Moron America's anti-intellectualism

People accustomed to hearing their president explain complicated policy choices by snapping "I'm the decider" may find it almost impossible to imagine the pains that Franklin D. Roosevelt took, in the grim months after Pearl Harbor, to explain why U.S. armed forces were suffering one defeat after another in the Pacific. In February 1942, Roosevelt urged Americans to spread out a map during his radio "fireside chat" so that they might better understand the geography of battle. In stores throughout the country, maps sold out; about 80 percent of American adults tuned in to hear the president. FDR had told his speechwriters that he was certain that if Americans understood the immensity of the distances over which supplies had to travel to the armed forces, "they can take any kind of bad news right on the chin."

This is a portrait not only of a different presidency and president but also of a different country and citizenry, one that lacked access to satellite-enhanced Google maps but was far more receptive to learning and complexity than today's public. According to a 2006 survey by National Geographic-Roper, nearly half of Americans between ages 18 and 24 do not think it necessary to know the location of other countries in which important news is being made. More than a third consider it "not at all important" to know a foreign language, and only 14 percent consider it "very important."

That leads us to the third and final factor behind the new American dumbness: not lack of knowledge per se but arrogance about that lack of knowledge. The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it's the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism -- a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.
- Susan Jacoby, Washington Post.


BLBeamer said...

I wonder why the public schools don't do something about this?

BLBeamer said...

Come on, Neil. Give it up.

People like Jacoby think anyone who refuses to adopt their progressive views are anti-intellectual. They use anecdotes like those in the article as proof.

For example, why are Marxists never referred to as "anti-intellectual" despite abundant evidence that Marxism is the biggest failure in history? (I'm not saying Jacoby is a Marxist).

Our public schools are a mess. Our private and home-schooled children excel. If Jacoby and her ilk were really interested in the proliferation of knowledge, why haven't they endorsed programs that encourage private/home-schools at the expense of the public schools?

It seems to me that persistently throwing money down the proverbial rat-hole is not too intelligent. It could even be called anti-intellectual.

One Salient Oversight said...

why haven't they endorsed programs that encourage private/home-schools at the expense of the public schools?

So your solution to worsening problems in public schools is to fund them less?

Why not fund them more?

Remember - those countries that are overtaking the US in key performance areas are predominately using public schooling to do so.

What is it about public schooling in America that is so bad, while public schooling elsewhere is (generally) good?

One Salient Oversight said...

BTW - this seems like one of those times where you're fired up enough to write a guest blog post.

BLBeamer said...

So your solution to worsening problems in public schools is to fund them less?

Why not fund them more?

You're not serious? I hope that is a rhetorical question.

My solution is to fund what works, rather than what doesn't.

One Salient Oversight said...


I'm a teacher. I've spent most of my time teaching in public schools. Moreover, these successful countries beating the US in key performance areas use public education as well.

Is it possible that the reason US public schooling is failing is because not enough money is being channelled towards it? Given the evidence from overseas public schooling, I think it is.

BLBeamer said...

Do you know how much money, in total and per student, has been spent the last 20 years? By every measure, the public schools have had much, much more spent and yet the privtae/home-schooled children continue to excel and surpass the performance of public schooled kids.

How much per student does the US spend compared to other countries with public school systems? Do you have any idea? How much of it is actually spent on "education"?

No, given our current public school systems, it is not possible to obtain better performance with more dollars. Why must you hope against hope that it will?

I thought I've made it clear I'm not opposed to public schools as such, but the US system is irreedemable.

BLBeamer said...

BTW, you have never addressed Jacoby's thesis, as I have.

You asked for a blog post on this subject. If you take my responses to the present and the previous link to Jacoby's articles, I think you've already got a pretty fair blog post from me.

I'd be interested in your comments.

One Salient Oversight said...


I think you have fallen into one of the logical fallacies that often bedevil "conservative" thinking in the United States.

First of all you assume that, since private schooling produces better outcomes than public schooling, that the only possible reason for this is that private education is "superior" and thus provides a better, more efficient use of monetary resources than government run public schools.

You have not taken into account one very important variable - that being that private schooling removes potential high achievers from public schools and places them in private ones. Thus the reason why private schooling appears to do better is simply because richer folk with high achieving kids have chosen to send their kids to private schools.

All you're doing, therefore, is shifting the good students who will do well anyway into private schools. Then the argument becomes "private schools do better" - but that's only because their "raw material" is better.

I've taught in public schools and I have taught in private schools and I have noticed this difference.

Secondly, as you have continued to do in this discussion, you do not address the simple fact that public schooling in other countries seems to work better than the US. Why is this so? For starters, they are better funded. Moreover, there is a more balanced aim with education in these countries which helps to focus upon the development of those at the bottom of the educational pile. In the US, a lot of resources go towards the better students than the poorer ones. In practice this means that the top US students are equal to those anywhere in the world, while the bottom students in the US are behind the bottom students internationally. On average, this mismatch of resources has led to a lower than average performance.

This complete aversion to international comparisons is something American conservatives do often, which, to me, is an indication of anti-intellectualism. To argue that international comparisons are unnecessary and that America is a "special" case that defies comparison (based probably upon ideas like manifest destiny and not wanting to critique America as "no. 1") is an example of this problem.

Thirdly, to argue that those like Jacoby and others are merely trying to sell books and brand those who disagree with them as being "anti-intellectual" is as easy a slur to make as any. There are many disagreements and discussions and arguments among American leftists and intellectuals and none of these people brand the other in this way. If someone disagrees with a person like Jacoby, the charge of anti-intellectualism can only be sustained by the content of their argument. Someone may say that Jacoby is wrong because they have misinterpreted important evidence, forgotten to include other important evidence and so on. That is not a disagreement that is considered anti-intellectual. If a person says that Jacoby is wrong because she just wants to sell books and is arrogant and associated with the evils of Marxist thought, such a disagreement can be considered anti-intellectual.

And the problem is that much of conservative thought IS anti-intellectual. The fact that the doyens of conservative thinking include such notables as Coulter, Limbaugh and O'Reilly and include economic and social policy guided by people like Grover Norquist IS evidence that conservative thinking in the US is anti-intellectual. Moreover, I have yet to read any serious conservative thinker take to task the problems of the current conservative movement and get away with it. Instead we end up reading commentators like Charles Krauthammer who are merely naked ideologues rather than serious thinkers.

Fourthly, it is also obvious to someone like me that America does not spend their educational money wisely. America spends more on health care as a percentage of GDP than any other nation yet has health outcomes that are worse than other industrialised nations - nations who spend less per capita on health. That is evidence that health care money is not being used properly and I would argue that this is the case with public schooling in America as well. Again the question arises - why do public schools in other nations perform better, even though America spends an equivalent amount of money (GDP per capita)? The most obvious and reasonable and intellectual conclusion you can come to is that there is something stopping public schooling in the US from functioning properly, and the solution is to re-jig the funds and fund public schools more to improve results. After all, its the rich teams in US sport who can afford to buy the best players while the poor teams suffer.

Fifthly, it is also quite obvious to outsiders that Public Schooling in the US has been subject to cost cutting and criticism for many decades. The deep anti-public school feeling amongst Americans is just not there amongst other westerners - Public schools are NOT the enemy in places like Australia, Britain and Europe. Tax cutting and cost cutting and pro-private schooling and home schooling all seem to fit into conservative American ideology. In practice it has led to the marginalisation of the poor, who benefit most from public schooling.

BLBeamer said...

A few brief rejoinders, but saving a more thorough response for later this evening.

1. Private schools provide better results even in poor neighborhoods (parochial schools, for example). Not all private schools in the US are exclusive. The poor are who are most hurt by our current public schools.

2. One of my very first posts on your blog pointed out that US students (public and private) do worse on nearly every education metric vis a vis non-US schools. I am well aware that the other countries have public school systems. For various reason, which we may get into, there are different incentives and governance schemes in the US that ensure mediocre outcomes.

3. I don't believe you know what the term "manifest destiny" means. I've never heard it used as you have.

4. If you don't think leftists name-call, then you are not as aware of American commentary as you believe you are.

5. You have mischaracterized my criticism of Jacoby's thesis.

BLBeamer said...

Time slipped away so I'll have to do more later, but a couple more additional items.

5.1. You have seriously mischaracterized my criticism of Jacoby's thesis.

6. I have never heard Coulter, Limbaugh and O'Reilly classified as intellectuals before. I assume that's what you meant by "doyens of conservative thought". I'll let their fans defend them. If they are who leftists in Australia and the US think are the conservative intellectuals in America, that is astounding.

7. You agree with me that the US doesn't spend its education dollars well. So your solution is to give the money-wasters even more to spend?

8. I disagree that public education in the US has suffered cost cutting, and I'd like to see the data behind that opinion. I do agree that it has been subject to criticism for decades. Criticism means what, exactly? You regularly criticize the US, yet you insist you aren't anti-American.