Headlines and social media proclaim we’ve entered an age of anti- intellectualism. It wouldn’t be the first time for us, nor for the world. There’s a restlessness among those who believe they’ve been ignored and left behind by a ruling elite that cares little about their welfare. Economic welfare is clearly at the head, but being left behind intellectually is close behind.
The introduction of new technologies, and new fields of knowledge, that demand assertive curiosity and critical thinking skills to be understood, can easily leave many behind. When they’ve become popularized through application to every day use, indeed when they’ve become essential to every day life, perhaps needed for workaday livelihood itself, they can flood whole populations with overwhelming angst about being left behind intellectually.
It’s not hard for popular forms of anti-intellectualism to grow and prosper when that happens. There was a time when technological innovations, and new fields of knowledge, arrived in reasonably predictable waves separated by enough years that one could anticipate earning a living based on what one learned in school or apprenticeship. New developments came, but at a rate most could accommodate. WWII changed all of that, and the rate of technological and knowledge base change affecting every day life has accelerated ever since. It’s jarring, disorienting, and frightening.
No wonder ant-intellectualism found fertile ground, but where did it find moral justification permitting it to accuse an undefined intellectually elite of culpability? In the bible; more particularly in Paul’s first letter to the church in Corinth, not buried in the middle, but right there at the beginning. In it Paul wrote that “God made foolish the wisdom of the world.” The foolishness and weakness of God, he wrote, is wiser and stronger than that of human beings. In fact, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.” “God chose what is low and despised in the world…to bring to nothing things that are.” So, Hah!, take that you intellectual snobs who look down on us. Anti-intellectualism had found its moral justification.
What’s the right response? I’m not sure. Anxiety, with its roots in rapidly accelerating technological change, combined with uncomfortable developments in society’s core knowledge base, must be recognized and respected. There’s no point in being one of Agnew’s (remember him?) nattering nabobs of intellectual superciliousness. That’s nothing but bait for defensively angry attacks. Based on my own experience, there’s not much point in trying to change firmly held convictions that have become treasured possessions.
Jesus’s warned us not to store up treasures on earth where corruption consumes them, but in heaven where there is no corruption. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” We treasure nothing more than holding grievances close to our hearts. What could be more corrupting than treasured grievances held so close that we can’t-won’t give them up. The great advantage of a grievance is that it creates an enemy who must be defeated if justice is to be restored. But to declare intellectualism to be the enemy is to smite the potentially best ally one could have.
Maybe the best we can do is calmly, patiently assert the utilitarian value of intellectual disciplines that help bring order to the apparent chaos of overly rapid change. There will always be a hard core who refuse to budge, but there will be more who show willingness to learn and adapt, however hesitantly –– if they are acknowledged with respect as worthy peers.