Have you ever wondered why so many people in the West, especially in America, are proud of not knowing science, mathematics, civics, and philosophy? It’s gotten to the point where ignorance of facts has become some sort of virtue. To proclaim that one is ignorant is seen as a laudable act.
There is a big difference between proclaiming one’s ignorance and admitting that one is ignorant. Being proud of being ignorant halts the processes of inquiry and progress. Admitting that one is ignorant leads to curiosity and progress.
The topic of anti-intellectualism came to mind after I stumbled across my tattered paperback copy of Walter M. Miller Junior’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Just picking up the old book brought back memories of how much I loved reading it back in 1982.
I bought the book after listening to the abridged serial radio adaptation of it when National Public Radio broadcast it in 1981. The story is one of the very few post-apocalyptic sci-fi novels that fully captivates my imagination.
The tale is set in a Roman Catholic monastery in the southwestern desert of what used to be the United States of America. The story progresses through thousands of years as civilization rebuilds itself. It centers around the efforts of “The monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz” to preserve and save the few remnants of scientific knowledge following the civilization-ending nuclear war.
The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, an electrical diagram is discovered. In the second part, one of the monks figures out how to construct a working incandescent lamp. In the third part, technology has re-advanced and the world has reached the point of repeating history. The novel has the backdrop of anti-intellectualism versus curiosity. Now that I’ve rediscovered the old book, it is near the top of my re-reading bucket-list.
Here is a snippet of Miller’s writing:
“Ignorance is king. Many would not profit by his abdication. Many enrich themselves by means of his dark monarchy. They are his Court, and in his name they defraud and govern, enrich themselves and perpetuate their power. Even literacy they fear, for the written word is another channel of communication that might cause their enemies to become united. Their weapons are keen-honed, and they use them with skill. They will press the battle upon the world when their interests are threatened, and the violence which follows will last until the structure of society as it now exists is leveled to rubble, and a new society emerges. I am sorry. But that is how I see it.”
The dark, anti-intellectualism theme is counterbalanced by the titles of the novel’s three parts. “Fiat Homo” (let the man)–the new Dark Ages. “Fiat Lux” (let light be made)–several centuries after the end of the new Dark Ages. “Fiat Vountas Tua” (Thy will be done)–the age mirroring our present modern era.
There is a certain frustration with the immense superficiality of today’s anti-intellectualism that many of us feel. There is the new, wide-spread practice of placing hearsay and superstition on the same level of public discourse as observable science.
“Illiteracy does not impede the practice of democracy, anti-intellectualism does.”–Henry Johnson Junior
The resurgence of anti-intellectualism and anti-rationalism is beginning to take its toll on this nation’s progress. This trend fuels the escalation of anger, fear, anti-government sentiment, prejudice, and overall hostility. All of these together cause a short-sightedness that endangers the viability of western civilization. The resulting cynicism brings about balkanization or broken, bickering society.
This attitude is disguised as “anti-elitism”. It is a downward spiral upon which society increasingly disrespects scholastic inquiry. This results in further alienation along with more irrationalism and uninformed populism. The populace becomes ever more vulnerable to conspiracy theories, fiery rhetoric, and selective propaganda. At its worst, anti-intellectualism leads to tyranny and dictatorships.
These are just a few of the reflections about today’s trendy anti-intellectualism that have crossed my mind lately. My hope is that the fad will die away. On the other hand, I have a feeling that it is here to stay awhile longer.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes astronomer Phil Plait. “I’m tired of ignorance held up as inspiration, where vicious anti-intellectualism is considered a positive trait, and where uninformed opinion is displayed as fact.”