From an anarchist perspective, the self-actualized experience and education one might attain can be the one form of authority—not compulsory to anyone else—that we can accept. There is certainly, for example, nothing wrong in learning from such historic works as Peter Kropotkin (1989), Memoirs of a Revolutionist; Kropotkin (1914/2006), Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution; a compilation of Emma Goldman’s essays by Alix Kates Shulman (1998), Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader; a compilation of Peter Kropotkin’s writings by Emile Capouya and Keitha Tompkins (1975), The Essential Kropotkin; and the classic What is Property? by Proudhon (1994/2007). These works, plus others I am sure, are essential to an understanding of anarchist thought. In the modern day, these authors are joined by Noam Chomsky (2005), most notably in a collection entitled Chomsky on Anarchism; and the late Howard Zinn, who is most famous for his People’s History of the United States: 1492 to Present. For a picture of modern anarchist activism, I can hardly omit Uri Gordon, in an extremely useful book based on his dissertation, Anarchy Alive! Anti-Authoritarian Politics from Practice to Theory. Many of them are or were highly educated, albeit in an authoritarian educational system.
But anti-intellectualism takes this one non-compulsory form of authority and treats it as in opposition to the interests of ordinary people. Sadly, as Chomsky (1969/2005) points out in “Objectivity and liberal scholarship” (in B. Pateman, Ed., Chomsky on anarchism, Edinburgh: AK Press), academia has often colluded with the worst elite interests. I couldn’t even begin to offer an exhaustive list; the recent revelation of syphilis and gonorrhea experiments conducted in Guatemala captures neither the breadth nor the depth of this evil.
Alfonso Montuori (2006), in “The Quest for a New Education: From Oppositional Identities to Creative Inquiry” (ReVision, 28(3), pp. 4-20) attributes anti-intellectualism among what he calls narcissistic learners to traditional dichotomies between the intellectual and the spiritual, the objective and subjective, theory and practice, reason and emotion, fact and intuition, and the universal and the particular. And there can be little doubt that these dichotomies, marking off what constituted in the positivist paradigm “good” research versus “bad” research, have been tremendously destructive, privileging method, and nearly ignoring meaning, sometimes with bizarre results. Bruce Mazlish (1998/2007), in The Uncertain Sciences (Piscataway, NJ: Transaction) illustrates how positivists sought a unitary method of inquiry and how the quest for this method outweighed even the results that were obtained. Montuori fears a reaction in which the poles are reversed, realizing an approach he sees as just as bad.
Montuori (2006) also emphasizes a perceived dichotomy between Protestantism and the intellect, in which Protestants apparently invert a Platonic frame and align the practical with their god of Abraham, while dismissing the theoretical; Plato, by contrast not only elevated a theoretical realm of Ideals but discounted the world of lived experience as less real (Tarnas, 1991, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the ideas that have shaped our world view, New York: Harmony). The uninverted Platonic view of reality has been influential—Jack Holland (2006), in Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice (New York: Carroll & Graf) attributes misogyny to Plato’s valorization of ideals at the expense of sensual reality. The Platonic view appears again in Montuori’s depiction of a dichotomy between Thinking and Feeling in Carl Jung’s typology, which Montuori sees as a factor in narcissistic anti-intellectualism. But it is almost too easy to associate as anti-intellectual the apocalyptic “fire and brimstone” variety of Protestantism which pretends a literal reading of the Bible; sees evolution as a threat; and obsesses over any matters having any relationship, no matter how remote, to sexuality, reproduction, or primary or secondary sexual characteristics of the human body. At least at first blush, Montuori’s assignment of blame for anti-intellectualism seems inadequate to account for a great many anti-intellectuals who fit neither into the fundamentalist Protestant nor Montuori’s narcissistic archetypes.
I look instead to our system of education, which has evolved—philosophically, anyway—from the Greeks and the Romans. In the Roman Republic, Cicero (my copy is in a reader for a Comparative Traditions of Rhetoric class I took with Anne Pym in 2004) called for skilled orators whose qualifications included
a wide knowledge of very many subjects (verbal fluency without this being worthless and even ridiculous) a style, too, carefully formed not merely by selection, but by arrangement of words, and a thorough familiarity with all the feelings which nature has given to man, because the whole force and art of the orator must be put forth in allaying or exciting the emotions of his audience. (p. 186)
In short, Cicero prescribed a curriculum that included topical information, “that the complete and perfect orator is he who can speak on all subjects with fluency and variety” (p. 192), as well as the arts. What we might today describe as an extreme liberal education was a curriculum Cicero considered necessary for the fulfillment of one’s obligations to the Roman Republic. In another vein, Steven Bartlett (1993) wrote in “Barbarians at the door: A psychological and historical profile of today’s college and university students” (Modern Age, 35(4), pp. 296-310),
it was thought that some intellectual and artistic pursuits have an intrinsic importance to human life. They have no special utilitarian purpose, they do not satisfy particular social needs, they do not tend to bring financial affluence or material comfort, yet they are essential to a fully human life. They are of value in and of themselves, without connection to external gain or vocational advancement. (p. 297)
The notions that higher education ought to prepare citizens for participation in civic affairs or that it had intrinsic value have endured for centuries. T. S. Eliot (1948/1962), in Notes towards the definition of culture (London: Faber & Faber), justified a social stratification based on cultural achievement that people of a particular class were needed to sponsor but which all could appreciate.
But some fear these values have now been lost. In The Greening of America (New York: Crown), Charles Reich (1970) describes an education system intended to prepare non-elite children for lives as consumers and employees—cogs in the corporate wheel—in which they would be pacified by fantasies of prosperity peddled on television while they worked exhausting schedules that left no time or energy for civic engagement. As Bartlett (1993) sees it, “by the turn of the [twentieth] century, the schools stressed manual training and vocational education. Education in America would henceforth serve the interests of social management” (p. 300).
Bartlett (1993) argues that this change “marks the reestablishment of a primitive view of man and of a fundamentally barbaric attitude concerning the purposes of living” (p. 296); condemns what might be viewed as an assembly line approach to education, conducted in the name of equality of opportunity, as devaluing individual talents; and notes that:
To be tolerable in our egalitarian democracy, intellectual superiority must be excused, disguised, and brought down to a commonplace level. The only intellectuals who are really acceptable in America are those with dirt under their fingernails, who speak like any Joe, who possess no unusual qualities of personal distinction, who would, in short, make good drinking buddies.
Bartlett offers his own anecdotes in support of that claim, but I cannot help but think of the 2004 presidential contest between the John Kerry and George Bush. Both men attended Yale and earned roughly equivalent grades (Cosgrove-Mather, June 7, 2005) but Bush seemed incapable of speaking in grammatically correct and complete sentences and he consistently mispronounced the word nuclear. A Zogby/Williams poll found that “57% of undecided voters would rather have a beer with Bush than Kerry” (Zogby, September 19, 2004).
Of course, the description of education offered both by Reich and by Bartlett is oversimplistic; a liberal education lives on, albeit in diminished form, in graduation requirements that many students see as irrelevant to their chosen careers. And herein lies a difficulty I see as leading to anti-intellectualism.
Having completed my Master’s degree in Speech Communication (hence the concern with Cicero and orators) precisely at the low-point of yet another recession in June 2009 (National Bureau of Economic Research, September 20, 2010) which has had lasting effects in employment, housing, and thus, government revenues that have left few job openings for college teachers, I signed up to be a substitute teacher at a few public school districts in Sonoma County, California. It has been a harsh reminder of the difference between compulsory education and college.
Montuori (2010), in “Research and the Research Degree: Transdisciplinarity and Creative Inquiry (in M. Maldonato & R. Pietrobon, Eds., Research on scientific research. A transdisciplinary study, pp. 110-135, Brighton & Portland: Sussex), notes that
critics have argued that education has become increasingly commercialized, test-oriented, and even part of an academic-military-industrial complex (Aronowitz 2001; Giroux 2007; Readings 1997). In a misguided effort to raise standards and to introduce an element of rigour and competence, education has narrowly focused on measuring outcomes and on assessment – in short, on metrics. (p. 111)
Montuori (2008), in “The Joy of Inquiry” (Journal of transformative education, 6(1), pp. 8-26), also compares two headmasters in his personal experience, one of which he credits for his conception of creative inquiry, “where education is seen as a joyful process of inquiry, where the person is engaged in a collaborative process of self-creation and self-understanding, as well as creating an understanding of the world” (p. 11; see also Kottler & Carlson, 2009, Creative breakthroughs in therapy: Tales of transformation and astonishment, Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons). In contrast, and in line with the concept of reproductive education, in my substitute teaching I am seeing the exuberance of children and adolescents confined within four walls and forced to topics that seem irrelevant to their lives. As Montuori describes it, “here, the summum bonum is only to reproduce the knowledge offered by the instructor, and to become a certain kind of person who will be able to fit into a mechanized, bureaucratized society” (p. 11). One substitute teaching assignment took me to a middle school in Rohnert Park, where teachers carried walkie-talkies and student movements were strictly controlled. It was not a prison, but to me, it felt like one, and it is no wonder that if this is how we treat our children and if this is the picture they obtain of educated people, that they should grow up to be anti-intellectual.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, Paulo Freire (1970/2006), in Pedagogy of the oppressed (New York: Continuum), proposed that rather than requiring people to apply to attend classes in an often remote location, that those interested in educating people should go to those people; that rather than prescribe a curriculum, that we should find out what they want to learn; and that rather than impart our knowledge (the “banking concept” of reproductive learning), that we should join them in sharing experience and learning. Freire argues that his revolutionary education avoids contradictions inherent in authoritarian education, which even with the most benevolent intentions lead traditional educators to oppress and dehumanize rather than to empower and humanize. Frieire insists that “those truly committed to liberation . . . abandon the educational goal of deposit-making,” that is, transferring information from teacher (as authority) to student (as a kind of receptacle in reproductive education), “and replace it with the posing of the problems of human beings in their relations with the world” (p. 79).
But I am far from certain that Freire’s approach can meet challenges such as world peace and global warming. I taught public speaking while I was completing my Master’s degree; I have seen first-hand the reading and writing skills of many students graduating from secondary schools in the U.S. I am deeply aware of their ignorance of current events, and I am extremely certain that our present authoritarian approach is failing, particularly with the poor and with children of color (Kozol, 1991, Savage inequalities: Children in America’s schools, New York: HarperPerennial). Finally, I see its results in the bigotry and ignorance that have gotten much louder since Barack Obama was elected president:
To some in the Tea Party, the very fact that experts believe something is sufficient to disprove it. The media’s insistence that Barack Obama was born in the United States, or that he is a Christian rather than a Muslim, merely fuels their radical skepticism. Other touchstones of the movement’s separate reality include the view that Obama has a secret plan to deprive Americans of their guns, that global warming is a leftist hoax, and that—this is Christine O’Donnell again—there’s more evidence for creationism than for evolution. (Weisberg, September 18, 2010)
To some degree, the Tea Party movement exploits a disillusionment among the working class that has watched their well-paid factory jobs move overseas as the U.S. has shifted to a post-industrial service economy offering them much lower wages. Conservatives have succeeded in harnessing this resentment to the political detriment of affirmative action and social welfare programs (Sernau, 2006, Worlds apart: Social inequalities in a global economy, 2nd Ed., Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge) but blame for the failure of displaced workers to properly attribute their woes to corporate managers (who see humans as an expense to be minimized rather than as an investment) must be laid at the door of our education system.
C. Wright Mills (1958/2005), in “The structure of power in American society” (in T. M. Shapiro, Ed., Great divides: Readings in social inequality in the United States, 3rd Ed., New York: McGraw-Hill), connected members of the political, economic, and military elites in the United States as having similar motivations, as easily exchanging elite-level jobs across hierarchies, and as directing their hierarchies towards similar ends. The education system, as one manifestation of the political hierarchy, can therefore be presumed to fulfill elite objectives rather than those that necessarily benefit students. Mills wrote of the masses that
they lose their will for decisions because they do not possess the instruments for decision; they lose their sense of political belonging because they do not belong; they lose their political will because they see no way to realize it. (p. 145)
If we value human beings for being human rather than merely as soldiers, baby machines, workers, and consumers for a capitalist system, a different educational approach is desperately needed.