Monday, December 22, 2014

Anti-intellectualism has already taken over the US

Prof. Patricia Williams. (© David Shankbone;
courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)
According to legal scholar Patricia Williams, anti-intellectualism is "taking over" the US. Depending on how you define it, however, one can make the case that intellectualism, as such, has been dead — or at least on life support — for more than two or three decades, and that now we're simply fighting over the ideology in which students will be indoctrinated.

What is "intellectualism", after all? What does it mean to be an intellectual? I'm afraid it's one of those words, the meaning of which we think is fairly obvious and held in common, but on closer examination really conveys different things to different people — a verbal cart made to carry different weights of psychological and social baggage.

On the surface, to be an intellectual is to enjoy the life of the mind more than the life of the body: to enjoy reading, writing, discussions, and arguments; to prefer work and entertainment that engages critical faculties and abstract reasoning abilities more than physical skills. More to the point, while such activities may have practical applications, the intellectual pursues these things more for their own sake than for any pragmatic reasons. The intellectual may be in pursuit of TRVTH or Wisdom. If so, though, it's not necessarily a high-speed chase for a quick capture; the intellectual is perfectly content to enjoy the ride, and catch up to TRVTH/Wisdom eventually.

That, at least, is what I think is a fairly basic yet accurate description of an intellectual. However, if there's anything intellectuals tend to hold in common, it's the presumption that they're part of a small, exclusive club; and they tend to feel put out when anyone is acclaimed as an "intellectual" who doesn't fit membership criteria much narrower than I've defined. Moreover, since intellectualism implies some degree of education, there's the tendency to define intellectuals solely by their degrees, their professions ... even the school from which they graduated. Behind the most egalitarian façade may hide a quiet, smug elitism.

One trait, however, that's definitely not held in common is the willingness to engage with different, opposing ideas. In fact, fewer intellectuals each year even trouble to pay lip service to it.

Prof. Williams is quite rightly miffed that Tucson school board members wouldn't take the time to familiarize themselves with the curriculum of the Mexican-American studies classes they cut this year (the one she mentions, Michael Hicks, referred to civil-rights heroine Rosa Parks as "Rosa Clark"). I wonder, however, what her reaction was to Sandra Korn's suggestion that Harvard abandon academic freedom in favor of a "more rigorous" standard of "academic justice" — essentially requiring research to reach politically-correct conclusions or be terminated. Is that "anti-intellectual"? Or does "anti-intellectualism" only apply when progressive studies are threatened?

Take another case: When Princeton sophomore Tal Fortgang wrote a scathing indictment of the liberal catchphrase "check your privilege" for the racist and sexist stereotypes it embodies in its assumptions, did Prof. Williams think he had a point? Or did she write Fortgang off as possessing a "cocooned 'white ghetto' narrow-mindedness"? 

When LGBT pressure groups forced UT-Austin to audit sociologist Mark Regnerus' work on the New Family Structures Study, claiming an outcome biased by homophobia, was that "anti-intellectual" ... or was it legitimate precisely because gay people felt wronged by it? When student activists disrupt events at which conservatives are the speakers, when professors are forced out of their chairs or denied tenure because of their political orientations, does Prof. Williams consider these events evidence of "anti-intellectualism"?

Understand, I'm not picking on Prof. Williams, or accusing her of holding a double standard. Rather, my point is that social conservatives in Arizona and elsewhere are merely doing, in a crude and clumsy way, what academic leftists have been doing more subtly and (to be honest) more effectively over the last five or six decades. If the definition of "anti-intellectualism" is to oppose the free exchange of ideas, to silence critics who challenge the predominant narrative or ruling ideology — well, campus leftists have largely been anti-intellectual for a couple of decades or more.

Education has long been seen as part of a student's moral formation; Aristotle even made the proper goal of education to teach a student "to like and dislike what he ought" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1109b). This conviction has influenced generations of educators, even those who may consider Aristotle an exponent of white-male oppression. The battle in Arizona and other places isn't over what content constitutes real knowledge so much as it is over what values — if any — should be taught in public schools.

Conservative critics have long complained that the left has hijacked public education in order to displace the values taught by conservative parents with the left's own preferences, essentially using tax dollars to make the classroom a factory of comprehensive social engineering. When educators criticize home schooling on the grounds that its students "aren't properly socialized", conservatives read this as code for "not properly indoctrinated into progressive values through social pressure".

The point is not that teachers are wrong to teach values; value-neutral education isn't really feasible, and from the standpoint of community development/cohesion it isn't really desirable. The point is that we have fights over the content of school courses precisely because we have fights over what the student ought to like and dislike. Even where we agree that the student ought to like x and dislike not-x, we dispute over the proper degree of emphasis x should receive and the appropriate manner of inculcating it.

In this respect, the cry of "rising anti-intellectualism" is something of a red herring. It's easy and fun to take snide potshots at philistines who don't take the trouble to study what they casually dismiss ("Isn't philosophy just a bunch of people's subjective opinions?"). It's more difficult to take on years of critique from opposing academics and thought leaders who have studied the work and found it wanting ... especially when you have a 1,500-word limit to observe. And while there's a nice, geometric symmetry to the assumption that people of similar backgrounds, intellectual capability, and education will hold similar opinions and values, humans in their messy, diverse individuality fail to conform to it. 

No, far easier to decry the "cocooned, 'white ghetto' narrow-mindedness" of oblivious bureaucrats and clueless bloggers.

I've rambled enough, so let me tie a bow on this:

There is an anti-intellectualism on the rise. However, it's nothing new, and it's not strictly speaking a "conservative problem". Nor is it a "liberal problem" — indeed, it's arisen precisely because the American mind has been starved of education in the great Western liberal-arts tradition. What little remains of it has been pre-processed, pre-chewed and pre-digested, to be regurgitated in the form of textbooks and Cliff's Notes, after extracting everything that could fire the imagination or lead to a life-long love of abstract thought.

The product of "outcome-based education", by and large, is adults incapable of discussing social issues except by parroting cant two or more generations removed from its original source; and unable to deal with disagreement except through the crude bludgeons of labels, straw men, demonizations, and allegations of cognitive bias.

But are we learning to like and dislike what we ought? That's up for dispute. Too bad we're in no mental shape to dispute it.