You’re Too Smart For Your Own Good

Why American Culture Is So Uncomfortable With Knowledge

by John Holland

I grew up in the mid-west, where, as any mid-westerner will tell you, people are friendly, candid and sharp-witted; where ideas simply spoken in straight talk are highly praised. In fact, plain talk is regarded nearly as religion. I have fond memories of Ohio, where I was born, for all of these things and more.

Early colonial migrations from New England to the Ohio Valley occurred only twelve generations ago, if you count a generation as twenty-five years. The legacy of Puritanism and the ‘common thoughts with common language’ seed was carried along on wagon trains, and sown into mid-western culture. A friend recently confided to me that he often hears his mother, a college graduate known for her sharp wit, repeat a biblical quote, a familiar Franklinism from Poor Richard’s Almanac, or a remark from the mouths of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn that contains an anti-literate tone.

The other night on the phone, his mother, who is in her 90’s, told him a joke. It was about three professors from Yale, Harvard, and MIT attending the execution of a murderer. When the execution goes awry because the electric chair fails to operate, the Law Professor from Yale interprets the miscue as ‘foundation for legal jeopardy’. The Harvard Divinity School Professor proclaims the event an ‘Act of God’, demanding the immediate release of the convicted felon. Finally the MIT Professor wryly suggests that the executioner try inserting the power cord into the wall socket. The joke is good, if barbed. It was funny; he laughed. Like scissors-paper-rock, practicality trumps intellectualism. As a bonus, the issue of capital punishment is trivialized. His mother, he admitted, is not consciously aware of the joke as social criticism. If you are listening, you hear this language throughout America, no matter what walk of life or cultural background.

At various times throughout human history, individuals in a community were considered culturally responsible if they were well-rounded, widely read, even thoroughly knowledgeable on a variety of subjects. For centuries, Far Eastern cultures have promoted the integration of mind and body, a form of spirituality realized through thought and meditation. Since the beginning of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle East has been a vanguard of knowledge and learning; the great library at Alexandria, as well as the earliest temples and universities are legend. The Near East, especially India, has a long and fruitful tradition of sharing and preserving knowledge, particularly in the fields of mathematics and philosophy.

In early human populations, beginning some forty thousand years ago, it was essential, in order to survive normally harsh conditions, to know the land, the stars, the tiniest details of seasonal change, what plants were and were not digestible or poisonous, how humans and other animals behave. In other words, the foundations of geology, astronomy, zoology, ecology, and environmental science, as well as psychology and social science were commonly shared. At that time, the size of a community consisted of a small group of about 100 to 150 individuals. Each person within the population possessed a similar body of knowledge. Every individual was responsible, in part, for the whole group, a curator of its group consciousness.

Five-thousand years ago in Greece, knowledge was highly valued, supported, even revered throughout the city-states. Aristotle, Plato, Archimedes, Sophicles, and many other great thinkers dominated the culture; they shared information and spread the love of knowledge. Under benevolent leadership, ancient Egyptian and Roman culture propspered. In Europe, during the Renaissance, the integration of knowledge witnessed a rebirth, emphasizing humanism and the arts. It was a fecund period of exploration, geographically and philosophically. Great voices of the times emerged in the name of Magellan, Rabelais, Shakespeare, Michelangelo, Leonardo, to name the obvious. In the eighteenth century, most of Europe, led by the great visionaries of the time: David Hume in Scotland, Diderot, Condorcet and Voltaire in France, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson in America rediscovered these same principles which, under new management, were known as The Enlightenment. The interdisciplinary ideas of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, based on rigorous inquiry, rational thought, and the unity of knowledge, were directly influenced by the great thinkers of ancient Greece.

In 19th century America, a decade prior to the civil war, a prominent group of intellectuals, including Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, Margaret Fuller, George Ripley, Theodore Parker, William Ellery Channing, Elizabeth Peabody and others in and around Boston, proclaimed the unity of ‘man and nature’. They believed that to understand nature is to better understand the world and oneself. This simple and powerful insight was claimed, to a significant extent, from 19th century German Idealism and reinvented, American style. The Transcendental philosophy they expressed was connective, integrated, rational. It was based on the idea that nature is ultimate knowledge, the enlightened teacher, the great basin of truth.

The integration of knowledge, particularly of art, science and the humanities, is the cultural model that has, in retrospect, defined the golden ages of accomplishment (as Mark Twain points out, no current age believes they are a golden age). Exploration of every kind, especially of nature, blazed the early path that led to learning, knowledge, and wisdom on a culture-wide basis.

In contradiction to the shining periods of social and cultural achievement and the inculcation of knowledge and its practice into the deep fabric of human experience (history), there have, more than not, been extended dark and gloomy eras where knowledge and curiosity were suppressed or silenced. Sometimes these periods lasted for centuries. Other times they were short-lived.

These large-scale shifts from golden to dark ages are correlated with a number of causes, primary among them environmental and political. With unpredictable climate change comes flood, drought, pestilence and other casualties that cause a strain on food supply and adversely affect the economy. At the same time, wars and other political catastrophes not only create violence and mayhem, they cause a dramatic drain of resources, including a digression from a unified, multidisciplinary culture toward a more isolated, self-concerned national identity. All of this lowers the general quality of living, demoralizes society, and slows cultural growth.

Of course in any age or era, there have always been and will always be extraordinary individuals that seek and find greatness. These are overachievers, the persistent ones that pursue excellence in their chosen fields. Even under the harshest conditions, they scratch and scrape to acquire as much knowledge and understanding as possible, despite every obstacle. They are Galileo during the time of the Inquisition, Dante during political upheaval in the Middle Ages, Walt Whitman during the American Civil War – the individual and isolated artists, scientists, explorers, statesmen, philanthropists – who fight against steep resistance with an inspired voice. But these voices are greatly outnumbered in times of strife, in dark times that favor disintegration, demagoguery, malice, and general chaos.

Throughout history, our desire for knowledge has produced a variety of culturally rich institutions and disciplines. Shamanism, in its descendant forms, as well as religious scholarship associated with theology and philosophy, have been primary sources of knowledge in the formation of contemporary civilization. Many religions of the world have contributed significant letters, as well as scholarship and wisdom, to the general book of knowledge.

Intellectual scholarship, as we understand it in the context of the contemporary academy or university, flourished alongside religious education in every part of the world. Secular intellectualism has a long, rich tradition, beginning in the Paleolithic, at the infancy of Homo sapiens sapiens (humans who think about thinking), that is to say, us. Prehistoric calendars, writing, art, and musical instruments dating from 30 to 40 thousand years ago are products of an evolving consciousness that relies on symbolic representation, extended memory, and a universal grammar for speech. Tribal customs and rituals springing up around the world formed a body of knowledge handed down from one generation to the next. Egyptian and Greek scholars, Muslim Oracles, Hassidic and Jesuit Scholars, Eastern philosophers were able to confer and exchange information through a rich legacy of writing, storytelling, oratory, translation and discussion. Books copied in ink by hand, often elaborately embellished, were a significant feature of Egyptian, Greek, and Roman civilizations.

The two factions of sacred and secular knowledge, once unified, would soon split. They would continue to battle with one another up to and including the present, sometimes violently, to maintain power over the masses.

From the 12th to the 15th centuries, the acquisition and circulation of knowledge were almost exclusively in the hands of the church. In Western Europe, formal education was only available through the Roman Catholic priesthood. To be highly educated, to become a true scholar, meant joining the Order of Jesuits. At the same time, Islam, Judaism, and far eastern religions had their own versions of rigorous scholarship, which, at this time in history, was the only practical path to formalized learning. In medieval monasteries, handwritten books were produced and greatly valued.

By the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, the support of intellectual goals had shifted to the royal courts, as well as the university. By the 19th century, individualism was the dominant trend, and knowledge was acquired through learning and discipline supplied primarily by academic curricula, or through means of self-study. In the 20th century, schools, universities, and libraries made it possible for virtually anyone to become educated.

It was the spread of information that widened the sphere of knowledge throughout the world. Information was the means to knowledge. Initially, knowledge was exchanged at a comparatively slow pace, within a small circle of influence. Eventually, an increase in population along migration routes, and easier means of travel, made it possible to exchange information at a faster rate. This meant that more people had access to information. But the significant changes in the spread of information didn’t arrive until the invention of the printing press. The means of disseminating information changed radically with the ability to print more than a few copies of an important document at one time. Although exceptions certainly existed, including literate slaves who were called upon to make hundreds or thousands of copies of the works of Roman poets and other prominent writers.

Both the invention of paper by the Chinese in the second century, and traditional woodblock printing, led to the invention of moveable type. The printing press was invented by the Koreans in the 14th Century. It was then reinvented independently in Europe in the middle of the 15th Century. Paper was available by this time in great abundance, and so the spread of information by means of multiple print copies was underway. For the first time in history, not just the intellectual elite had access to the great body of written knowledge, but anyone interested in the cultural life of the times could easily be included in the exchange of ideas. Mass media was born, for good or bad.

During the course of the next 500 years, the modern world would expand its field of knowledge manyfold. Due to the printing press, and increasing population, more people were reading and writing. In general, the demand for information was met by an increase in pamphlets, local newspapers, and public libraries. Massive printings of Dictionaries, Almanacs and the Bible led to widespread literacy never before known in the world. Eventually, access to the Internet would explode into the global dimensions that we experience today. One estimate suggests that information is doubling every 14 months.

Due to continual expansion of and demand for information, societies and individuals throughout history have had to redefine their relationship to literacy. Access to information in America has become commonplace due to nearly unlimited admittance to college and university libraries, public libraries, school libraries, inter-library loan, journals and periodicals, non-profit foundations and trusts, the Library of Congress, government agencies and publications, and the Internet. The ability to pursue knowledge on one’s own terms is unparalleled in history. But it also begs the question how will it be decided who learns to read, who goes to school, who is to become knowledgeable, who gets left behind? To find the answer, we must consider the institutions that regulate knowledge. Who is in charge of establishing and maintaining information and its access?

Who’s In Charge: Church, State, School, Home

Who is responsible for how information and knowledge are to be distributed, how much, and to whom? Simply put, what is it that we need to know, and who decides? To be knowledgeable is to possess power. Therefore the most dominant cultural institutions – big business, mass media, church, state, school, home – tend to be in charge of the general flow of information. Certainly this is true in American culture.

Even under the inspired democratic principles that define the underlying spirit of America, asking questions may be seen as dangerous or threatening if it undermines authority. Asking too many questions, or the wrong questions, may lead to censure. Boundaries are put in place by most American institutions to restrict knowledge that threatens systems of authority, or an ideological position.

We live in an information age. Information has become increasingly more important to the world economy. Business, as a whole, is interested in controlling the flow of information in order to expand its profit margin; the same is true for electronic and print media. It would require another article to discuss the ways in which American business interests overlap with mass media in order to discount information, lowering the general standards of mindfulness and moral decency. For now, we will focus on the influence of church, state, school, and home on the ways of knowledge in our culture.

The tradition and pursuit of knowledge has always been associated, in part, with religious study and practice. As every school-child knows, the first great wave of English settlers migrated to America in response to religious intolerance. Yet only a few years later, we are witness to the cruel intolerance of the New England witch trials, as well as the isolation and mistreatment of Quakers and other religious non-conformists throughout the American Colonies.

The Catholic Church has been particularly guilty of resorting to almost any crime, including murder, to protect its interests, especially during the period of the Inquisition. The Inquisition, which means an intense period of questioning or investigation that is harsh or unfair, began in the 13th century, and, in Spain, lasted until the 19th century. The infamous trials of Galileo and Giordano Bruno are widely documented examples of this particular brand of tyranny. Ironically, in these cases and others, inquiry was turned against those who threatened standard orthodox religious beliefs. The pursuit of knowledge, strictly for its shared value and improvement of humankind, was turned into an intellectual exorcism and brutally politicized in order to protect the interests of the powerful. It is a story that is repeated throughout history.

Other religious teachings have been more tolerant, although not without restriction. Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Shinto, Protestant and other religious traditions tend to promote respect for shared knowledge, which allows for open discussion and change, some more than others.

What was once a unified body of knowledge, a shared community of scholarship contributed by scientific, academic and religious institutions during the Renaissance, became fractured almost beyond repair because of the restrictions by the Catholic Church, and by secular mysticism fueled by fear and ignorance. As the church became more and more powerful, scientific research that threatened church doctrine had to be suppressed or expunged. In the middle of the 19th century, Charles Darwin waited for twenty years before publishing Origin of Species because of his anticipation of a religious backlash. History suggests that his fear of reprisals by religious groups and others was well-founded. If it was not for the fact that Alfred Russel Wallace was about to publish his field work proposing the same theory of evolution by means of natural selection, Darwin probably would have delayed even longer.

For centuries, religious and academic institutions have been battling one another for the minds and hearts of the public consciousness. Until the 20th century, except for short periods of prosperity, and the golden ages of Antiquity, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the American Transcendentalist movement, religion has been the clear winner. Not surprising, after all; our mortality makes us vulnerable to the hope and promise of a better life, even if such an impulse is irrational or unrealistic. Magic, mysticism, numerology, astrology, various brands of spiritualism, ESP, conspiracy theories, and other comforting solutions to difficult problems that confront individuals and society continue to persist today.

In 18th century America, the founders established the separation of church and state based on the fear that religious intolerance could infect the social rules of order. They believed that this volatile form of interference would poison the laws and practices of government. They had seen enough of European politics to understand the serious consequences of this mismatch. But lines between church and state can sometimes be blurred despite every attempt to keep them separate. In America, today, politically charged issues of abortion, infertility, genetic counseling as well as medical research and practice involving stem cells, cloning and genetic engineering tenuously skate along this fine line. When the state intervenes in what belongs in the domain of science, ethics, and social conscience, it violates both the spirit and purpose of the separation of church and state, and risks the consequences. The result of political interference is always the same. Information and knowledge are compromised.

Political officials and others who are typically charged by zealous devotion to an ideological position are easily inclined toward compromise. And it doesn’t matter from which direction the politics emerge: conservative, liberal, other. When ideology – what Louis Althusser calls ‘an imaginary solution to real social contradictions’ – is held to be more important than pursuing a rational course of action, or sorting out complexities, there are predictable consequences. Any one can manage an ideological viewpoint. On the other hand, unraveling a complex or difficult situation or problem is hard work. It is the natural law of the state, or of the church, to avoid complicated issues.

Politics is, by its nature, divisive. For example, the one-person, one-vote principle of American democracy forces the opinion of a voter toward one position or another. In what is basically a two-party system, a person must ultimately select candidates from one party or another, Democrat or Republican. More often than not, what we are endorsing with our vote is a set of principles or values, an ideology that is often inflexible and not easily open to change. Although this process works well as a fundamental principle of government, it represents a dangerous obstacle to honest inquiry and the exploration of truth. Politics is biased. When the position of the radical right or the radical left, for example, forbids questioning outside the boundaries of established dogma, we are pulled away from ourselves, angry and dispirited. Where there is little room for negotiation, we can only react. Political imbalance is a direct threat to understanding those things that are meaningful to us, the things we most want and need to know. But politics can also be collaborative, involving coalition building, compromise, and negotiation. I am not suggesting that we should eliminate the two-party system in America. I am simply pointing to one of the costs of Democracy.

From childhood on, as we discover the means of sorting out life’s challenges, each of us has an opportunity to consider the shape of our intellectual investment, albeit some more than others. The intellectual commitments we are willing to make, to trade off, to compromise, and to defend depend on the particular individuals making the choices. Yet the decision either to conform to a fixed set of ideological principles, or to be open-minded and deliberately flexible, is determined, in no small part, by the way we organize and maintain our society, including the way we shape our government, our schools, and the inherent political dialogue.

In America, the first colleges were typically founded on religious principles, and often began as theological seminaries or teaching institutions. Administrators, teachers, and students were strongly influenced by contemporary religious thought. If they resisted, they didn’t last long. In all levels of education in America, from the one-room public school house to the private college, the teaching method of the day was lecture without discussion. Students were spoon-fed lessons on the ‘classics’ and other required subjects. They were ‘encouraged’ to recite their lessons, and were tested on the material. This teacher-dominated, rote-based approach to learning, considered by many to be hierarchical, top-down, passive, and impersonal, continued to persist, with some variation, as the standard model in education until the late 1800’s. It was in this climate that Henry David Thoreau, straight out of Harvard, endured all of two weeks in his first teaching job in the Concord Public Schools. He later opened his own private teaching academy.

At the turn of the 20th century, educational reform took America by storm. Colonel Francis Parker in the Quincy, Massachusetts Public Schools and The Cook County Normal School in Chicago, G. Stanley Hall in Baltimore, and especially John Dewey, who founded the University of Chicago Laboratory School in Hyde Park, led the way. The principles of reform were based on a philosophy of holistic learning. Subjects were integrated; students learned in small groups, participating in hands-on experiments. Whole-word reading was substituted for the previously popular analytical or phonetic approach. New ideas in education mirrored those of liberal social reforms that were stirring in America at the time. Still, there were many pockets of resistance to educational reform throughout the country. Rote memory, fact-based, teacher-centered learning persisted in much of the country. Widespread change would require half-a-century to take hold.

By the 1960’s, school systems, school committees, administrators and parent associations slowly began to take over the educational agenda, recreating Dewey’s reform model of education, particularly in the public elementary, middle, and secondary schools. This progressive form of learning was more open and responsive to students, more in tune with contemporary values and themes. It featured a flexible approach: students constructed their own learning through experience and direct experimentation, often with a significant hands-on component. Integrated, holistic learning was expanding.

While top-down, teacher-dominated education became linked with a soft brand of conservatism, so the new student-centered classroom developed a liberal, socially mindful reputation. In schools across America, important progress was being made in the areas of learning disabilities, the mentally and physically challenged, women and minority rights, gender issues, and various support programs. These advancements were brought about by changes in state and federal legislation, and by mindful individuals who were willing to challenge the status quo. Overall, these favorable improvements had a significant impact on the environmental quality of educational experience. However these shifting values in education would prove to be politically charged. Education was moving away from the pursuit of knowledge toward the politics of learning.

Twenty-five years ago, parents, teachers, and administrators began to police the structure and content of education, especially in the development of curricula, often fighting for their particular social or political viewpoint, rather than for the values of education that best challenged student capabilities. ‘Political correctness’ was born. School systems, school committees, administrators, teachers, students, parents, educational materials, textbook publishers, student teachers, classroom aids, volunteers, were collectively driven by the new ideology.

‘Politically correct’ dogma tells us what social values are acceptable and what are not. It defines which questions may be asked and who gets to ask them. It prohibits the questioning of values outside the boundaries of its own definition. Public and private schools, elementary, secondary and higher educational institutions signed on. Few were exempt. Those who might object were alienated, or removed from the system. Others were less fortunate. Across America, thousands of teachers eligible for promotion or tenure were blocked or fired because they did not conform to ‘politically correct’ dogma. Others suffered the same fate for speaking up. But the worst of it was in the classroom. When a student is inhibited, intimidated, or prevented from expressing his or her point of view for fear of moral incrimination, then shame on us. For some, there will always be a residue of painful memories. It was truly a Dark Age in the history of the highest levels of human inquiry and advance. Some of it still goes on.

Today there is less discrimination and more tolerance. It is important that we continue to resist discrimination. At the same time, we must be vigilant so that strictly political, legal or economic issues don’t creep into the classroom and infect the curriculum, or disrupt a student’s ability to find the best in herself or himself.

As individuals, the best of our brainpower combines reason and creative problem solving with a stimulating database of selective information. It doesn’t take a DNA expert to figure out that a model of education that is better able to reinforce our functional capacity to learn will naturally succeed. A flexible, yet rigorous system that blends process-based, creative learning with physical principles and supportable data will easily produce and sustain a successful environment for students, teachers, and administrators, hopefully without the threat of political hooliganism, left or right. But that may not be as easy to achieve as it sounds.

Despite the rhetoric, helping a person find the best in himself or herself is not something that cultural institutions are designed or equipped to do well. Big business tries to separate us from our money: the more confused we are about what we want, the more we spend. Mass media constantly stimulates our lowest brain functions in order to get us to pay attention to its message. The state wants our allegiance, and our vote. It is not in the best interest of these institutions to promote free thought and individuality; although it is, ironically, in their interest to foster the illusion of freedom and individuality. The same is true with the church, for similar reasons. In the halls of learning, it is a little more complicated, but not much. The nation and its economy need to put people to work. Except for vocational schools and for the military, we have little that functions as a job corp in America. This forces our schools to operate as specialized career centers in order to service industry, rather than as a platform for personal growth and challenge. At home, we want our children to be safe. It is our primary concern. And we want them to share our values, even if they have to sacrifice the development of individualism and self-determination.

So what do we learn at home about our minds / ourselves? One thing we learn early in life is that our future, particularly the breadth of our intellectual development, is often dependent on what our parents, other family members, and community expect of us. It is well documented that family expectations play a dominant role in how we predict and model our future. There are notable exceptions, of course, as any parent, or experienced teacher or counselor will affirm. There are persistent individuals who seek and find the level of their competence, no matter what the obstacle or difficulty. But these are rare cases. Certainly teachers can and often do have a significant role to play in the intellectual life or advance of a developing mind. But typically, parents, siblings, extended family and friends have the biggest say in guiding the scope of our intellectual interests.

The primary goal of the family, as a social institution, is to raise children safely, and to guide them to maturity. The complex rules of society are rehearsed within the family. Family is where, as children, we begin to shape the moral, philosophical and intellectual direction of our life. But parents don’t always have the time to encourage intellectual development. Work is hard, time is limited; there are too many things to get done in the course of a day. Survival is primary. Everything else is secondary. We rationalize away being smart; we choose to be ‘good’, instead. It is easier and less time consuming to be ‘good’ than smart. The short message from family and friends is that we should at least learn to be ‘good’, which, after all, is in the best interest of society. Church and family are interleaved as a powerful expression of this general attitude.

It is also an issue of cultural differentiation. The disadvantaged, white and people of color alike, and the working and middle class, inherit little tradition of the intellectual life, compared to the upper-middle and upper class. The disinherited and working class are often indifferent, even hostile to these values, with exceptions, of course. And these are the populations that constitute the majority, if not the force, of public opinion. Ironically, studies suggest that tensions among different classes are not caused as much by race, religion, or economic status, as by differences in literacy and education.

My strongly held view is that every person, no matter what position or situation in life, should be provided with an opportunity to become literate, well-informed, and knowledgeable to the extent of one’s capacity, unencumbered by the special interests of powerful institutions. And not just in word, but in action. Within the world population today, the option of personal advancement is available to a scant few. To provide a greater level of opportunity will require a revolutionary change in the way religion, government, education and family envision the future of knowledge, and its role in the culture.

The Ideology of Resistance

Why don’t we see the respect or regard for knowledge being seeded in the institutions of American culture that we see in Europe, Asia, and in other civilized societies around the world? When the question of knowledge in American culture arises in a discussion, nervous fidgeting, awkward embarrassment, skeptical cynicism, sarcasm, and forced humor typically follow. Americans are uncomfortable with the subject of knowledge. Popular entertainment in the form of books, movies, television and other media routinely diminish intelligence and the pursuit of knowledge, often in the name of secular humanism. Be good, not smart, is the message. Highly thoughtful or intellectually gifted characters in a drama are frequently portrayed as villains or social outcasts, or as having some form of disability. There are numerous examples: the ‘nutty professor’, the ‘female librarian’, the ‘crazed scientist’, the ‘bookworm’, the ‘computer geek’, to name a few. The movie Forest Gump, a melodramatic depiction of a simpleton who serendipitously arises to hero status in the Viet Nam war, was one of the most successful films of the 1990’s.

At bottom, there appear to be several reasons why Americans are uncomfortable with the subject of knowledge. The first is obvious to anyone who has had to endure the arrogant, boastful, or obnoxious behavior of a know-it-all. Just name a subject and it doesn’t take long for an ‘expert’ to show-up, someone who believes that they know more than you do, and is delighted for the opportunity to demonstrate it. The victims are virtually everyone. The perpetrators are snobs. Often snobs have been victimized by other snobs, and so find it satisfying in some unconscious, perverse way to perpetuate the cycle. It is similar to the classic rhythm of physical or emotional violence.

So why does intellectual snobbery produce such a strong reaction in us? One answer is that the power of knowledge can be intimidating. It is human nature to use power to inflate ourselves at the expense of others. Commonly, the effect of snobbish behavior makes us feel marginalized, compromised, and stupid. Snobbery repels most of us. But in the process, by association, intelligence itself becomes a victim. Even though we resist arrogant behavior, we want to blame the intellect, blame being smart. We strike-out at the intensely curious, the intellectual, assuming they must be snobs. The overall result has the effect of minimizing the value of our collective intellectual capacity, and in the bargain, that of our culture.

Resistance to knowledge is, in large part, a mistrust of the elite, and the values for which they stand, including the advancement of learning for its own sake. Across the country, the tendency to rebuff attitudes associated with elitist society can be traced back to the beginning of Colonial America. The principles that are aligned with democracy and individual freedom were gestating. Revolution and emancipation from the yoke of class privilege by the common citizenry were just around the corner. Colonies were typically simple communities, defined in terms of fundamental, puritanical ways and traditions.

These early reactions to elitism, to this day, are profoundly embedded in our collective consciousness. They were spirited by the religious leaders that first settled America, and later fueled by mass distribution of Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and other writings that communicated simple ideas in simple language.

Here are some examples from Poor Richard’s Almanac, which, at one point in its history, sold half a million copies annually throughout the thirteen Colonies:

‘He’s a Fool that cannot conceal his Wisdom.’
‘Read much, but not many Books.’
‘Well done is better than well said.’
‘He that can compose himself, is wiser than he that composes books.’
‘There’s many witty men whose brains can’t fill their bellies.’
‘He that lives well is learned enough.’

The idea of common thinking through common knowledge was handed down from one generation to another and translated across America – by this time the United States of America – through various northern, western and southern migrations. The meme of ‘common thoughts with common language for common people’ impregnated the new, developing culture. It slowly became an identifying aspect of the American Way. It became a national point of view, a philosophy. So it is today. What began as a reaction to elitism has turned into an ideology of resistance. Modern America has inherited the legacy of reverse snobbery.

Ironically, it was the uncommon thinkers who led the way. Franklin was one of the principle figures of The Enlightenment, an original thinker, philosopher, intellectual, revolutionary. Among his many and varied accomplishments was the founding of the first public library in America. He was an elected member of the Royal Societies of Science, Physics, Medicine, Natural History, and Arts in England, Scotland, France, Germany, and Spain. He also founded the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Another home-grown talent was Mark Twain, who was the first great American author to write in ‘the voice of the people.’ His was the first truly American voice; he was a grand story-teller who did not attempt to imitate a European style. Widely read by the populace, he was also guilty of inseminating culture with anti-intellectual remarks that have become part of our language and our thinking. Add to this a variety of intellectually compunctious remarks from the Bible, arguably the most popular book in America, and you have a background upon which to build resistance. Listed below are a variety of quotations that make the point:

‘Beware you be not swallowed up in books! An ounce of love is worth a pound of knowledge.’
John Wesley, Founder of Methodism

‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart; and don’t lean on your own understanding.’
‘The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Knowledge.’
‘In much wisdom is much grief; and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.’
‘A thorough knowledge of the Bible is worth more than a college education.’
Theodore Roosevelt

‘When in doubt, tell the truth.’
‘Never let formal education get in the way of your learning.’
‘A classic is something that everybody wants to have and nobody wants to read.’
Mark Twain

‘Knowledge is knowing we cannot know.’
Ralph Waldo Emerson

‘Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’
T. S. Elliot

‘Knowledge is a polite word for dead, but not buried, imagination.’
e. e. cummings

‘As we acquire more knowledge, things do not become more comprehensible, but more mysterious.’
Albert Schweitzer

Even further back, in the earliest verses of the Bible, we find an attempt to connect the Tree of Knowledge with Original Sin. Eve picks the fruit from the center tree in the Garden of Eden and gives it to Adam. In the story, the Tree of Knowledge represents the complete landscape of good and evil, the generalized condition of the world, the human condition. The interest in, and acquisition of, knowledge was a fall from purity and goodness. From the beginning, knowledge was associated, in religious terms, with darkness; it represented the opposite of righteousness and morality.

The overall dilemma is captured in the familiar aphorism, ‘You’re too smart for your own good.’ This often-used maxim points to a lack of respect for our capacity to reason. I recently said something to a friend who retorted ‘the more you know, the less you know’. Although there is some truth in these phrases, they warn us away from our intelligence. The widespread use of these depreciated colloquialisms, and others like them, echoes a deep connection to the past, and belies long-term resistance to knowledge and information.

But is our tendency toward the resistance of knowledge all bad? An evolutionary biologist might tell us that a narrow range of intellectual capacity – not too smart, not too dumb – is what we are unconsciously looking for in a mate, in order to achieve the greatest reproductive success. And we need reproductive success if the species is to continue! In hunter-gatherer days, an athlete-type, a physical specimen who could fend off predators, carry a heavy load of goods, move a boulder, or build a shelter would be a handy partner to have around. Perhaps less valuable, although certainly useful in resolving serious disputes among family and friends, is the psychologist type, the emotional one. Important, but last to be counted, is the intellectual, the ‘odd brain’ who may help to resolve a complex problem. Brains are helpful, emotions valuable, and physical prowess useful and handy. But that was prehistory. What about now? Today we face a burgeoning world population that is confronted with so many complex issues that we can hardly keep track of them.

Another reason that we resist knowledge as a culture is that those who most represent our intellectual capacity within society tend not to conform to social norms. We call these non-conformists scholars, intellectuals, academics, eggheads, geeks, brains. We often make fun of them, ridicule them, physically and emotionally bully them. Still, there must be some reason why we instinctively do this. Aren’t people who don’t conform to social ways answerable, responsible in some way to society for their peculiar behavior?

The stereotypes associated with ‘intelligence’ suggest that intellectuals live in an ‘ivory tower’, have limited social skills, tend to be arrogant, pompous, judgmental and elitist; they talk too much or not at all, they are one-dimensional, they live in their own world. Of course, stereotypes are built on partial truths that become mythologized, driven into exaggerated form by fear and misunderstanding. Such is the case for intellectuals in America in the 21st century. We have alienated our brain power, separated it from the rest of society. We should not be morally shocked or surprised, then, when we encounter a deep division in our culture between, for example, technology and social consciousness. What are we afraid of? And why is it O.K. to mistrust, mistreat, or ignore such an essential segment of our culture? Especially when we have an urgent need for collective intelligence to be integrated with the rest of society, today more than ever.

In practice, there are different castes of intellectuals. Scholarship, in general, is highly respected in certain sectors of the culture, such as in higher education and in traditional ethnic and religious groups. Universities, colleges, government and private think-tanks all encourage academic and intellectual scholarship in different degrees; few, sadly, without political interference. Government and some industry support serious research, but usually with economic interests looking on. So-called ‘geeks’, ‘eggheads’, and ‘brains’ are a different story. They plod along in society, accepting their fate as outcasts, secretly plotting the next generation of technology.

The majority of American people do not value intellectual interests as they do entertainment or sports. The percentage of the populace that reads literature compared to watching ‘reality television’ is tiny. There are numerous examples. The evidence is overwhelming.

Of course we don’t want to be ‘too smart for our own good;’ we want to be smart enough to satisfy the reach of our ability, and to respond to the overwhelming variety of problems that concern society. That is going to require a revolutionary change in the way that we view human intelligence.

Americans are uncomfortable with knowledge because we have been conditioned to believe that knowledge and learning is the sole province of the privileged. Once we have rationalized that being ‘good’ is better than being ‘smart’, the temptation to think of intelligence as being for and about the elite, or that it is elitist, is a natural step. A softened view of elitism may lead to a broad vision that diminishes the snob in us; that maximizes the ability to use our curious nature to become learned and informed. To challenge old notions of intelligence, change must occur in every part of our culture: individuals of every class, institutions of every kind, basic rituals. In the process of reforming old prejudices, perhaps we will learn not to be ashamed of who we are; to support one another as thoughtful, intelligent human creatures.

But working class America is skeptical. When a person’s worth is measured primarily in sweat and blood, intellectual interests become secondary, or simply irrelevant. Creative thinking does not always put food on the table, nor furnish the necessities of living. There is not enough time or energy in the day to build a building or a road, then come home to a life of learning and inquiry. We have become a country of specialists, and, in the making, have dragged our social prejudices along with us.

Society requires different kinds of intelligence for accomplishing different goals, for satisfying different needs. We must make intellectual life freely available to anyone who demands or desires it. This impulse is behind the establishment of community colleges and extended learning programs, maintaining public libraries, and the Internet. But we must also mentor those who want to become informed, who are creative, imaginative, and persistent, and who get little support from family and friends. Still it is not enough. We must turn back the notion that rational idealism is antithetical to working America. We must support, in one another, the will to learn and discover, no matter what familial, class, or ideological background.

Humans are skeptical as a matter of course, some more than others. We have learned to be skeptical as a protection against guile. Being skeptical about knowledge and intelligence is no exception; it is an easy target. Of course, the more informed we become, the less skeptical, and more understanding of people’s motives. The result is that we are better able to make decisions as individuals, and are less sarcastic and cynical as a society.

In addition, many people have a strong mistrust of the ways in which our cultural institutions acquire and dispense knowledge. How do we know what is true, and what is not? Who decides what is true? Is it government? Is it the politicians? Is it big business? What about mass media, church, school, and family? Because we are lied to as a matter of course by institutions that struggle to protect their own interests – normal individuals do the same thing of course, for the same reasons, instinctively and without remorse – we have become suspicious and mistrustful of the institutions that harbor ‘knowledge’, ‘information’, and ‘intelligence’. This is true in all societies, and our reaction to this deception is justified and understandable. We must continue to battle against the abuse and misuse of knowledge by our institutions. And the injustices that they create. But we must also examine our own minds.

As a community of well-wishers, how do we resist the anger and discouragement associated with the broadcast of unnecessary bias, prejudice, ideological bending of truth, and deceit. Instead of simply reacting to the greed and self-interest of powerful institutions, how shall we encourage one another to become well-informed, thoughtful, rational individuals? Rational thought is lively, credible. It has the power to influence people and to revitalize our most cherished institutions. Change is not simple. It will require determination, persistence, and consensus.