#9 - Preventing the Descent into Idiocracy
I was asked recently to retell the origin story of The Intellectual All Stars, and I remembered how concerned I was, back then in 2008-ish, about anti-intellectualism in American culture, how it felt we were speeding into Idiocracy on a bullet train. As a lover of learning and...okay fine, a competitive Type A perfectionist who thrives on good grades, completed books on the shelves, recall of a statistic in a cocktail party debate, winning Trivial Pursuit, etc., it was incomprehensible to hear someone say, laughingly, “I’m not good at math,” or “I don’t bother remembering stuff; I can always look it up!” Worse, I heard our nation’s leaders slurring “East Coast elite” and counting graduate degrees in the “out of touch” column during political debates. I recoiled at these supposed insults:
When and why on earth did being educated become a *bad* thing??
Well, now I’ve got a theory. Two, actually. I submit that there are micro and macro sources of this trend:
The micro: Self-esteem.
When a boy does not believe that he *can* achieve something, it’s painful to admit that to himself or others. The emotionally safer route is to pretend he didn’t want to achieve it in the first place. “I hate school.” “Poetry is dumb.” “Only sissies play chess.” There’s an insidious undercurrent of machismo in these statements as well, as depicted in the Netflix documentary “The Mask You Live In,” though that’s a topic for another day. And this concept of self-esteem issues preventing intellectual effort is not limited to the male gender.
The psychological path is “It’s too hard; I’m inadequate; it’s better not to try than to try and fail and be embarrassed. I’ll just put down or dismiss it and the people do succeed.” This process becomes a vicious cycle because we learn from failure! So those who try and fail learn valuable lessons. Often, they use those lessons to try again until they succeed, which gives them self-confidence, perpetuating the positive cycle and a love of learning. Those who do not try at all simply continue down the “I’m not good enough” spiral. This is why parents and educators are now encouraged to reward and praise effort in addition to results. Results are important, but especially in young children developing their work ethics and confidence, effort itself is critical.
Researchers in the Philippines have studied this impact and published the results. The opening line of the paper’s abstract is:
“Anti-intellectualism, the manifestation of disrespect and lack of interest [in] intellectual pursuits and critical thinking, has become a constant thread not only in the corporate world but also among students. Its long-term effect will be very excruciating…”
If you’re reading this blog, I’m guessing you’re a parent, a teacher, or someone who feels strongly about the value of academics. You can help stem (pun intended!) this trend by modeling try-fail-learn-try again-succeed behavior, and you can encourage the youth around you to fail. I try to tell my children, “There are no failures. There are only successes and lessons learned.”
And now, the macro: Politics.
This topic is fraught, especially in our currently polarized environment, but it’s hard not to get political because of my deep social concern and belief that policy and culture can be the answer to many of our ills…so here we go.
Fear is a great motivator. It helped keep us alive when facing predators in the wild; it keeps us from playing with fire or in traffic; it informs our parenting; and, often, it gets us to the polls! Savvy politicians know that if you fear for your future because “the other side” is going to change your way of life negatively, you will be motivated to vote against the other side, even more so than to vote FOR “your” side. So if you’re A, you’re taught – often by family and friends and definitely by political ads – to fear / hate B. If A happens to be less educated, then B is more educated. You up for a little logic? Awesome!
Overly simplistic, I know, but this messaging has been a successful part of American politics for a long time, as detailed in this great article in The Atlantic.
What do you think? Has this anti-intellectual bent improved or worsened over the past 10 years when I first had the idea for The Intellectual All Stars? I’ll share my thoughts in a future post. Until then, celebrate intellect!