Tracing the Causes and Effects of Anti-intellectualism in American Education
Anti-intellectualism, as defined by Richard Hofstadter is “a resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life” (Hofstadter 7). Rarely, if ever, is the anti-intellectual sentiment found in a pure or unmixed form, but nevertheless it has permeated nearly all facets of American life at one time or another. Because anti-intellectualism tends to be cyclical in nature, it is difficult to distinguish its causes from its effects. In fact, the historical roots of the sentiment reach so far back that no definite point of origin or primary cause can be pinpointed. American society as a whole seems to go through repeated cycles of esteeming, then alienating its intellectual population, but the American educational system and students themselves seem to have their own unique hold on the causes and effects of this rather disturbing phenomenon.
Before examining the sentiment of anti-intellectualism, one must first define what is meant by “intellect” and why it is different from “intelligence.” Intelligence can be defined as a quality of the mind that is applied in narrow, immediate, and practical manners. Intellect, on the other hand, is “the critical, creative, and contemplative side of the mind” (Hofstadter 25). Intelligence will grasp the immediate meaning in a situation and evaluate it, while intellect will critically examine evaluations, will ponder, wonder, theorize, and seek the meaning of situations as a whole. It is widely recognized that all animals possess intelligence, but that intellect is a uniquely human trait which is both praised and criticized by humanity as a whole. However, it is not to be assumed that the differences between intelligence and intellect mean that they are either mutually exclusive or that the possession of one indicates the possession of the other. It is common that both qualities occur together in some ratio, but many cases can be seen of intellectual minds lacking in intelligence, and vice versa.
While it may stand to common reason that the American educational system should attempt to foster both of these qualities in students, an overwhelming amount of evidence shows that this is not the case. In fact, it is widely shown that the American educational system is in itself an anti-intellectual enterprise (Education Policy Analysis Archives). Three main aspects of the system give evidence of this: the mission of schools, teachers themselves, and programs for gifted and talented students (Education Policy Analysis Archives).
The founding principle of schools is based on a concept termed “cultural reproduction” by educational theorists. Basically stated, it is that schools exist to pass on the culture, knowledge, and socioeconomic interests of the dominant groups in the political economy. In a democracy, where the views of mass society are deciding factors, it becomes necessary that mass society be able to have informed opinions, thus creating a demand for mass education. To the upper classes, this appeared to be the necessary and logical alternative to misgovernment and societal disorder. To the middle and lower classes, it afforded a means of socioeconomic mobility. However, in order to function, a democratic society requires stratification, that is, it requires a working class labor force. Therefore, it is not at all in the interest of society to have schools foster the critical and creative side of every student’s mind. The consequence of this is that intellectual pursuits are seen as highly impractical by the business minded public, which then puts forth images of the bumbling, absent-minded professor and the self-affirming view that common sense is an adequate substitute if not superior to intellectual forms of knowledge. It is largely in this social atmosphere that the nation’s teachers and students are raised.
The intellectualism of teachers is a high ranking factor in the intellectual education of students. The interesting fact is, however, that despite the old stereotypes, many teachers do not act like intellectuals. This trend is seen through analysis of teachers’ academic ability and scholarly interests, and the nature of their work. According to a number of studies, teachers on a whole tend toward relatively low levels of academic competence, and surveys of teachers’ reading habits indicate a generally limited interest in scholarly subjects (EPAA). Several studies of high school standardized test scores have also shown that students planning to major in education displayed lower academic accomplishment than those who intended to pursue other subjects. Highly academically capable students who do enter the teaching profession often end up leaving it in search of a more rewarding career. The reason for this is that teaching has largely become a deskilled job.
According to the Educational Policy Analysis Archives, most schools “treat learning as a consumption of information and teaching as delivery of information.” Therefore, a rather narrow view of the teacher’s role is formed- one of efficient and successful transmission of practical information. “Teachers follow the curriculum that the state or district mandates and mimic the techniques that educational research validates” (EPAA). They have no real control over what they teach or how they teach it. In this environment, even teachers who begin with an intellectual mission lose sight of it and either learn to treat teaching in a practical, mechanistic way, or they leave the profession altogether. This leaves behind a teaching force of usually uninspired keepers of discipline and transmitters of information.
The dry educational atmosphere found in these classrooms can be stifling for the academically inquisitive child. However, the programs that have been developed to aid these children have not fulfilled their mission. Often, rather than cultivating students’ intellectual talents, these programs devalue scholarly pursuits by occupying students with “an array of faddish, meaningless trivia--kits, games, mechanical step-by-step problem-solving methods, pseudoscience, and pop psychology” (EPAA). Students and their parents are often persuaded against taking more meaningful steps toward nurturing the intellect by educators who exaggerate the “emotional and social risks of strategies like acceleration and early college attendance” (EPAA). Thus, an unfortunately large percentage of even the most intellectually inclined students leave the public school system just as ill-prepared to engage in scholarly or artistic work as the rest of their classmates.
These would-be intellectuals are often alienated, ridiculed, and resented by their peers-- a student body that is not only largely “apathetic and unmotivated, but who belittle and resist efforts to educate them” (Trout). As one student said, “Try bringing up a book you’ve read, or a great lecture you’ve just heard in class and other students will tell you, ‘keep it in class. My brain meter’s not running now’” (Willimon 29). Part of the reason for this resentment stems from the founding principles of mass education. The public struggles for socioeconomic power are replicated in schools by the struggles for grades, honors, etc. This often leads to resentment from other students, just as many middle and lower class citizens resent the affluence of the upper classes of society (EPAA). This anti-intellectual mindset shows itself in a great number of ways through the actions of students: not doing assigned reading; ridiculing high achievers; not contributing to class discussions; skipping class; complaining about course workloads; giving low evaluations to teachers with high standards; lobbying for fewer assignments; neglecting to prepare for class; etc., etc., etc.
The situation becomes worse when the student leaves the public school system and enters a college or university, where education is paid for from the student’s pocket. What develops is the consumerist mindset of buying a degree rather than earning one. As a result, according to Paul Trout:
American colleges could follow the same path as American high schools and become warehouses of anti-intellectual and anti-educational slackers.... If colleges and universities do wind up providing comfortable environments for more and more slackers and screw-offs, they will likely surrender whatever is left of their academic integrity and social credibility.Unfortunately, this has process has already begun in something Trout terms “the dumbing down of the university.”
At its most basic level, a university is not an institution built on lofty principles and a genuine value of learning and scholasticism, but a business. In the business of higher education, more bodies mean more money. Therefore, it is in the financial interests of a university to enroll and retain as many students as possible, regardless of their interests, attitudes, or aptitudes. There are no economic incentives to hold students to high academic standards. Rather, the reverse is true (Trout). This has led to lower standards and grade inflation at universities across the nation at the overall expense of society as a whole. The problem here, both a cause and effect of the anti-intellectual mindset, is careerism. “Although students have many reasons for going to college, a very large number-- 71.3 percent of those of the entering class of 1995-- do so not to enrich their minds but their pocketbooks” (Trout). Said one student, “The only reason most of us are going to school is society says, ‘this is your meal ticket’” (Sacks 139). With administrators holding departmental purse strings, most university faculty are only too happy to comply with the lax standards that are set forth, though they “go along with the charade more out of fear than conviction” (Trout).
With corruption on both sides of the educational exchange, one thing is guaranteed-- “satisfied customers”, and that’s what a business is about (Trout). It is these customers that go on to become the parents and teachers of successive generations, while those with intellectual agendas largely reject the self-undermining educational system through which they have passed, in order to follow more rewarding paths. Thus, the cycle of anti-intellectualism continues through the very means by which society attempts to curb it: the teachers, programs, and students of the nation’s educational systems.
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