Anti-Intellectualism in American Culture
The great Isaac Asimov is a major figure in science fiction. He wrote more than science fiction (he was quite prolific), including popular press articles of which “A Cult of Ignorance” is one. Unfortunately, when doing cultural studies analyses, we often uncover bad or unsettling aspects of our culture. Many people deride cultural studies for this, but it’s important to understand that not everything about the system in which we live has benefited everyone else equally (or at all in some cases). Fortunately, because American culture is based (in part) on freedom of speech, we’re free to critique the system without fear of repercussions…that’s a system I’m glad to live under!
Overall, Asimov doesn’t think Americans think critically enough. In fact, in 1980, he told us we didn’t read enough, so we couldn’t possibly have a right to know because we put no effort into knowing. Asimov laments the fact that people claim to have a “right to know,” yet they don’t consider the responsibility of pursuing knowledge.
Consider the following themes of Asimov’s short article:
- What might be contemporary examples of this? Consider the anti-vaccination and COVID-19 quarantine protester crowds.
- For further information, beyond the scope of this class, check out evidence that the public trust in higher education has fallen.
- Who are the elites? What’s the difference between economic and intellectual elites?
- Right to know
- With great rights come even greater responsibility…
- What’s Asimov’s point about the public’s assumption they have the right to know?
- Credibility and trust
- What are credible sources? Who are credible people?
- How might you rank the following people in terms of credibility?
- Uber/Lyft Driver
- Hedge Fund Manager
- Asimov claims reading scores have dropped, but he doesn’t provide any evidence
- The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) has been tracking reading (and math) scores since 1971.
- This NAEP graph (pdf) shows some improvement for particular age groups, but is it significant improvement, or does it look pretty much the same since 1971?
- Drop in magazine readership
- Consider Asimov writing in 1980…the internet wasn’t in anyone’s home, so newspapers, magazines, and network (not cable) news was how people got their information.
- Although debatable, one could get news information from more media these days (although not necessarily in-depth reporting) because there are a good portion of Americans who don’t read books.
- Ignorance vs willful ignorance
- Consider “ignorance” in the non-pejorative sense to mean “not knowing.” We are all ignorant in that we don’t know everything. I’m extremely ignorant on nuclear physics, organic chemistry, fishing, childcare, among other things.
- The problem is willful ignorance or celebrating one’s ignorance as a badge of honor. Willfully ignoring the facts because they don’t fit one’s worldview is beyond ignorant; it’s allowing conviction to lead you to conclusions.
- Asimov’s “true concept of democracy”
- He probably means that citizens need to be informed to participate in democratic institutions.
- Honestly, the United States isn’t really a democracy; it’s a republic where people vote for (the best and brightest…) representatives to pass laws and govern. However, this is a better discussion for your political science and history classes.
- Asimov is claiming at the end of his article that, without striving to learn, without having an educated citizenry who don’t celebrate their ignorance, we don’t have a true democracy or rule be the people.
- Oh well, what does he know. He’s just a sci-fi writer.* It’s not like he can predict the future…
*For those of you who don’t know me, this bullet point needs to be read in a sarcastic tone. I absolutely love Asimov’s work.
Possible final thought that has no real resolution: Why not trust the experts? Are there contemporary examples you can think of where the masses (or a large portion of the masses) don’t believe scientists–including health care experts?
Highway Signs as Pictures
Also, what’s wrong with highway signs having pictures instead of words? Aren’t they easier to read instead of words? Everyone understands these signs: