I am a server, it’s the working class men that are most disturbed when I say anything that shows that I am a thinking person…
Our cultural disease of anti-intellectualism is yet again spreading and has been for many years. Conservatives I meet are often genuinely offended if I mention that I went to UC Berkeley for my undergraduate degree and have a Master’s degree or when I speak French with my husband in public. Many Trump supporters I’ve tried to engage in conversation cannot support their own arguments and several have actually physically fled when I asked reasonable, probing questions out of genuine curiosity. I work delivering pizzas, but I spend most of my time cleaning with a bleach rag and stooping to pick up detritus from the floor. I serve people that have gated mansions and working class folks coming in for the lunch special. While the rich don’t treat me particularly well, it is the working class men that are most disturbed when I say anything that shows that I am a thinking person. It is almost as if they believe the disease might be catching and that I must be scornfully condescending if I speak a word more complex than a third grade reading level would allow (and I’m a woman to boot!).
More than a hundred years ago even humble American farmers felt a need for an education: when not plowing and planting, there was the pursuit of knowledge through reading serious books such as Euclid, Plato, and Darwin. During the late 19th century lectures, the Lyceum movement, on many academic subjects, especially scientific lectures on new technologies like electricity, Arctic exploration, topics of social import were hugely popular as entertainment especially for the working and lower middle classes. Knowledge and education were a source of power, a way to move up in the world.
And yet, today knowledge and expertise can even be an impediment to success when charm, good looks, and even bribery suit the world better. We want our news delivered, not by the most knowledgeable journalists, but by bronzed Barbie dolls and blandly handsome, dull-headed anchormen. Despite the complexity of running a country and the vast amounts of knowledge indispensable to the job, we are more interested in candidates that charm us personally and that manage to stroke our egos through the television box. We don’t mind if such charming politicians appoint people to important positions, not due to qualifications, but based on loyalty or the right ideology (see George W. Bush, presidential appointments). We want our doctors and accountants to have a legitimate knowledge of their fields, and yet in other parts of our lives we are seduced more by bright, shiny distractions than by substance.
Perhaps, these American attitudes are due to ignorance. Maybe some people don’t value education because they think it is out of their reach, and maybe it really is. I truly understand that dilemma as someone who has had to declare bankruptcy for medical bills and as someone who currently gets a good portion of my food from the local food bank. Not alone in my generation by any means, I am someone who has a Master’s degree in English and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from UC Berkeley and yet find myself working for minimum wage. However, I have not given up hope for further education. I am studying French and Hebrew, and pursuing advanced education in Jewish Studies, developing my creative writing, painting, and musical skills, etc.
I am reminded of a quote by Charles Darwin: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” This concept is called the Dunning-Kruger effect, a cognitive bias in which people with little knowledge of subjects become overconfident in their abilities, and people with more knowledge tend to underestimate their grasp of a subject. If higher education becomes an evil, then the undereducated decide their opinions mean more than someone trained to be an expert. There are conservative organizations on many college campuses who ask their members to report any professors who have or mention different viewpoints. This negates academic freedom and may silence professors who are hounded and condemned for thinking differently.
I believe that these attitudes have been purposely reinforced by conservative “populist” candidates as both a strategy against those on the left: by convincing Americans that it is the educated liberals who are oppressing them (despite the fact that many conservative politicians went to the same Ivies as their opponents). Many Americans, if not most, have been left behind economically, they have fought in our wars, and cleaned the toliets of the better off. They don’t want to be talked down to by someone who knows more, so they throw the baby out with the bathwater — they reject the pursuit of knowledge and do not value it. These know-nothing approaches are created and reinforced by conservatives that would like to see meritocracy replaced by cronyism, an educated populace by a more easily manipulated one, and to return to non-questioning rote-learning that preaches that there is only one right point of view. It is a well-used tool by demagogues who affect conservative populism: that they are the only ones who truly understand the anger felt by the poor who are persecuted by the educated “ivory tower liberals” or even “latte liberals,” “limousine liberals,” and decadent progressive politicians who sport expensive haircuts. These so-called populist candidates suggest that liberals look down at them and sneer, that it is progressives whose policies have created a true underclass engulfing more and more previously middle class Americans. Unfortunately, Democrats have not fought back effectively, have not convinced Americans that it is the conservatism and conservative policies that are actually creating their oppression.
It is commonplace. I meet people every day who think they are more well-versed in pedagogy than their children’s teachers, who believe their folk theories of medicine are more valid than the recommendations of the best doctors, and who sadly, are often not equipped by education to evaluate claims based on evidence. It is not their fault that they have never heard of double-blind, peer-reviewed studies or fallacies in argumentation. I get it. It’s scary to navigate the world blind, but the end of this path is the sad truth that if you don’t value education someone else will and that group of someone elses will continue to get smaller, more elite, more powerful. Knowledge and expertise are worth something, and not just for rich people.
I would like to see great books (or at least informative ones) in the hands of children: The Diary of Anne Frank, the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers, Homer, and Stephen Hawking as examples. Children past of the age of reason have remarkable abilities to understand literature if challenged. My dream is to see people reading everywhere. Adults taking classes that expand their minds not just “fun” classes on cooking, crafting, and exercise. I dream of a culture like Finland’s where teachers are highly respected and well-compensated. It would be great to see lines outside of libraries and people from all circumstances feeling empowered to improve their minds through serious study, especially learning another language. I want every American to be equipped to critically evaluate the claims of politicians or be able to make some sense of conflicting medical studies. I’d like to live in a world where educated people are not seen as the enemy and scientific knowledge is not seen as superfluous. A culture that truly values intellectual pursuits is hard to imagine. The cost of not pursuing such a society are worse. Besides the various logistical issues that anti-intellectualism causes to a democracy, to American local and state governments, school boards, the media, and school curricula, I think it is the people who embrace this perspective that miss out the most, and we miss out on the contributions to thought they might otherwise make.
by Mellissa Mathieu
“Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” — Isaac Asimov