fired on the state of Maine and FDR had to charge up a hill - and he was injured

or
this one says - just because a few people are dumb does not make a whole nation


PS what is the Irish Currency?

Edd said...

The school system is a shambles here in the US. If the states and local government would more control over the educational system I think children could learn a lot more. Obviously No Child Left Behind Act did not do a thing to solve this problem.

Of course you get what you pay for. The Federal gov't wants dumber kids. By dumbing down these children they will be easily malleable, easily controlled by the federal gov't. Colleges also churn out dumb teachers who fail miserably to teach students properly.

Anti-intellectualism is not to blame, just ignorance and too much television

BLBeamer said...

Neil (and others), Mrs. B and I had a lively discussion this evening and we believe your implications are unfair and unkind.

First of all, Mrs. Jacoby's thesis (and evidently yours), that anti-intellectualism is endemic to America in particular is asserted not proven in the linked article. If I may say so, that thesis sounds more than a little bit like the sour grapes of an ignored and unsuccessful intellectual.

What would Mrs. Jacoby consider an acceptable attitude toward knowledge? Since she writes for, among others, The Nation and The Guardian, I suspect she has a pretty strong intellectual view against supernatural religion and for the dialectic. This is merely conjecture on my part, since I am not familiar with her work. My objective is not to criticize her, anyway, since I agree with some of the opinions expressed in the linked article. But my point is that I suspect Mrs. Jacoby's real beef is that Americans don't favor the right kind of intellectuals. After all, there are intellectuals and then there are intellectuals. Intellectuals are not always benign but have been behind many of the more egregious horrors in history. In the interest of space, I assert this, but I hope you don't find this assertion so outrageous you think it necessary to provide references.

Anecdotes can be useful, but they do not prove the case. The videos Ron provided are humorous, but they are obviously edited for content, selecting the most outrageous (possibly scripted) answers for comedic affect. Those videos reminded us somewhat of Borat which you may have heard [spoiler alert!!] was actually not a documentary and contained many scripted parts.

As you have pointed out, the US is the most vibrant economic power on earth, the engine that drives much of the world. It has a powerful military, many fine universities and churches, with tens of millions of hard working, creative, and innovative people. How did a nation filled with people uninterested in knowledge blunder into such a condition? Was it just "dumb luck"?

One Salient Oversight said...

okay, links:

How about this one?

One Salient Oversight said...

Another one

One Salient Oversight said...

This is related

Washington Post Poll. Aug. 7-11, 2003. N=1,003 adults nationwide. MoE ± 3. Field work by TNS Intersearch.

"How likely is it that Saddam Hussein [see below]? Would you say that it is very likely, somewhat likely, not very likely, or not at all likely?"

"Was trying to develop weapons of mass destruction"

84 14 3

"Has provided assistance to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network"

82 14 4

"Had already developed weapons of mass destruction"

78 19 3

"Was personally involved in the September 11 terrorist attacks"

69 28 3

-----
Those numbers indicate rampant inability to look at facts.

BLBeamer said...

You've provided further evidence in support of my view that our officials' malfeasance regarding the public schools is appalling.

How does that support your thesis that anti-intellectualism is the root of the problem?

Ron Lankshear said...

Borat seems very popular in Aust at the moment. I watched a bit and chortled for a while - I preferred Tom Hanks "The Terminal".

I hope you realised the 2nd video I posted was in Britain. Even then these questions are always contrived - Is Ford a British car maker - well yes it was - but I suppose what was implied is country of origin of Ford - and I cannot keep track of which company owns which company. Most of British makes/brands are now German owned.

Of course in such videos we not see people give the "right" answers. Same way as Mike Moore does not on film really interview Roger which I gather he did.

Then I have a Dumb Blonde in my Inbox - on a TV show re are you as smart as a 10 year old. What country is Budapest the capital of?
The blonde somehow gets carried along on Europe being a country and France is the capital - she still got the 25000 as she Peeked at the 10yo's.
PLEASE NOTE THE 10 YO GOT THE ANSWER. So there is hope for the school system.
There are always Dumb ones BUT there are others around.....

So USA keep on doing what you doing things seem to happen ok.

One Salient Oversight said...

Here's a good one

Ron Lankshear said...

Of course the Blonde could not help when told about Budapest "hungry there is a country called hungry!"

Neil, surely Hussein had developed WMD - the 2003 question was - was he still doing it and did he have a stock pile somewhere. It now seems that he had destroyed everything. And I think Bush said perhaps not made public because he did not want Iran to know.

Has there been any major revealment of links to Usama or not?

BLBeamer said...

Ron: yes, I realized the 2nd video was in Britain. I didn't draw any conclusions about the level of hostility to knowledge in the UK, however.

One Salient Oversight said...

The aide said that guys like me were "in what we call the reality-based community," which he defined as people who "believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality." ... "That's not the way the world really works anymore," he continued. "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

- unnamed Bush Aide speaking to NY Times commentator in 2002.

One Salient Oversight said...

Jack Chick thinks science types are unbalanced, arrogant jerks whose book learnin' sends them straight to hell.

One Salient Oversight said...

conservative writer William F. Buckley is fond of saying he'd rather be governed by the first hundred names of the Boston phone book than a hundred Harvard professors.

here

BLBeamer said...

Neil, a few more of those and I will be convinced you have come over completely to my side and will renounce your silly "US endemic with anti-intellectualism" meme.

I was not responding to your Washington Post poll posting until now: 2 1/2 out of 4 ain't bad.

Speaking of rampant inability to look at facts: there are many people who still think Al Gore is a very smart guy and that he won the 2000 election, but I believe most of them are people in whose company Mrs. Jacoby would be comfortable.

Jack Chick???? Couldn't you find anybody more disreputable? You're really not helping your case, here.

BLBeamer said...

A case could be made WFB is an intellectual. His jest was to make a point, which you evidently missed.

One Salient Oversight said...

This looks like a good read - check out the comments

BLBeamer said...

I've not read Hofstadter's book, but I read all the comments you linked to. If the comments are at all revealing, I think they actually favor my point of view, rather than yours or Mrs. Jacoby’s. Here’s a few excerpts, with my comments immediately following each excerpt.

The intellect is the critical, creative, contemplative side of mind that examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, questions, imagines. It is the province of writers, critics, skeptics, professors, scientists, editors, journalists, lawyers and clergymen. Just being a "mental technician" in these fields is not enough; one also acts as an active custodian of values like reason and justice and truth.

“An active custodian of values like reason and justice and truth”? Oh my.

why is it that otherwise "anti-intellectual" Americans seem, at times, to worship Einstein and other physical scientists and mathematicians, while they continue to scoff at (or ignore) the work of the political scientists and sociologists in Hofstadter's coffee klatch?

I think this commenter is really on to something. Einstein, mathematicians, engineers and their like are folks whose work, while not understandable to most people, can be tested and falsified. If it turns out they’re wrong, usually it’s back to the drawing board. In the case of sociologists, anthropologists and political scientists, their false theories tend to harm people because their laboratories are societies. The obvious examples are Marx, Lenin, Pol Pot, the advocates of eugenics, etc.

A major focal point of Hofstadter's study is the turbulent fifties, when the demagoguery of Nixon and McCarthy poisoned the political atmosphere. Hofstadter perceptively reveals a democracy which emerges as a tragic loser when emotion replaces reason.

McCarthy was a demagogue, and Nixon’s failings are historic, but the same political atmosphere this commenter decries is the one that brought about the exposure and censure of McCarthy. As an advocate of reason as opposed to emotion, I wonder of this commenter is a supporter of Barack Obama?

While well written and argued, "Anti-intellectualism" clearly displays Professor Hofstadter's admittedly leftist perspective. Throughout the New Deal era, and indeed into the mid-1970s, a technocratic, liberal elitism dominated American life. Spurious pronouncements by so-called experts (Galbraith, Keller, Bell, etc.) were lent authority simply through their authors' university affiliation. Later, as this redistributionist-Keynesian orthodoxy sputtered and collapsed, the public grew understandably critical. Anti-intellectualism? Of course not. People simply exchanged the notions of one scholarly clique for another (Friedman, et al.). That's the shortcoming of Hofstadter's thesis -- not all intellectuals are liberals.

Very helpful. This is consistent with my earlier comments. It’s not the rejection of intellectuals or knowledge per se that Mrs. Jacoby seems to decry, it is actually the rejection of the “correct” type of intellectual she abhors. Friedman is an excellent example here to prove this commenter's point as is a more current person, Victor Davis Hanson.

A very interesting read. I have always been interested why the famous people to be recognised as 'Great Americans' are popstars and politicians rather than the few 'great' intellectuals America has produced like William James, Noam Chomsky, Guy Peirce, Richard Rorty and John Dewey. Although, my American friends appear to deviate from the average, as they are passionate readers of people like Wittgenstein, Russell, Niezsche etc.

Wow. Just…wow. Chomsky is one of the few “great” intellectuals America has produced? Is it any wonder the peasants don’t take these people seriously?

It never ceases to amaze me how America can be such a technological giant at the same time it is so easily duped by telephone psychics.

The US and Australia are among the very few countries in the world where one can believe in telephone psychics, flat earth, Zoroastrianism and toe-sucking but if you have one talent and can do it well, you can still make a comfortable living. And that really galls “intellectuals”.