Sunday, July 18, 2010

Anti-Intellectualism and Public Views of Education and Inquiry

I've been gone for a while. Today's picture is of the three cousins sharing a picnic lunch on the Fourth of July. I am now the upper school director and on a twelve month contract, which has dramatically changed my lifestyle. I had the opportunity to give the sermon this morning at our Unitarian Universalist church and I posted my essay below.

"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

My grandmother was never fond of conversations regarding politics or religion. In current culture, this concept has expanded to “never risk offending anyone or saying the wrong thing to the wrong person under any circumstances.” However, we need to argue, debate, and question. As the scientific philosopher Karl Popper once stated, “If we ignore what other people are thinking, or have thought in the past, then rational discussion must come to an end.”

On a personal note, my son is in danger. All of our children are in danger.  This danger is not from any source that the news will tell you about, it’s not H1N1, it’s not terrorism, it’s not even shark attacks.  I think the great danger facing today's youth is that a growing portion of our population are threatening our children’s natural desire to ask why. Questioning is one of the most natural and instinctual behaviors we have. Ask anyone with a preschooler how many times they have been asked “Why?” in the past week.

Susan Jacoby from the Washington Post stated in her article The Dumbing of America, “Americans are in serious intellectual trouble -- in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a dangerous mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations. It is almost impossible to talk about the manner in which public ignorance contributes to grave national problems without being labeled an "elitist," one of the most powerful pejoratives that can be applied to anyone aspiring to high office. Instead, our politicians repeatedly assure Americans that they are just "folks," a patronizing term that you will search for in vain in important presidential speeches before 1980… There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality.” This quote struck me as I googled news relating to anti-intellectualism. Although I have had this conversation with so many of my friends in my little circle of “nerd-dom.” But this quote brings up a great point, and that is - why is this not a serious national discussion?

Many of you know my chosen profession is education. As an educator, I try to maintain the utmost respect for the many religions and political beliefs held by my students.  However, I do not hesitate to encourage my students to ask why. When discussing current events, literature, science, and all subjects, the most important skill someone can possess is critical thinking. My students were not afraid to tell me why they agreed or disagreed with The Little Prince’s opinion of adults or whether or not they believe Huckleberry Finn should have tried harder to stay “civilized” at the end of the book.

While critical thinking and questioning is openly encouraged in some educational institutions, many of you have likely heard by now, that the state of Texas has proposed changes to the state-wide assigned history curriculum to stress the superiority of American capitalism, de-emphasize Thomas Jefferson’s contributions due to his Deist beliefs, question the Founding Fathers’ commitment to a purely secular government, and present conservative political philosophies in a more positive light. I find this to be both horrifying and disheartening, when our country needs a new generation of leaders, diplomats, and citizens trained in the art of debate, argumentation, and critical engagement. Have we ever so desperately needed education reform that encourages questioning, communication skills, and varied historical perspectives within its curriculum?

Unfortunately, critical thinking is on the decline. Not only are memorization, scripted lesson plans, and recited student answers becoming more common, with the expansion of No Child Left Behind and standardized testing; but critical thinking, questioning, and asking why is even discouraged.

News media now commonly portrays those with high levels of education, particularly ivy-league graduates who enter politics and use large words as “elitist.” This drive toward the appeal of the common man, the every-day Joe the plumber, is frightening on many levels. Why would we not want our brightest and most intelligent, educated individuals to be the ones making important political decisions? Are large words the only intimidating aspect of the intellectual politician? I certainly would not want someone without the appropriate education to perform surgery on me. Why would I want someone without experience, education, and a firm grasp of the English language to speak on my behalf as a political representative?  How can intelligence be considered a political liability?

Pop culture does little to help the case of the intellectual. Watching Paris Hilton and the Jersey Shore people shop, tan and swim all day, not pursing a moment of intellectual stimulation is making my job harder. While it has never been traditionally popular to place first in the science fair or to own the newest calculator, or to love books, glamorizing a lack of education is commonly advertised to adolescents. So many young adults are ill prepared for adulthood and living an extended adolescence of tuning out, not pursuing careers, and partying well into their thirties.  If not that path, so many adults find themselves on auto-pilot. Working in a cubical from eight to five, going home each night to the same routine, watching the game and drinking a beer on Sunday night, then push repeat. Yes, we may spend more and waste more than anyone before us, but is this really the best use of our time on this planet? Where is the intellectual engagement? Meaningful discussions? Or personal reflection?

Anti-Intellectualism isn’t anything new. Looking at societies throughout history, it is certainly advantageous for those in power to have an under-educated, particularly zealous group of followers. What can provide more trust, money, and support than people who refuse to ask questions of their leaders? Only now, as tea partiers are dressing as founding fathers they cannot name and reenacting historical events they cannot explain, it is becoming more apparent how far the scale is tipping – not in our favor.

This isn’t totally depressing, because although the problem may be serious and the sources may be beyond our control, we can and should do something about it.

As a child, my family was an anomaly among many of my friends. As opposed to enforcing a set religious dogma on me from birth and expecting me to follow it unquestioningly, I was encouraged to choose my faith and my beliefs based on critical thinking and questioning. As soon as I thought I had everything figured out, my mom would ask, “well, why do you think that?” And then I would have to think everything through once again.

From that starting point, I became free to question, think differently from my parents, and engage in open conversation and debate about issues of the environment, politics, and my own opinions that changed often through my teen and young adult years. This was certainly not the easiest route my parents could have chosen for our family. Because let’s face it, it would have been so much easier to have teenagers who didn’t ask for an explanation of my curfew time or how grounding me was a violation of my rights.

However, what would be more pleasing for a small conservative religious community than unquestioning, quiet, well-behaved young women and men? Some of you already know that Josh, my husband, and I have known each other since we were kids. And a great example of what I’m referring to here, is when, Josh and I were debate partners and we were in the same high school sociology class.  On several occasions, our teacher told the class things that were so obviously false, like people were homeless because they chose to be, and women’s rights in China and the MidEast were much better than they were in the U.S. Josh and I decided that the least we could do is bring printed articles of evidence to share with the class to disprove our teacher. As you might have guessed, we were kicked out of that class.  That same year while we were punished for challenging an all-knowing teacher, it was entirely acceptable for the conservative Christian students in our high school to be allowed to bring their Bibles to science class in a silent protest of the teaching evolution.

So many other communities are of a similar mindset, that children should remain unquestioning and obedient. Why do we want our children living like this? Yes, asking questions about science, about societal norms, about faith may bring undesirable results for those around you, but can also bring a depth of understanding, a journey of discovery, and such greater strength in what you do believe. Is that not what we are all striving for?

Even before today, I am sure most all of you recognized that anti-intellectualism is a major problem. We looked more closely at the causes of this problem, and then discussed possible solutions that can get us back on track. In closing, I would challenge us all to look at opportunities in our own lives to challenge, question, and encourage others to do the same.

Through my own journey, I cannot imagine a better fit for myself and for my family than a Unitarian Universalist church. There is not a better community of people who will encourage my son to ask why, consider multiple perspectives, and think critically about the world around him. I hope to resist rolling my eyes at the twentieth “why?” of the day, and I will continue to encourage Ben to question everything around him – even if it means he gets kicked out of high school sociology someday.


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