There was a piece in the Washington Post in February by Susan Jacoby that brought up a concept I have discussed before as “agressive ignorance” among some American voters, but had never seen described as “anti-rationalism:

The problem is not just the things we do not know (consider the one in five American adults who, according to the National Science Foundation, thinks the sun revolves around the Earth); it’s the alarming number of Americans who have smugly concluded that they do not need to know such things in the first place. Call this anti-rationalism — a syndrome that is particularly dangerous to our public institutions and discourse. Not knowing a foreign language or the location of an important country is a manifestation of ignorance; denying that such knowledge matters is pure anti-rationalism. The toxic brew of anti-rationalism and ignorance hurts discussions of U.S. public policy on topics from health care to taxation.

There is no quick cure for this epidemic of arrogant anti-rationalism and anti-intellectualism; rote efforts to raise standardized test scores by stuffing students with specific answers to specific questions on specific tests will not do the job. Moreover, the people who exemplify the problem are usually oblivious to it. (“Hardly anyone believes himself to be against thought and culture,” Hofstadter noted.) It is past time for a serious national discussion about whether, as a nation, we truly value intellect and rationality. If this indeed turns out to be a “change election,” the low level of discourse in a country with a mind taught to aim at low objects ought to be the first item on the change agenda.

The entire article is worth a read, given the state of our political discourse.

Remember when the rap against Kerry was the he spoke French? Or when people voted for Bush because they would like to have a beer with him?


2 responses to “Anti-Rationalism

  1. 1 in 5 American adults think that the sun revolves around the earth?!?! Holy. Fucking. Shit.

    It’s sad, but there’s a lot in this article that is spot-on. Except I disagree with the assertion that those who exemplify the problem are oblivious to it. I think a lot of people revel in their ignorance, and they’re completely aware of it.

  2. Reveling in one’s own ignorance? Sadly, I think you’re right, and that goes back to the “smarty pants” syndrome.

    And yeah. Holy. Fucking. Shit. About the 20% of Americans who think the sun resolves around the earth.

    Those are your friends, neighbors, and people you see at the gas station or super market.

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