Disengaged Students, Part 5: What the Intellectual Experts Say

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.

The two authors best known for addressing contemporary anti-intellectualism are Leonard Woolf and Richard Hofstadter. Woolf’s 1935 book Quack, Quack! looks, in part, at how governments and religions contribute to anti-intellectualism. He speaks specifically of his own opposition to fascist regimes like those of Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler, and talks about how Fascist rule is set up like a primal tribe with leaders wielding power over “savages” through control of knowledge.

By contrast, Woolf believed that what was good for one person was good for the whole population. He was not religious, but he felt that all people were inherently equal and that all humans had vast potential for improvement. He stated that religious ideals and government-approved messages were not the best tools with which to effect this improvement, but that an increase in rationality raised the equality and knowledge base of all people.

Woolf believed that even the most advanced cultures were perpetually at risk of succumbing to anti-intellectualism, and that even the highest level of free-thinking society could quickly revert to savagery. Woolf viewed intellectualism and rational thought as active philosophies that were at risk of failure without a core group willing to stand behind their thoughts. One wonders how Woolf might have compared the American people of today with his contemporaries. Would he issue a warning designed to keep Americans from falling into a state of savagery previously unseen on U.S. soil?

Woolf and Individuality

Woolf took issue with other peer thinkers like Scottish Thomas Carlyle who felt that every culture needed to hold up hero figures so as to maintain order. Carlyle’s strict Calvinist upbringing predisposed him to believe that figureheads were required for optimal societal function. The idea that the weak needed to be sacrificed in order for the strong to thrive was intrinsic to Carlyle’s philosophies.

Carlyle’s controversial work Occasional Discourse on the Negro Question defended African enslavement by white people as an institution that was basically doing a favor for the inherently lazy black population. Carlyle believed that without forced, unpaid labor Africans would never work, and that slavery should have never been abolished – or at the very least should have been replaced with serfdom.

This type of thinking is certainly outrageous by modern standards but was not necessarily viewed as hateful or discriminatory in the early 20th century. People like Carlyle were respected for their views, even as others like John Stuart Mill published rebuttals. Ideas of a century ago were protected in ways that placed value on the speaker and did not put him on public trial if he offended a particular group. Contrast that with the high stakes associated with casual misstatements in the public eye today. Book deals, endorsements and entire empires fall if the opinion of an individual is viewed as “backward” or at odds with good, clean American ideals.

Hofstadter and the Decline of Intellectualism

Written two decades after World War I, Hofstadter’s 1963 book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life looks at movements in the U.S. that contributed to a decline in rationalism. Hofstadter talks in depth about the role of democratic education in promoting anti-intellectual tendencies. He argued that there was a difference between excellence and fairness in education. Schools had two great responsibilities: to educate the public and to produce thinkers to take Americans to the next level of intellectual thought. Hofstadter believed that the first of those responsibilities was being accomplished at the expense of the second.

However, Hofstadter argued that democracy was not the only cause for a decline in rationalism. In his view the influence of Protestant heritage and of a generally excessive reliance on religion had contributed to shallowness in American thought since the dawning of the nation. Long before Americans relied on the evening news or their Twitter feed to sum up what was important in their world, Americans were depending on religious entities for direction. Thinkers like Hofstadter saw great dangers in allowing a larger group to dictate social and religious norms.

Utilitarianism, or placing the rights of a collective group above individuals, was another aspect of the American “majority rule” way of thinking with which Hofstadter took issue.  How can opposing viewpoints be considered if conformity with majority opinions is favored? The idea that the outcome of an action determined its value was flawed, Hofstadter believed, because it provided a very narrow definition of how a society should behave.

Why Hofstadter’s Theories Matter in K-12 Learning

Hofstadter’s assertion can be applied to the current state of K-12 education. The success of a particular school is measured in graduation numbers, college placement rates and improvements in standardized test results from one year to the next. These short-term statistics boost bragging rights and influence public school funding, but they do not take into account the long-term education of the students. The application of cut-and-dry metrics to K-12 education leaves no room for interpretation and no space for critical thinking. Essentially telling students what facts they need to memorize to move up in life deprives them of the satisfaction of learning on their own terms. When educational expectations are reduced to the lowest common denominator, short-term numbers go up but intellectual thought becomes a casualty.

This series will, in part, explore Hofstadter’s claims from half a century ago that the democratization of schools has actually hurt intellectual growth. Public education, measured by initiatives like standardized testing and the No Child Left Behind Act, is basically democratic. But as we seek to level playing fields and treat all students equally, are we sacrificing intellectual growth? To put it another way, are the American virtues of equality and access to free education actually hurting the progress of intellectual thought in the nation’s children?  Are the next generations of Americans in danger of a descent into savagery because of how they are educated?


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