Disengaged Students, Part 8: Anti-Intellectualism in Government, Then and Now

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.

 If the main purpose of intellectualism is to reveal truths, it is no wonder that governments throughout history have opposed free thinkers. Power attained through deceitful or heavy-handed tactics is always in jeopardy of exposure. In contemporary culture, conservative politicians are often viewed as being at odds with progressive ideas or rational thought. The truth is that all politicians at extreme ends of the spectrum– and the ones in between–can feel threatened by an enlightened constituency. This is certainly the case if a politician has something to hide.

Ancient Anti-Intellectualism in Government

Think back to the days of the Egyptian Pharaoh in the time of Moses, in the mid-1400s B.C. There is debate as to the identity of this Pharaoh, who has been variously identified as Tuthmosis III, Amenhotep II or Apophis. There is more widespread agreement about the historicity of his decree that all Hebrew boys should be thrown into the river to drown. The Quran, Hebrew Bible and Christian Old Testament all document the mistreatment of the Hebrews by Pharaoh because of his own fear that the Jewish people would rise up and outnumber his army.

His plan demonstrated strategic genius. Rather than trying to kill off a strong group capable of self-defense, he targeted an easier demographic. This Pharaoh was planning for the long term; he could protect his own political agenda by wiping out the future generation of Hebrews. His motivation was certainly grounded in the fear of a physical uprising, but he was also waging an intangible war. The Jews were not only dangerous because of their growing population; they frightened the Egyptian ruler (or rulers) with their difference in beliefs and their claim to have the ear of the one true God. Rather than working toward a long-term plan for harmony between Jews and other Egyptians, it was easier to use brute force. Anti-intellectualism at its finest.

Contemporary Anti-Intellectualism in Government

More recently, government-fueled anti-intellectualism took place in the USSR in the mid-1900s. In 1948, Lysenkoism, an agricultural science developed by Trofim Lysenko, was adopted to determine the practices of farms all over the country. This political approach to science stressed control over genetics and the ability to determine scientific outcomes. Meant to further Communist theory, Lysenkoism had dismal results when it came to its actual yields. The theory was officially abandoned, and renamed a pseudoscience, by 1964. Before it disappeared as a tenet of Russian government and farming, however, many scientists who spoke out against Lysenkoism lost their livelihoods and even their lives. Those who did not agree with the narrow view of the government were punished, a process that discouraged intellectualism in this particular area and others too.

These examples of persecution are just the types of things that Americans vehemently oppose, at least in theory. Government-issued science and genocide based on paranoia – things that the founders of this nation took great strides to avoid – are part of other cultures, other ways of life. Horror stories of young women facing government-sanctioned genital mutilation in African nations like Ethiopia are viewed as distant problems of the Third World. Americans don’t wonder that anti-intellectualism flourishes in places that lack the resources, education and freedom of choice available within the U.S. borders.

Is American Government Anti-Intellectual?

Perhaps it is the subtlety of the American brand of anti-intellectualism that is so dangerous. Blind belief in the prescriptions which the people elected to the highest offices have condensed into 8-second sound bites is worrisome. Religious freedom is a foundational principle of American government and culture – yet lawsuits are still regularly filed because public schools punish students for declining to recite the Pledge of Allegiance or stand for the Star-Spangled Banner. Perhaps the lip service Americans pay to liberty of thought serves to disguise the anti-rationalism underneath.

It is true that in the capitalist U.S. a mandate like Lysenkoism would never stand, particularly since agriculture represents $100 billion in U.S. exports alone each year. It is also hard to imagine a U.S. government official declaring that all baby boys of a particular ethnic group be thrown into the nearest Great Lake. The American government would not be accepted if it acted as a vehicle of anti-intellectualism in outright ways. Free thought and the liberty to believe pretty much anything, no matter how virtuous or ridiculous, are the marks of a true American.

But can a democratic country that allows the voice of the majority to make decisions really achieve heightened states of intellectualism for the individual? Beginning with the public educational system, this is a question that Americans must answer if they are to avoid complete loss of rational thought in the future. While a level playing field, mandated by the government though not always carried out in practice, serves idealistic purposes, does it hurt intellectual progress of citizens? Through its democratic idealism, is America’s government actually the most anti-intellectual of them all?


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