When the president gets his primary information from talking heads on cable TV rather than intelligence briefings, we have a problem.
Until now, the relationship of the President of the United States to the TV had been predictable. The President made news, and satirists made fun of the President. The President did not watch the satirists because he had, um, more important things to do. Well, life comes at you fast. Today, perhaps the most reliable way to communicate with the President is to appear on a cable news show. The poor quality of these programs — especially their habit of featuring unqualified opinion in the interest of balanced reporting — has made maintaining an informed national conversation very difficult. And that was before the President was citing Joe Schmucko from Illinois! Adam Mansbach's most recent book (co-authored with Dave Barry and Alan Zweibel) is For This We Left Egypt?.
Nowhere is anti-intellectualism more warmly incubated or does misinformation spread faster than in the online community, which is why Facebook – the third most-visited website in the world – has such a weighty responsibility.\r\n
Perhaps we should subtitle all fake news with the facts, half-jokes French philosopher-activist Bernard-Henri Lévy. The anti-intellectualism movement has swept the United States and Europe in the last 12 months, but it has been a long time coming. Trump is not the author of it, but rather the product, notes Lévy. While intellectuals relish debate, the hashing-out and exchange of ideas is what the anti-intellectual movement fears most. "Debate now, truth tomorrow," says Lévy. It’s funny then that social media is the hotbed of modern debate, but it’s also a cradle of life for anti-intellectualist sentiment. Nowhere are idiots more warmly incubated or does misinformation spread faster than in the online community, which is why Facebook – the third most-visited website in the world – has such a responsibility to support verified information and not publicize fake news as equal on the platform. Trump may be the heart of the anti-intellectual movement, but social media is the mechanism, says Lévy. Bernard-Henri Lévy's most recent book is The Genius of Judaism.
Bernard-Henri Lévy's most recent book is The Genius of Judaism.
One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous appointments is in education: Betsy DeVos. Her anti-intellectual agenda would take root in the nation's youngest minds, filtering down through descendant generations.
Richard Hofstadter is in vogue. Since Donald Trump’s ascension the term ‘anti-intellectualism’ has been used endlessly, in part thanks to the President's announcement that, “I love the poorly educated.”
Hofstadter’s work is more nuanced, of course. He recognized intellectual appreciation is cyclical, dependent upon cultural forces. Obama has been derided as professorial, a quality many other Americans appreciate; journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates recently expressed awe over just how intelligent a mind he has. With Trump we’ve entered a new (or old) phase of the cycle.
This can be witnessed in his cabinet appointments. A secretary of state with questionable economic ties to oppressive regimes; a secretary of energy who wants to abolish that agency (if he could only remember its name); a labor secretary who disdains higher minimum wages but loves carnivorous women in bikinis; a climate change skeptic running the EPA.
One of the lesser-discussed but potentially most disastrous confirmations is in education. Betsy DeVos criticized Trump and even raised funds for other GOP candidates, but she fits perfectly into the ‘poorly educated’ narrative. Like other picks she wants to shrink the agency she’s being put in charge of by handing over power to state and local agencies while promoting school vouchers.
The voucher program supports free-market competition, a running theme in the coming administration. For example, Jim O’Neill, a potential pick to run the FDA, has stated that the government needs less oversight and fewer clinical trials; he claims the market will figure it out. DeVos toes a similar line in education. She plans on breaking up the “government-run monopoly” public school system in favor of private, charter, and—we can argue, especially—religious school training.
DeVos and her husband, Dick, are billionaires with a strong belief in Christianity—she once stated that school choice will “advance God’s kingdom.” They’ve argued public schools have “displaced” the church in American life. As an activist DeVos has made it her mission to undermine the system through vouchers, shepherding young minds into schools that aren’t subject to that inconvenient First Amendment.
In Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Hofstadter reminds readers that religion is not inherently opposed to education. In fact intellectual life flourished due to Protestantism in the 18th and 19th centuries—the same church DeVos was brought up in. But oh, how religions change. What happened was not purely American, Hofstadter argues, but a natural consequence of intellectual development in religious communities. A fracture between “mind and heart” started the slow dissolution of intellectual pursuits.
Long before America was discovered, the Christian community was perennially divided between those who believed the intellect must have a vital place in religion and those who believed that intellect should be subordinated to emotion, or in effect abandoned at the dictates of emotion.
As the country grew and tribes splintered the race for a pure Christianity commenced. As enthusiasm for boisterous new movements evolved the “learned professional clergy suffered a loss of position.” Rational religion, Hofstadter argues, declined as citizens relied more on their reptilian paralimbic survival mechanism: my way or no way.
Let’s consider Hofstadter’s sentiment in light of a more current understanding of neuroscience. No matter how logical a thinker one might be, our brains are designed to respond to our environment quickly and accordingly, meaning emotional reactions always occur first. There are techniques (such as meditation) that strengthen the resolve between the paralimbic system and the prefrontal cortex, the reasoning portion of the brain. This means you’re able to feel an emotional response but not immediately lash out in fear, disdain, or hatred. You’re able to see many sides of an argument without always defaulting to your own.
The problem is this process requires an education to understand. By appealing to and championing emotions over all else—by espousing a specific religious ideology, for example—people like DeVos short-circuit the slow and arduous process of critical thought necessary to differentiate between imagination and reality. They believe their way is the way. Once that happens silencing your opposition is easy. You have made yourself believe you have a divine mandate, which trumps all earthly rationality. Education becomes secondary to allegiance to that belief. And if education contradicts or stifles that belief, it must be eradicated at all costs.
That’s a dangerous mindset in an ailing public school system. American education is the most expensive in the world, yet recent results are lackluster; we currently rank fourteenth in the world. Since 90 percent of private schools are associated with a religious group, DeVos’s ‘choice’ is really not one at all. She’ll be attempting to indoctrinate broad swaths of children into a system that teaches a particular way of viewing the world, one that is more emotional, less rational, and in accordance to what she believes.
We call cities bubbles, but so are nations. America is the only developed country besides Australia with elected officials who deny climate change. Some of those same figures give credence to creationism. It’s hard to take seriously men and women spouting such ridiculous ideas, yet their prominent positions of power afford them the ability to legislate. That’s only going to get worse with the coming administration.
DeVos is right on one thing: public schools are in trouble. Not only do we need to focus more on science and math, especially as the latter discipline pertains to critical thinking in statistics (so we’ll stop believing biased polls and research, as well as fake news), we need a stronger appreciation of and education in the arts, fitness, nutrition, and sexuality. Growing legions of under-cultured brains do not make for a sound cultural mind. While it’s wonderful that six-year-olds can develop apps, learning how to treat your partner and respecting other cultures is equally if not more important in the larger scope of life.
Overlooking Betsy DeVos is dangerous. She has an agenda, one that will accomplish the worst fate of all: turning the clock back centuries on young minds through magical and biased thinking.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
Only two things will change the minds of science skeptics: appeals to their ego, or their wallets.
People do not want to give up their cherished beliefs, says author Margaret Atwood, especially the ones they find most comforting. What appears obvious and enlightening to atheists like Richard Dawkins, for example, it isn’t so straightforward for those whose identity and community is hinged on a certain set of beliefs. One person's liberation is another's nightmare.
It’s a very human quality to avoid things that are inconvenient or unappealing. Our days are vastly improved if we know to avoid the store with the long queues, to steer clear of dairy or gluten if it makes us sick, and to not order the whole roast duck if its head, still attached, is too much of a reminder. At some point, though, it’s necessary to confront uncomfortable truths – especially when a failure to do so affects the quality of human life (and all life) in a broader context. At that juncture, our avoidance moves beyond self-preservation and enters into exactly the opposite.
This mindset is what fuels anti-intellectualism, says Atwood, and it always has. When Galileo supported and expanded Copernicus’ heliocentric model of our solar system, he was punished by the church (Copernicus died too quickly to be reprimanded). Charles Darwin came under fire when he suggested we weren’t created but that we evolved. When new ideas interrupt what's comfortable, many will reject and discredit it simply to not have to change their behavior. Is this sounding familiar yet?
There will be a point when the position of climate-change deniers will shift, explains Atwood, but it won't be until the idea starts to appeal to our ego, or to our wallets. When the green energy sector becomes profitable enough, expect a sudden reduction in the amount of climate change opposition. "That will be the real tipping point in public consciousness in this country," Atwood says. She believes Elon Musk is the "wave of the future", with Tesla cars and the Powerwall home battery. When his technology becomes affordable and therefore profitable, the idea of green energy will truly have arrived in the wider consciousness.
Margaret Atwood's new book is Hag-Seed.