Education’s role in anti-intellectualism and dumbing down



A recent Psychology Today article discusses anti-intellectualism and the dumbing down of America. While certainly it has a few things right, it misses, often by a large margin, how education, both higher and “public” (more accurately, “government”), has played a role in the dumbing down of the population.

Let’s hit what passes for highlights of the article before filling in the missing details:

It’s the dismissal of science, the arts, and humanities and their replacement by entertainment, self-righteousness, ignorance, and deliberate gullibility.

This is a little hit and miss. Arts and humanities departments are huge money makers on campus, with endless classes filled with hundreds of students apiece. Granted, these students are there because the classes are just power-point presentations and fill-in-the-bubble tests, with no writing or reading involved, paid for by the student loan scheme…but obviously there isn’t a complete dismissal.

Moreover, the humanities in particular have been taken over by female-superiority and every-culture-but-Western-superiority hucksters preaching ever more ridiculous theories. If you’re male or white, I can totally understand why you’d be dismissive of branches of knowledge that endlessly shout at you how you’re a worthless monster who should be gelded and/or made to suffer.

Even when we look at Psychology–you know, the field that’s gotten much of the country addicted to various psychotherapeutic drugs–we still have issues. Key to the scientific method is experiments must be reproducible. About 60% of psychological studies fail the “can be reproduced” test. Taking addictive, expensive drugs, with side effects that generate even more revenue for the medical/pharmaceutical/psychological industry, based on studies that can’t be reproduced, seems pretty stupid to me. Being dismissive of the results of this field is, empirically the most reasonable thing to do…even if sometimes psychology has something relevant to say.

Dismissal of other science likewise is understandable in this day and age. Government scientists, for decades, assured the public that “smoking is safe,” (a Gallup Survey conducted in 1958 found that only 44 percent of Americans believed smoking caused cancer) before finally admitting “yeah, smoking is bad for you, but in our defense we were getting a lot of money from tobacco companies.” So, I totally understand why people would dismiss government scientists, who get huge sums to say vaccines are safe, when they say “vaccines are safe.” Similarly, it’s tough to believe government scientists about global warming melting the ice caps before 2014…particularly when it hasn’t happened, and particularly when we know our best scientists can’t accurately guess next week’s weather, much less decades from now.

Then we have government economists (economics being “the dismal science”) that assure us the US has a thriving economy right now…even with record numbers of people on food assistance, wild market swings, and steeply falling oil prices from decreased consumption (our modern civilization runs on oil…there’s just no way you can have growth without increase in oil consumption). So, again, I can appreciate why people reject “science,” at least when it comes out of a government scientist’s mouth.

But what of the dumbing down?

“a whole generation of youth is being dumbed down by their aversion to reading anything of substance and their addiction to digital \”crap\” via social media.”

Time and again I’ve tried to steer friends and students to articles online, articles with more substance than a Facebook post. Very often I get the response “I can’t read online,” even as I can’t pry their eyes off their cell phones long enough to see what I’m doing at the board. I know, it’s customary to hate on “the new thing kids are doing these days,” it happened with comic books and TV, when, generations ago, those were the new things. I concede a dumbing down, mind you, but I’m not convinced it’s just social media and cell phones that are causing the dumbing down to the point that people can’t learn on their own.

In public schools, students are forced to read books…I can’t help but notice how often those books are gut-wrenchingly sad, affairs, guaranteed to make the reader feel bad. I’m not just talking old classics like Crime and Punishment or The Black Pearl, which, for all their legitimacy, are still bleak depictions of the world, but even “pop” novels force-read in school, like Bridge to Terabithia, are such heartbreakers that students apparently are trained to believe “if I read a book, I will feel sad and miserable.” And yet it’s supposed to be a puzzle why our kids don’t read?

It really is curious how all our highly influential educationists with their fancy degrees can’t come up with “maybe if we made them read books with happiness in them, instead of misery, they won’t associate reading with misery?” I’m no expert, but it seems like it’d be something to try.

It’s very clear reading as a pastime is dropping off:

According to the National Endowment for the Arts report in 1982, 82% of college graduates read novels or poems for pleasure; two decades later only 67% did. And more than 40% of Americans under 44 did not read a single book–fiction or nonfiction–over the course of a year. The proportion of 17 year olds who read nothing (unless required by school ) has doubled between 1984-2004…

Are government schools training people not to read? Quite possibly. John Taylor Gatto has already explored this theory in such detail that I could not hope to add anything relevant to it…even as nearly every mainstream article has gaps I try to fill in with this blog.

And what of higher education’s role in all this? The article touches on it a little:

The very mission of universities has changed, argues Liu. “We don’t educate people anymore. We train them to get jobs.”

While I agree with the “we don’t educate people anymore,” I have a real issue with that “train them to get jobs” part. There is quite a bit going on at the university that has nothing to do with jobs. What job requires students to know Game of Thrones? What job requires skill at rock climbing walls? What job requires workers to not shave? More importantly, why does it take 4 years to learn these skills? I could go on with this for quite a while but, honest, job training isn’t a high priority at many institutions.

Should it be? Well, actually, insofar as student loans are driving higher education, it should be…in much the same way as tsunamis should follow earthquakes. Before my academic friends get angry, allow me to clarify.

Next time.