The Closeted American Mind: Intellect? Shhh…


Nicholas Kristof has written an interesting column in today’s NY Times about America and anti-intellectualism:

Then there’s this embarrassing fact about the United States in the 21st century: Americans are as likely to believe in flying saucers as in evolution. Depending on how the questions are asked, roughly 30 to 40 percent of Americans believe in each. A 34-nation study found Americans less likely to believe in evolution than citizens of any of the countries polled except Turkey. President Bush is also the only Western leader I know of who doesn’t believe in evolution, saying “the jury is still out.” No word on whether he believes in little green men. Only one American in 10 understands radiation, and only one in three has an idea of what DNA does. One in five does know that the Sun orbits the Earth …oh, oops.

Kristof quotes Susan Jacoby (author of The Age of American Unreason):

“America is now ill with a powerful mutant strain of intertwined ignorance, anti-rationalism, and anti-intellectualism,” Susan Jacoby argues in a new book, “The Age of American Unreason.” She blames a culture of “infotainment,” sound bites, fundamentalist religion and ideological rigidity for impairing thoughtful debate about national policies.

An overstatement on Jacoby’s part? I don’t think so. Here’s Kristof again:

From Singapore to Japan, politicians pretend to be smarter and better- educated than they actually are, because intellect is an asset at the polls. In the United States, almost alone among developed countries, politicians pretend to be less worldly and erudite than they are (Bill Clinton was masterful at hiding a brilliant mind behind folksy Arkansas sayings about pigs). Alas, when a politician has the double disadvantage of obvious intelligence and an elite education and then on top of that tries to educate the public on a complex issue — as Al Gore did about climate change — then that candidate is derided as arrogant and out of touch. The dumbing-down of discourse has been particularly striking since the 1970s. Think of the devolution of the emblematic conservative voice from William Buckley to Bill O’Reilly. It’s enough to make one doubt Darwin.

There’s no simple solution, but the complex and incomplete solution is a greater emphasis on education at every level. And maybe, just maybe, this cycle has run its course, for the last seven years perhaps have discredited the anti-intellectualism movement. President Bush, after all, is the movement’s epitome — and its fruit.

Rather depressing, in fact, one wonders if this cycle will ever cease to run its course.

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