21 October 2011


It is not news that the U.S. is falling behind other developed, and even some developing, countries in the understanding displayed by both adults and students in math and science. As a result, the U.S. is also falling behind in research and development of new technologies. We are on the fast track to becoming just another ho-hum nation which follows, rather than leads ~ a nation which makes decisions reactively rather than proactively.

Paul Rosenberg lays the responsibility for this decline squarely on the shoulders of America's Growing Anti-Inellectualism. In an analysis spanning the history of the nation, he writes that "America has always had a critical thinking deficit, in that it has a long tradition of anti-intellectualism. This is particularly perverse, maddening and contradictory, since America's Founders were the most intellectual group that ever founded any nation we know of, and the desire to foster free and critical thinking, both in government and in the society at large, was one of their notable goals, as a direct consequence of the Enlightenment heritage on which America's Founders depended.

"This philosophy prized individual critical inquiry, as well as institutions ~ formal and informal ~ which enabled individual efforts to be joined together into a far more powerful whole. This outlook was crucially important to the creation of a new nation on a new hemisphere, confident enough to establish itself on a new political foundation with some ancient roots, but fashioned with its own original design. Mere imitation of the past was rejected as a guiding principal. So, too, was blind reliance on the fantasy of individual political genius. Instead, the spirit and process of critical inquiry was crucial to how the new nation was conceived.

"The basic architecture of 'separation of powers', for example, was intended to prevent the accumulation of all power into the hands of any unaccountable group or faction - and thus to put a premium on the process of advancing ideas that could pass the muster of critical examination by the widest possible range of parties involved. Similarly, steps were taken to insulating of government from dogmatic religious influence. Religious tests for public office were banned in the Constitution itself, and separation of church and state was formalized in the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom, which similarly guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and freedom of the press - all intimately connected to the individual and collective exercise of critical reason.

"And yet, despite all this, there was always an anti-Enlightenment, anti-intellectual side of America as well. And that side has always created needless deficits in critical thinking, hampering America's ability to fully realize its promise."

The influence of intellectual decay has been most strongly felt whenever Republicans have been in control of the White House or of Congress. Rosenberg cites the 1995 elimination of the Office of Technology Assessment (which provided Congress with "objective and authoritative analysis of the complex scientific and technical isues of the late 20th century"), the 1999 repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act (which prevented commercial banks from involvement in risky speculation), the failure to prevent the 9/11 terrorist attacks despite substantial forewarning, the subsequent war against people not responsible for the attacks, the passage of the Bush tax cuts, the failure to prevent the housing bubble and collapse, and prolonged inaction to the threat of global warming as examples of the uninformed, irresponsible behavior which accompanies a deficit in critical thinking.

His essay links our intellectual deficit to an imagination deficit, and ultimately to a democracy deficit .... "Eventually, even the special interests will be destroyed by their own short-sighted folly. The Occupy Wall Street movement stands in stark contrast to all that, in at least two fundamental ways. First, one of their primary themes is 'We are the 99 percent' ~ the vast majority whose welfare is systematically ignored. Second, their method of organizing is radically democratic, based on a model of participatory democracy that goes all the way back to ancient Greece .... If America is ever to find its way again, its people cannot rely on simply relegating this task to others ~ to think, to dream, to act on their behalf. 'Occupy Wall Street' or be occupied by it. That is the simple choice we face .... which is why addressing our democracy deficit is at the center-point of dealing with all the rest of our deficits as well."

Regarding the assertion that Republican influence is anti-intellectual, and specifically anti-science, Jonathan D. Moreno offers an impassioned defense of scientific study in an interview online. At one point he notes that "science, understood as rational argument and demonstration, was also part of the constellation of ideas that gave the United States special promise; it is not too much to say that America is the only country founded by a group of scientists.” Yet some of the people who want to be president — people who claim to revere the Founding Fathers — are openly hostile to science." Check out the interview to learn to whom he is refering, and why.

I mentioned both adults and students. A recent study that followed several thousand undergraduates through four years of college found that "large numbers didn't learn the critical thinking, complex reasoning, and written communication skills that are widely assumed to be at the core of a college education. Many of the students graduated without knowing how to sift fact from opinion, make a clear written argument, or objectively review conflicting reports of a situation or event.

"Forty-five percent of students made no significant improvement in their critical thinking, reasoning or writing skills during the first two years of college, according to the study. After four years, 36 percent showed no significant gains in these so-called "higher order" thinking skills.
Combining the hours spent studying and in class, students devoted less than a fifth of their time each week to academic pursuits. By contrast, students spent 51 percent of their time — or 85 hours a week — socializing or in extracurricular activities.

"Students who majored in the traditional liberal arts — including the social sciences, humanities, natural sciences and mathematics — showed significantly greater gains over time than other students in critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing skills.

"Students majoring in business, education, social work and communications showed the least gains in learning. However, the authors note that their findings don't preclude the possibility that such students 'are developing subject-specific or occupationally relevant skills.'

"Greater gains in liberal arts subjects are at least partly the result of faculty requiring higher levels of reading and writing, as well as students spending more time studying, the study's authors found. Students who took courses heavy on both reading (more than 40 pages a week) and writing (more than 20 pages in a semester) showed higher rates of learning. That's welcome news to liberal arts advocates."

So what do you think? When is the last time you read an article from a science journal, or solved a moderately complex math problem, or engaged in a critical analysis of a problem involving diverse and seemingly contradictory information? Do you (or someone you know) harbor a bias for or against intellectuals? Is the question important?

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