You’re in college. Think.

Students need to fight the rising tide of anti-intellectualism

This is an excerpt from Professor Duncan’s address to students, faculty and staff at Stonehill College’s Academic Convocation on Wednesday, August 30.

MY SUBJECT IS anti-intellectualism: The distrust of and contempt for intellectual and educational activities. The rejection of rationality, reason, and critical thought, on the one hand, and the embrace of emotion, faith, and instinct, on the other.

Helga Duncan speaks on anti-intellectualism during Convocation last month at Stonehill College.

Anti-intellectualism pits a supposedly snobbish and quixotic elite against “regular folk with common sense.” So, you would naturally say, anti-intellectualism has no room on college campuses. After all, they are bastions of higher learning where the life of the mind has enormous value. But more than ever, the focus of a college education is the narrow goal of practical job training, not the education of the whole person in cultural literacy, in critical reading, writing, and thinking.

According to a 2011 Pew Research Center Poll, 47 percent of respondents said that college ought to provide job training, while only 39 percent believed that it ought to provide opportunities for intellectual and personal growth. Large numbers of young people are seeking a college education (approximately 20.5 million in 2016), but there is also a growing and unfortunate distrust in the purveyors of a college education – meaning academics, people like me, whose ideas are all too frequently perceived as liberal and elitist.

This country would not exist if the dedication to learning had not survived the ocean passage. The “founding fathers” were anything but ignorant. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Ben Franklin, John Adams, Benjamin Rush, and Alexander Hamilton were intellectuals through and through, proudly educated in as many areas of human knowledge as was feasible.

But if the country started out at a high point, it didn’t stay there. In his Pulitzer-prize winning book, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter argues that over the course of its short history, the country developed a “resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it; and a disposition constantly to minimize the value of that life.”

The march of anti-intellectual forces is reflected in the changing way that students use their time at college. Students spend only about 27 hours a week on class and study time, in contrast to earlier generations (1920s through 1960s) who gave class and study 40 hours a week. Today, only one in five college students says she devotes more than 20 hours a week to purely studying, according to Richard Arum’s Academically Adrift.

Be willing to buck disturbing trends in popular culture, according to which ignorance is very fashionable. American English possesses a great many derogatory words for people who are interested in the acquisition and the display of knowledge: “geek, nerd, dork, dweeb, or egghead.” In my native German, there are no good translations for these labels. Indeed, there is no word that expresses quite the same contempt for an individual that is committed to learning.

Reject the clichés. Tell the world that encountering literature, art, scientific ideas, philosophical hypotheses, and economic theories (especially if they are strangely unsettling) will expand your perspective, will lift you up to that most expansive horizon that is humanity in all its diversity.

Simply put: Fight the rising tide of anti-intellectualism. The world in which we live has lowered the intellectual stakes to unsafe levels. It is college’s main objective to counteract this sliding off into ignorant oblivion.

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  • Get an education over the next four year – not job training. Learn to think critically and creatively; learn how to write clearly and persuasively. Accept the fact that this process demands hard work and focus.
  • Reject the anti-intellectualism that has become such an outsized part of our culture by refusing to accept negative images of learning and by resisting our current culture of distraction – and derision.
  • Push back on the idea that your education is somehow simply a consumer good. Students are not clients paying for services rendered. Education is not primarily instrumental, a means to an end. It’s about making the world a better, more just and hospitable place, but that’s possible only if we learn a great deal more about this complex planet on which we live. We can do that when we engage with history and science; literature and economics; art, business, and technology.
Finally: Be curious. Be open to that which is different. Tune in to thought-provoking questions and most important – ask some of your own. 

Associate Professor of English Helga Duncan teaches 16th and 17th-century English literature, drama, and culture at Stonehill College in Easton.