Disengaged Students, Part 18: Religious Fundamentalism, TV and Anti-Intellectualism
In this 20-part series, I explore the root causes and effects of academic disengagement in K-12 learners and explore the factors driving American society ever closer to being a nation that lacks intellectualism, or the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake.
While the struggle between intellectualism and anti-intellectualism is longstanding, the 40 years leading up to the first election of President Barack Obama have been especially harsh for intellectuals.
In her bestselling book The Age of American Unreason, historian Susan Jacoby identifies some key factors in this harsh climate. A rise in religious fundamentalism, a decrease in Americans’ general knowledge of the sciences, and the public’s reliance on “infotainment” to deliver facts have all contributed to the dangerous ideological conditions that citizens face collectively. Jacoby talks about how legendary American ideas like the “self-made man” actually do more harm than good when it comes to progress, and how the celebrity status of both right- and left-wing pundits preys upon the vulnerabilities of everyday Americans.
Faith versus Fact
Religious fundamentalism, loosely defined as a set of beliefs that adhere strictly to a religious text despite new knowledge or changes in modern thought, tends to spike during times of intense or rapid change. If you look at Jacoby’s 40-year timeline, beginning in 1978 and ending as the first African-American President was awarded a spot in the White House, the reasons for a rise in fundamental thought systems is easy to surmise. In America’s nearly 250 years’ history, change has never stopped barreling forward and the momentum of the past four decades continues to gain steam.
Fundamentalists generally dislike change and view it as a departure from simpler times and therefore as a danger to their way of life. Fundamentalists tend to like absolutes and singular, straightforward answers to topics that others may consider more complex. If one passage in the Bible, for example, can be thrown out as a story or parable rather than a factual description, then who is to say that the rest of the scriptures are literally true? Though not always tangibly damaging to its adherents, fundamentalism generally bars progressive thought in science or in other realms of knowledge.
When a core population becomes increasingly fundamentalist, an argument can be made that the intellectual progress of the entire nation is hindered, at least in part; and yet it is the American way to encourage citizens to express religious beliefs of all varieties even if those beliefs run counter to scientific or other fact-based thought.
TV: Educational Help or Hindrance?
Jacoby also explores the educational value of television as a medium. She admits she was raised in a Midwestern household that put faith in the potential for television to educate a wider group and bring heightened awareness to world issues. She notes that the original teaching nature of television has given way to a culture which depends on what emanates from the airwaves instead of using that information as a supplement to other forms of self-discovery and education. The Internet has only compounded video culture, making it possible for amateurs with unfounded opinions to carry the same weight as well-learned experts on the same issues.
But with so many accessible opinions, shouldn’t the state of intellectualism actually be improving? Understanding other opinions, after all, is essential to truly having a well-rounded, and therefore well-grounded, view of the world. The problem here is that too much information has the tendency to overwhelm and saturate readers. Rather than take the time to read, compare and debate each position, people (Americans, especially) tend to choose the quickest, easiest answer that best fits their belief systems instead. The availability of so much information, and the tendency of perception to favor presentation over actual facts, has created a culture that has far too many ideas to process. The result is a blanket “live and let live” approach to dissenting opinions that may seem tolerant and even intellectual at first glance, but that reeks of indifference.
Lacking Basic Knowledge
Anti-intellectualism also manifests itself in Americans’ lack of general knowledge on topics outside their immediate needs. In her book, Jacoby talks about the juxtaposition between the record-high numbers of U.S. college graduates and the large percentage of Americans who seem to lack basic, foundational knowledge. A 2009 study conducted by Harris Interactive and commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and Citizens discovered that most Americans fail when it comes to answering basic science questions correctly. Respondents could not accurately answer how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun, or what percentage of the Earth is covered with water.
Despite these dismal results, 80 percent of the Americans surveyed insisted that science education is “absolutely essential” to navigate issues like the U.S. economy, healthcare system and global reputation. This wacky divergence of idealized knowledge and actual knowledge is a classic example of anti-intellectualism in American culture. Citizens place high value on scientific aptitude but on the other hand, are not terribly concerned by the fact that they do not possess it.
Perhaps having too much access to knowledge has actually had the reverse intended effect. Could it be that the information is so easy to come by that Americans have just stopped trying?