On the ‘dumbing down of America,’ starting with SC

It is perhaps appropriate that on the day we learn a reality-TV star (which is actually one of the more flattering things one can say about T-Rav) is vying to become a U.S. senator from South Carolina, Burl Burlingame brings my attention to this piece, headlined “America dumbs down,” which begins with an anecdote from the Palmetto State:

South Carolina’s state beverage is milk. Its insect is the praying mantis. There’s a designated dance—the shag—as well a sanctioned tartan, game bird, dog, flower, gem and snack food (boiled peanuts). But what Olivia McConnell noticed was missing from among her home’s 50 official symbols was a fossil. So last year, the eight-year-old science enthusiast wrote to the governor and her representatives to nominate the Columbian mammoth. Teeth from the woolly proboscidean, dug up by slaves on a local plantation in 1725, were among the first remains of an ancient species ever discovered in North America. Forty-three other states had already laid claim to various dinosaurs, trilobites, primitive whales and even petrified wood. It seemed like a no-brainer. “Fossils tell us about our past,” the Grade 2 student wrote.

And, as it turns out, the present, too. The bill that Olivia inspired has become the subject of considerable angst at the legislature in the state capital of Columbia. First, an objecting state senator attached three verses from Genesis to the act, outlining God’s creation of all living creatures. Then, after other lawmakers spiked the amendment as out of order for its introduction of the divinity, he took another crack, specifying that the Columbian mammoth “was created on the sixth day with the other beasts of the field.” That version passed in the senate in early April. But now the bill is back in committee as the lower house squabbles over the new language, and it’s seemingly destined for the same fate as its honouree—extinction.

What has doomed Olivia’s dream is a raging battle in South Carolina over the teaching of evolution in schools. Last week, the state’s education oversight committee approved a new set of science standards that, if adopted, would see students learn both the case for, and against, natural selection….

If you’re getting the impression that the author of this piece holds that people who hold conservative positions are stupid, you’re getting the right impression. Which, I admit, I find off-putting. I mean, I have trouble understanding why some fundamentalist Christians find it necessary to deny evolution (as a Catholic, I see no conflict between faith and science on this point) — trouble that grows out of my failure to understand why anyone would think such obvious allegories as the Creation story are factual, accurate history — I don’t believe in mocking or sneering at people who believe such things.

Predictably, the piece goes on to describe conservative positions on gun control, global warming and health care reform as evidence of idiocy.

Perhaps the most offensive (intellectually offensive, that is) assertions in the piece is this:

… many Americans seem less concerned with the massive violations of their privacy in the name of the War on Terror, than imposing Taliban-like standards on the lives of others. Last month, the school board in Meridian, Idaho voted to remove The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie from its Grade 10 supplemental reading list following parental complaints about its uncouth language and depictions of sex and drug use. When 17-year-old student Brady Kissel teamed up with staff from a local store to give away copies at a park as a protest, a concerned citizen called police. It was the evening of April 23, which was also World Book Night, an event dedicated to “spreading the love of reading.”

Apparently, this author who thinks other people are so stupid is incapable of seeing the difference between parents being concerned about their children’s exposure to depictions of sexuality and drug use and… the Taliban. Let’s see… on the one hand, you have parents who doubt that a particular book is appropriate for their kids (not whether the book should be burned or anything, but whether it’s appropriate for their kids). On the other hand, you have people who shoot girls in the face for the crime of going to school. Yeahhhh, that’s just exactly the same. Riiiight

All of that said… the overall phenomenon under discussion here is a real one. American history is rife with anti-intellectualism, and there is a downward trend over time, as our politics becomes more democratic, in a bad way. We do, indeed, live in a time and place in which you can win elections by appealing to foolishness over wisdom.

I was referring to an example of this earlier today, cited by Michael Kinsley back in the mid-90s — the polling that indicated that solid majorities of Americans believe we spend too much on foreign aid, that they think, on average, that we spend about 18 percent of our budget, and that they think a better amount would be 3 percent (actually, that that should be the minimum) — when actually, we spend about 1 percent.

It’s OK for the people to be confused on something like that — unless that confusion becomes the basis of actual policy going forward. Which, unfortunately, does happen sometimes.

Anyway, it’s a deeply flawed piece that nevertheless touches upon a real problem…

39 thoughts on “On the ‘dumbing down of America,’ starting with SC

  1. bud

    I have trouble understanding why some fundamentalist Christians find it necessary to deny evolution (as a Catholic, I see no conflict between faith and science on this point)

    Such a milquetoast observation about a stunningly, extremist point of view. On a broader scale many of these evolution deniers suggest the entire universe is a mere 6,000 years old. That is every bit as whacky as the proposition that the earth is flat and the sun revolves around the earth. So while this article is a bit over the top with it’s Taliban reference the sentiment behind it is spot on.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      You call it “milquetoast.” I call it being respectful of other people’s sincerely, held beliefs. I do my best to be particularly respectful of others’ RELIGIOUS beliefs — unless they lead the holders of said beliefs to shoot young girls in the face…

      1. Barry

        The writer is Canadian. If he’s to be taken seriously, he needs to research why so many of his fellow citizen see the need to invade Myrtle Beach every winter.

        He can be forgiven. No one takes Canadian’s seriously.

        1. Kathryn Fenner

          I take Canadians (no apostrophe) very seriously. They are kind, diligent, tolerant people with a very well-run country. We can learn from them. Canadians who come to Myrtle Beach to escape the brutal winters are welcome here, as I was welcome there one summer.

          1. Barry

            I don’t take anyone seriously that lumps folks together and puts them down no matter their politics.

            I’ve been to Canada – studied there for a time. Enjoyed it very much.

  2. der deutscher Flußgabelunger

    The author was not calling the actions of the parents who sought to ban the book from the school “Taliban-like”, but the person who called the police on the people handing out the books for free at the local store. That person does show some “Taliban-like” characteristics, chiefly the believe that they have the right to suppress ideas they disagree with.

    1. der deutscher Flußgabelunger

      Also I don’t understand how a proponent of single-payer healthcare can fault a Canadian for criticizing American conservatives’ position on health care.

      1. Jed Bartlet

        This may be a first!

        I love getting my liberal friends and my conservative friends together and helping them find common ground.

        I’ll be sure to mention y’all fondly in my acceptance speech in Oslo…

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          Oops. Didn’t mean to post as “Jed Bartlet.” Now I’ll be accused of subterfuge and trying to hide things from the American people, which is going to create huge headaches for C.J. at today’s briefing. It will be some time before she’ll be able to say, “That’s a full lid,” and walk away. (Every time she says that, I think of dope, as in, a full ounce.)

          Here’s the background, known only to Leo and a couple of others… Several weeks ago, I was trying to figure out how to set up an account with a gravatar, in answer to a reader’s question. So I started creating a false account with the name “Jed Bartlet.” I never finished. But now, every time my session lapses and I get logged out of WordPress, when I go to comment, the comment defaults and autofills “Jed Bartlet.”

          I’m not sure how to fix that…

  3. Harry Harris

    Glad to see you bring up what I’ve seen as a disdain for learning and a harmful anti-intellectualism strongly influencing our culture. Add to that a “factless society” as Bill Clinton termed our political climate, and you get an atmosphere where facts, science, and openness (“milquetoast”) don’t matter – only persuasion, power, and appearances hold sway. I think we’re set for rampant propagandizing, polarization, and basically being suckers for the clever but unscrupulous among us. I think it lies in our heavily materialistic culture (“if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich?”) and our selfish (sinful) insistence that our own way be declared right. As in the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, It’s somewhat dangerous here to be moderate, respectful of other opinions, and to resist conventional wisdom. The penalties aren’t as severe here, but are harmful to good problem-solving and intellectual development nonetheless.

  4. Brad Warthen Post author

    To address Burl’s observation about “the official institutionalization of such beliefs”… Yep, that is the problem, when it is a problem. And that applies in the official fossil anecdote. Me, I’m just irritated that time was spent on this Kulturkampf stuff, when the Legislature never managed to pass real ethics reform this year. To start with, we don’t NEED a state fossil. But to latch onto something like that in order to waste time on Genesis-vs.-Darwin is just unconscionable.

    And der deutscher Flußgabelunger is right to say that one person who called the cops exhibits “Taliban-like characteristics,” but it was ONE GUY. I mean, I’m sure the cops get calls about UFOs and aliens controlling our thoughts with radio waves, too — that’s no comment on society as a whole. And I see no indication that the cops ACTED on this (although I’ll stand humbly corrected if they did). That one guy calling does not support the assertion that “MANY AMERICANS seem less concerned with the massive violations of their privacy in the name of the War on Terror, than imposing Taliban-like standards on the lives of others.”

    And don’t get me started on this guy’s apparent acceptance of the Edward Snowden worldview of the NSA being worse than 1984. I just let that one go in the original post; I had enough other points to make…

  5. Doug Ross

    There is no anti-intellectualism movement… there’s just a normal mix of stupid people and people who think they are smarter than everyone else.

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I beg to differ. Anti-intellectualism is woven into the American character, and has been since the beginning. As y’all know, I deeply love my country and all it stands for, but you know, you can love your crazy uncle and still be fully cognizant his eccentricities.

      It’s related to the democratic impulse. For many, intellect and expertise are anti-democratic. If you don’t believe me, ask Harrison Bergeron

      1. Doug Ross

        I disagree.. I think there are some people who hold onto the past (history, culture, social mores) in an attempt to “prove” they are smarter than other people and resist change that would make those ideas and beliefs appear to be outdated.

        Consider some people’s opinion of gay marriage. In my view, the anti-intellectual position on that matter would be to oppose it. It is as much a denial of science and reality as ascribed to climate change deniers.

      2. Barry

        For many, intellect and expertise are disconcerting because too often the “intellectuals and experts” that we know aren’t that impressive to us personally.

        and too many THINK they are experts and intellectuals.

    2. scout

      I don’t follow all the arguments here, but I do believe there is an anti-intellectualism movement. I don’t know about it being built into American Character, but it could be. I’ve never thought of it that way. For me personally, it is something that I have become aware of more and more in recent years. But I can’t tell if that is a reflection of my rising awareness of something that has always been there or if it has actually increased. The sense I get is that it maybe has always been there but things have changed in the culture that makes these forces that have always been there feel more empowered – almost sanctioned – in vogue. In this climate, people that have always felt this way are just more vocal about it, and that creates a feedback loop which empowers others and that makes it build – it has momentum.

      If you are not intellectually inclined I suppose you have choices as to how to respond to intellectual things. You can feel threatened by them or you can appreciate them, try to learn from them, aspire in that direction. Feeling threatened is probably the easiest most knee jerk reaction. And unfortunately a lot of culture has come to revolve around easy and knee jerk.

      I’m not saying that I think people are either intellectual or not intellectual. I don’t see a need for such divisions at all. But the people who are taken in by this anti-intellectual thought process seem to see it that way.

      1. Mark Stewart

        A lot of grief could be saved all around if people simply stopped and gave some consideration as to why they feel “threatened” about something. That’s the big hurdle – recognizing the impulse to fear that which is not familiar.

      2. Dave Crockett

        I feel much the same way, Scout.

        There have been precious few times in my life when I have felt threatened by the world around me (even after 9/11, as horrifying and sickening as that event was). But my grown children seem to embrace a threatened worldview, and thus their need to carry guns with them (sometimes even at family affairs) and their frequent expressions of disdain for the government and minorities, in general (especially the poor, gays, non-native American born and non-Christians). Even my older brother, a Yale-educated Gene McCarthy liberal in his earlier years, is espousing much the same rhetoric from his NC mountain home.

        I never got the memo, I guess. And I’m finding it increasingly difficult to maintain my relationships with all of them as they go down that road.

      3. Kathryn Fenner

        I think the anti-intellectualism in America derives from our supposed classless society. Intellectuals were, and to a large extent still are, from the wealthier and/or more socially prestigious classes (after all, an income one can live off without working and a room of one’s own wasn’t and still isn’t possible for a lot of working class people). the fact that intellectual achievement is largely vailable now to those who choose to attain it, with our largely decent public education system and extensive public libraries, gets lost.
        It’s easier to relate to intoxicated toffs like T-Rav when you are an intoxicated Bubba, than to, say, a college professor.

        1. Harry Harris

          The part of the prime currency in our present society isn’t the disdain for education as much as disdain for broad-based learning. Our education has largely been seen as a highly utilitarian opportunity for earning, with little respect for those parts that can make us better people – many humanities, arts, social sciences, history, learning another language and culture (without business opportunity in mind). We want certification and put up with learning in order to get it. Even our colleges provide degrees by menu, allowing students to get their desired coupon without much encounter with subjects that don’t interest them (or fit their career plan.
          The kind of openness Brad often expresses (I don’t consider him moderate, but an open-minded conservative thinker) can often be slammed because it lacks strident content. “Working class people” also often enjoy intellectual pursuits, but find little time to pursue them and depend on TV (a wasteland) or religious activities (often a sticky invitation to be manipulated by closed-minded or greedy purveyors).

  6. Brad Warthen Post author

    Also, der deutscher Flußgabelunger — I DON’T disagree with the Canadian view of our failures in the healthcare arena. I just mentioned that as part of the pattern of this guy seeing conservative views as stupid.

    Personally, I find the notion that single-payer would somehow be an infringement of our precious bodily fluids… I mean, I precious liberties… as being roughly on a par with wearing foil hats to ward off the aforementioned alien radio waves…

  7. bud

    Just got home from the doctor and I can tell you that ACTUAL threats and PERCEIVED threats are very different. My list of significant ACTUAL threats would include: drunk drivers, distracted drivers, low fiber diets, excessive alcohol, fatty foods, high fructose corn syrup, tobacco, misused prescription drugs, air travel, air pollution in all its various forms, wealth inequality, and, lack of or too little health insurance, telemarketing schemes, suicide (it’s double the rate of homicide), the military industrial complex.

    PERCEIVED threats that are not really a big concern but cause so much consternation: foreign terrorists, military threats from Russia, Iran or China; crazed gunmen who kill multiple people in random acts of violence; the IRS; airline safety; high taxes; the welfare state; government regulation; Sharia Law; the national debt; high taxes; currency devaluation; and of course, single-payer healthcare.

    1. Bryan Caskey

      Without addressing counsel’s argument on the merits, I’m raising a procedural objection at this time, and reserving my right to address the merits at trial.

      How does “air travel” make it into ACTUAL threats, but “airline safety” is with PERCEIVED threats?

      Seems…contradictory. I’m going to need a ruling on this.

      1. Kathryn Braun Fenner

        Air travel means flying on an airplane which can lead to crashing in one. Airline safety is something that can be studied from the safety of the ground.

      2. Mark Stewart

        Also, Air Travel includes general aviation flying whereas Airline Safety would not – and I think we all know that flying private is where the accident rates really soar.

      3. Bryan Caskey

        I don’t know the stats offhand, but I’d be willing to put up all air travel against all car travel. Car travel just has to be statistically far more dangerous, right? I’m sure general aviation is more dangerous than commercial aviation, but I’m guessing commercial aviation carries far more passengers than general aviation, so you’d have to weight that variable.

        I’m also not sure how “airline safety” is even a perceived threat.

      4. bud

        That’s a big whoops. I wish Brad could find some way to let users edit their own posts. Meant to post air safety to PERCEIVED threats and managed to post it in both places inadvertently.

  8. Doug Ross

    I’m a Young Outsider… I’ll take that.. especially the young part.

    “This relatively young, largely independent group holds a mix of conservative and liberal views. And while more lean toward the Republican Party than the Democratic Party, Young Outsiders generally express unfavorable opinions of both major parties. They are largely skeptical of activist government, as a substantial majority views government as wasteful and inefficient. Yet many diverge from the two conservative typology groups – Steadfast Conservatives and Business Conservatives – in their strong support for the environment and many liberal social policies. “

  9. Burl Burlingame

    Anti-intellectualism is not solely a conservative trait, although many embrace it. (Actually, the key conservative trait is anti-empathy.) And it’s not a matter of stupidity, which cannot be helped. It’s a matter of choice, and anti-intellectuals have embraced the stupid. I don’t care about that. People should be free to be dumbasses. It’s the anti-intellectual bullies who are elected to office who foster idiocracy on all of society that are the problem. And if they’re not elected to office, they bully and scream at and shoot those who prefer reality to “principle.” That’s your American Taliban at work!

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