Countering American anti-intellectualism involves more than challenging ignorance

The Washington Post reports on President Obama’s commencement address at Rutgers University on Sunday: The president throughout his speech decried a strain of anti-intellectualism in American politics that he said rejects science, reason and debate. “These are things you want in people making policy,” Obama said to laughter. “That might seem obvious.”

At one point, clearly referring to Trump and congressional Republicans who have decried efforts to combat global warming, Obama warned that “in politics and in life, ignorance is not a virtue.”

“It’s not cool to not know what you are talking about,” he said. “That’s not keeping it real or telling it like it is. That’s not challenging political correctness. That’s just not knowing what you are talking about.”

Throughout the year, Obama has turned again and again in speeches to the obligations that come with citizenship and the need for a more reasoned and respectful political debate at a moment when the country’s politics have never seemed more vulgar and poisonous. [Continue reading…]

Given Obama’s youthful audience, it’s hardly surprising that he would appeal to their desire to be cool, but that itself strikes me as being part of the problem.

Intellectual development hinges less on knowing what you are talking about, than it requires the cultivation of curiosity.

It’s got more to do with asking the right questions, than knowing the right answers.

To be cool, on the other hand, suggests never being caught by surprise — as though to be surprised (which means to encounter the unexpected) must be a bad thing.

But no one can become so seasoned in life that they actually never encounter anything new. On the contrary, where the sense of surprise has been lost, nothing more is being learned. The process of digesting new information and new perceptions that modify ones understanding of the world, has atrophied. Thought, once malleable, has become fixed.

Those who claim they’ve seen it all before, have more likely just stopped looking.

The rancor in political debate which Obama criticizes, is itself not simply representative of a fractious political environment. It isn’t just that discourse is lacking in civility; it’s a reflection of the fears that inhibit creative political thinking.

When politics is strictly factionalized, orthodoxies rule. No one wants to challenge the conventional wisdom inside the camp to which they are aligned. Politics is then simply a power struggle between competing camps.

The intransigence we project onto our opponents is mirrored by the inflexibility on our side.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email