coromandal


the degradation of intelligence
January 18, 2011, 7:33 pm
Filed under: brave new world | Tags: , , , , ,

I was wandering with a friend through a lower east side neighborhood in Manhattan, having just moved into town and relishing each new street and bar and topic that came up as we ambled along and talked.  He had moved to the US three years prior, and I had been here – in another city – for over ten years.  But now I was new to New York and he was my guide.  Too, he was a confessor of sorts for me to test my ideas about the strangeness of life in America.  And so on that day I made some generalizations between bars, including one about my bafflement about our love affair with dumbing down, our anti intellectualism.  His answer surprised me both for how quickly he reacted and for the content.  I asked, why do I always feel like I can’t have an intelligent conversation with anyone, friends, acquaintances, colleagues?  He said, because in America you have to pay for your education.

This is George Monbiot on the degradation of intelligence in the US. Regardless of personal politics, it is a topic worth taking a dispassionate look at.  Topics include fundamentalism, darwinianism and slavery.  A really clear if biased discussion of a big problem for a society that continues to describe itself as free.

From the article:

Like most people on my side of the Atlantic, I have for many years been mystified by American politics. The US has the world’s best universities and attracts the world’s finest minds. It dominates discoveries in science and medicine. Its wealth and power depend on the application of knowledge. Yet, uniquely among the developed nations (with the possible exception of Australia), learning is a grave political disadvantage.

/…/

Susan Jacoby’s book The Age of American Unreason provides the fullest explanation I have read so far. She shows that the degradation of US politics results from a series of interlocking tragedies.

Fundamentalism and anti-rationalism:  American Christians first found Darwinian natural selection and laissez faire economics obscene.  These ideas were propagandized by American millionaires:

Spencer’s doctrine, promoted in the popular press with the help of funding from Andrew Carnegie, John D Rockefeller and Thomas Edison, suggested that millionaires stood at the top of a scala natura established by evolution. By preventing unfit people being weeded out, government intervention weakened the nation. Gross economic inequalities were both justifiable and necessary.

Today they believe the opposite:

It is profoundly ironic that the doctrine rejected a century ago by such prominent fundamentalists as William Jennings Bryan is now central to the economic thinking of the Christian right. Modern fundamentalists reject the science of Darwinian evolution and accept the pseudoscience of social Darwinism.

Education blockades and home schooling:

The US is peculiar in devolving the control of education to local authorities. Teaching in the southern states was dominated by the views of an ignorant aristocracy of planters, and a great educational gulf opened up. “In the south”, Jacoby writes, “what can only be described as an intellectual blockade was imposed in order to keep out any ideas that might threaten the social order.”

/…/

This tragedy has been assisted by the American fetishisation of self-education. Though he greatly regretted his lack of formal teaching, Abraham Lincoln’s career is repeatedly cited as evidence that good education, provided by the state, is unnecessary: all that is required to succeed is determination and rugged individualism.

Intellectualism has been equated with subversion and elitism:

Besides fundamentalist religion, perhaps the most potent reason intellectuals struggle in elections is that intellectualism has been equated with subversion. The brief flirtation of some thinkers with communism a long time ago has been used to create an impression in the public mind that all intellectuals are communists.

How these gibbering numbskulls came to dominate Washington, George Monbiot, Guardian

resource: Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason

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