Disengaged Students, Part 10: Paranoia and the Pressure to be Anti-Intellectual
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.
It is not only traditional authoritative bodies, like government and religion, which have promoted anti-intellectual thought. Widespread beliefs fueled by the people can be just as dangerous to intellectual progress. Consider the paranoia that erupts when a particular group is associated with a crime, or with anything that threatens the American way of life.
Anti-Muslim thought ran rampant in the days following the 9/11 attacks in 2001, much in the way that anti-Japanese sentiments were common, and even accepted, following the now infamous Pearl Harbor attacks of 1941. In both cases there is an argument to be made for the influence of media coverage on public perception, but outright discrimination was not sanctioned by official, authoritative bodies as a whole. People who chose to blame the actions of a small group of offenders on a larger demographic without further consideration did it on their own, or as a result of peer pressure.
Paranoia and Irrational Thought
Much like the anti-intellectual activities of government and religion, witch hunts carried out by common man have been around for centuries. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 took place in the 20th and 21st centuries but the public reaction bears a striking resemblance to the anti-Irish sentiments that ran high in 19th -century America. Those outside Irish culture often assumed that Irish immigrants were alcoholics, only smart enough to land low-paying manual jobs, based only on their ethnicity.
Since many Irish Americans were also Catholic, initiatives like the Know Nothing Movement of the 1850s were created to keep all Catholics from holding public office. Given the current 75 million Americans who claim to be Catholic, these discriminatory movements now seem barbaric – even silly. It is important to note, however, that as recently as John F. Kennedy’s election to Commander in Chief in 1960, resentment against Catholics in America was rampant, with mistrustful non-Catholics portraying Catholics as blind followers of the Pope.
This religious prejudice cut both ways. It was a common practice for even barely-devout Catholics of the 1940s, 1950s and beyond to shun establishments that did not carry the stamp of approval of the church. The YMCA and Salvation Army, both considered fairly neutral religious organizations by the contemporary public, were off-limits for people who answered to the Pope during the middle of the 20th century because they were not expressly Catholic. The church certainly influenced this movement, but Catholic-law abiding citizens who associated with the YMCA or the Salvation Army risked social suicide more than church expulsion. Peer pressure intensified religious division then, and it still does today.
Conversion to Mainstream Beliefs
Consider the recent controversy surrounding DOMA, or the Defense of Marriage Act. The challenge to DOMA reached the Supreme Court on the shoulders of outspoken octogenarian Edith Windsor, who represented the human face of a theoretical debate surrounding the legal validity of same-sex marriages along with the rights associated with that distinction. DOMA’s Supreme Court appearance, which began with a purely legal argument based on Windsor having to pay over $350,000 in estate taxes after the death of her partner Thea Spyer in 2009, made people feel inspired to air their own beliefs about the sanctity of marriage and about who should be allowed to enjoy its privileges.
There were politicians and religious leaders who spoke up on both sides of the debate, but perhaps the most vocal and heated discourse came from the common people themselves, particularly through social media circles. For weeks before the SCOTUS ruling, people posted stories, photos, facts and other memes meant to influence their friends one way or another.
It mattered not that the case did not reference the Biblical definition of marriage, or any other religious documents; people hotly debated whether or not Jesus (who never married, according to his followers) would approve and whether an end to DOMA would spell the end of days for America. It mattered not that nothing in the lawsuit asked for churches to be forced to perform same-sex marriage rites or even to recognize the unions in their congregations. It mattered not that the lawsuit did not ask for the legal rights of heterosexual married couples to change even slightly. Common man turned the pending ruling into a religious and moral debate, whether for or against DOMA.
When the Supreme Court struck down the 1996 act in June of 2013, the Internet-waves exploded with the pronouncements of ecstatic and disappointed people. Even after an official decision had been made at a federal level, arguments raged about what the ruling truly meant for the moral future of Americans. A comparison to the landmark Roe vs. Wade decision was made on both sides of the issue without much regard for the fact that, though Roe was considered a “victory” by liberals, abortion rights remain on the perennial state legislature chopping block 40 years after the supposed triumph. The inability of either side of the issue to see the basic, rational grounds for overturning the law demonstrated a primitive side of American anti-intellectualism that is often guided by emotions at the cost of facts.
Social Acceptance and Anti-Intellectualism
Pressure to keep up with the Joneses, or at least to be considered “normal” by peers, is ubiquitous. People want to be accepted by others in their immediate surroundings – neighborhoods, workplaces, churches and family units. Sometimes it is simply easier to go with the popular thought than to speak out against it, even if a person has inner doubts. In this way, anti-intellectualism is often a result of the social pressures of everyday life. It is a byproduct of taking the easy way out, desperately seeking the acceptance of similar people.
The K-12 education system is often a victim of the common man’s anti-intellectualism. Throughout the U.S. educational standards vary by region and reflect the majority belief systems of particular geographic areas. This is evident in religious squabbles over displaying The Ten Commandments on school property, and in parental input in the amount of hours children should spend at school in rural areas where they are needed for family income.
The way that people believe in a certain community has an impact on what is taught in the schools there, and this can be detrimental to students. The power to determine what is valuable in educational settings should not be given over to parents, or business owners, or even politicians, but the idea that the majority knows best overshadows many K-12 educational pursuits. When beliefs, religious or otherwise, interfere with educational pursuits, they should be re-examined for validity and if they are impeding the learning process. Fear is a powerful thing – so much so that it gets in the way of knowledge, time and time again. So how can it be overcome to bring the next generation of K-12 learners back to intellectual pursuits?