Anti-Intellectualism in American Life

Why the World Is Smarter Than Us

Why does the U.S. lag behind our peers when it comes to educating our students? Dana Goldstein on a new book that looks at school systems across the globe to come away with a startling conclusion: they value the intellect more than we do.

educationIt has always been one of the most puzzling aspects of living in the United States: realizing that the lack of education, the dearth of critical thinking, and a penchant for wrong-thinking, is celebrated as being a part of the “true” America. Just listen to Sarah Palin. Even the colleges and universities, which once were centers of knowledge and critical thinking, have been transmogrified into capitalistic centers for the training of new recruits who will be prepared to increase the profits of the plutocracy at the taxpayer’s expense.

The same focus on education to increase the riches of the rich prevails down through the lower grades. Capitalism needs a constant supply of wage-slaves to be chewed up in pursuit of profits much like an army needs young men and women to sacrifice their lives in order to assure America’s global economic interests, access to other people’s natural resources, and the escalating wealth of a small population of corporate robber barons and welfare artists. The direction of American education being peddled by the snake-oil conservatives is not to improve the lives and minds of the population, but to further subjugate a powerless majority into an ineffective, docile mob, pleading for any scraps the rich may allow them to keep for themselves.

In 2011 ThinkProgress reminded us of these hard facts and the intervening years have shown it to be even more skewed today:

      • The Top 1 Percent Of Americans Owns 40 Percent Of The Nation’s Wealth
      • The Top 1 Percent Of Americans Take Home 24 Percent Of National Income
      • The Top 1 Percent Of Americans Own Half Of The Country’s Stocks, Bonds, And Mutual Funds
      • The Top 1 Percent Of Americans Have Only 5 Percent Of The Nation’s Personal Debt
      • The Top 1 Percent Are Taking In More Of The Nation’s Income Than At Any Other Time Since The 1920.

With the rogue court decision known as Citizens United, this Top 1 Percent is able to invest as much money as they want to assure that the government operates only in the best interests of the rich, often at the detriment of the population of taxpayers. Entire States are being hi-jacked by one or two super-rich oligarchs who can spend millions and expect to receive tens of millions in benefits from the corrupt politicians they champion. Elections are rigged by the rich and legislatures are controlled by the power of money. I suspect the only thing that delays the United States from slipping out of its role as the beacon of Democracy and revealing its true nature of an uber-nationalistic rogue country out to overtake the world in the name of Fascism and corporate profits is the stupidity of the plutocrats who sometimes get complacent and believe their own lies.

But the question is education:  could it be that not only does the American aristocracy want the education system to provide skilled wage-slaves but also that it wants to assure that no one is sufficiently educated to think for themselves and thus the lies and deceits of the ruling class might never be recognized or questioned?

Or perhaps it’s not a conspiracy but a facet of  the American character. Dana Goldstein continues:

For all our national hand-wringing about standardized testing and teacher tenure, many of us immersed in the American education debate can’t escape the nagging suspicion that something else—something cultural, something nearly intangible—is holding back our school system. In 1962, historian Richard Hofstadter famously dubbed it “anti-intellectualism in American life.”

“A host of educational problems has arisen from indifference,” he wrote, “underpaid teachers, overcrowded classrooms, double-schedule schools, broken-down school buildings, inadequate facilities and a number of other failings that come from something else—the cult of athleticism, marching bands, high-school drum majorettes, ethnic ghetto schools, de-intellectualized curricula, the failure to educate in serious subjects, the neglect of academically gifted children.”

It would be comforting to think that since Hofstadter’s time a string of national reform initiatives—A Nation at Risk, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, the Common Core—has addressed these issues. And though there has been some progress on the margins, journalist Amanda Ripley is here with a riveting new book, The Smartest Kids in the World, to show us exactly why, compared with many of their peers in Europe and Asia, American students are still performing below the mark. According to the OECD, 20 countries have higher high school graduation rates than the United States. Among developed nations, our children rank 17th in reading and 31st in math. Even Poland, with high child poverty rates similar to our own, boasts stronger student achievement and faster system-wide improvement.

BookThe review continues on The Daily Beast and just might get you to read Amanda Ripley’s book, The Smartest Kids In the World: And How They Got That Way.

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