Friday, February 22, 2008

Are Americans Too Dumb?

There is a new book out by Susan Jacoby that takes Americans to task for their ignorance. (I have not read it yet.) In it, she apparently takes Americans to task for knowing so little about the world, a very familiar charge. The New York Times has an article about it. The comments are lengthy, and many of them (both from Americans and foreigners) are full of the familiar laments about Americans preoccupied with celebrities and America itself, ignorant of the world around them and the consequences of America for it. (Interestingly, the Google ads that came up when I loaded the article were for atheism and the Obama campaign, with atheists notorious - for example, in calling themselves “freethinkers” and “brights” - for considering themselves smarter than the rabble, traits that might evidently also apply to some potential Obama supporters.)

I have mixed feelings about the charge. First, as an educator, I naturally think knowledge is preferable to ignorance. And yet the charge of the ignorant American, often dressed up (as in Ms Jacoby’s book title) with the word “reason,” ceases to be serious when it becomes wrapped up in political accusations. Al Gore had a book called The Assault on Reason, by which he meant insufficient acceptance of the environmental views he favors, while the British writer Dick Taverne had one called “The March of Unreason,” where he laments, among other things, the excesses of environmental hysteria. “Americans are dumb because they don't have my political views” doesn’t get us very far.

But international comparisons of standardized tests clearly show that American students emerge from their schooling deficient in many ways, and consensual government certainly cannot function with an ignorant populace. (Nor can it expect to maintain a just tax policy when 40 percent of Americans pay no income taxes, but still get to vote for representatives deciding what the taxes will be, but that is a post for another day.) As a society we could certainly do much better; it is not sensible to argue otherwise.

And yet the tone of the argument – Americans are ignorant, therefore they don’t enact certain public policies that I want them to act – is if anything more dangerous. Distinct from Americans' lack of knowledge is American skepticism about intellectuals, which is in my view a healthy feature of American life. (I say this as a trafficker in ideas myself.) Intellectuals have created some of the most forlorn historical moments in the last 200 years. Those who believe that history tracks along some inevitable course, and if people are reacting unpredictably and thus slowing progress down they need to be removed by any means necessary, have brought one calamity after another to those they rule. It was the freethinkers of 1789 Paris who encouraged the Revolution to proceed full steam ahead; Hitler got critical support from such anti-capitalist intellectuals as the philosopher Martin Heidegger; Spengler asserts that an anthropologist founded the barbarous Shining Path in Peru; Lenin and Pol Pot (the latter man trained in France) were both highly educated men who just knew that they needed the absolute authority to break the necessary eggs. In America such things have been tried (think of FDR’s “brain trust,” which both ruthlessly violated American civil liberties and made the Depression much worse while many of its members were smitten with the Soviet example, or the intellectual glitz of the Kennedy administration) but with considerably less effect. Rather than scorn for degrees, ideas and the men who hold them being seen as depriving society of the necessary guidance, perhaps it is best seen as a sometime annoyance but occasionally vital disruption of the equation Intellectuals + Power = Disaster. Americans know that having read a lot of books is not the same thing as having a lot of knowledge, and the best intellectuals appreciate the limits of what they know.

Someone once said that totalitarianism is always just around the corner in America, but always actually happens in Europe. I think that skepticism of intellectuals as just another pressure group serves us well, no matter what the intellectuals themselves may say about it. One should always be skeptical of someone starting from the premise that he knows what's best for you. Undoubtedly highly educated people around the world are frustrated that a society with such a strain of thought is the most powerful nation in the world, but the alternative could be worse. Much worse. Knowledge is not the problem. Men intoxicated with their knowledge is.


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