Idiocracy: The Corruption of the American Dream

This is a guest post by my friend David Drake, who writes over at Carriage Wit.


*Note: When I use the word “Santorum” in this piece, I am talking about the politician, not the more common definition that shows up when you google the word.

I detest American politics.  I would probably protest other countries’ politics too if I followed them.  However, I cannot stop myself from paying at least a little attention to them.  This little bit from Santorum made me wish I’d stayed blissfully unaware:

Let’s ignore, for a moment, the blatant hypocrisy of a man with an undergraduate degree from the highly ranked Pennsylvania State University and no fewer than two GRADUATE degrees (an M.B.A. and a law degree) calling Obama a snob for valuing higher education.  The idea that universities are indoctrination mills churning out a legion of Obama clones is so easily refuted that a simple glance at two random college graduates….let’s say…Obama and Santorum…will show that college does not guarantee uniformity of thought or policy.  Or even guarantee thought at all.

I want to focus on the larger problem here.  Namely, Santorum’s meteoric rise as a contender for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.  This is symptomatic of a disturbing cultural trend: The tendency of Americans to vilify intelligence and glorify ignorance.

First, let me make one thing clear:  I do not think Americans are innately less intelligent than any other people. I think stupidity is common to the human species in general.  The problem is that, in America, ignorance is seen as a positive thing.

I’m a bit of a Francophile, and I’ll use France now by way of contrast.  France is a country that values its intellectuals.  Philosophers are rock stars to the French.  When Sartre was alive, his opinion was sought out on matters of social policy, on politics, on whatever.  People recognized that he was a smart guy and that it might be nice to know his thoughts on the matter.

In America, this sort of rapt attention is reserved for Kim Kardiashian and Snooki’s twitter accounts.

Carl Sagan picked up on this way back in 1995. “One trend that bothers me is the glorification of stupidity, that the media is reassuring people that its all right not to know anything – that in a way it’s cool.  That to me is far more dangerous than a little pornography on the internet,” he warned.

We see it in schools where the smart kids are afraid to answer the teacher’s questions for fear of looking too smart in front of their peers.  We see it in politics, where Americans will always vote for the guy who looks like he would have a beer with them and not the guy who sounds ‘too smart’ (or like a SNOB, to use Santorum’s word). We see it when girls are told not to act too smart around a boy she likes, or she’ll scare him away.  “Just giggle and smile and laugh at his jokes, boys don’t want girls who are smarter than them”, their mothers warn. From a very young age and at every stage of social development, American children are taught to hide their intellect for fear of making others feel inadequate.

Where did this begin? I believe what Sagan calls the ‘glorification of stupidity’ its in reality the bastardization of the American Dream.  What once was the idea that every citizen had the chance to become more successful than his parents, to rise beyond her circumstances, or to achieve that white-picket fence epilogue to a life well-lived, has been subtly transmuted into something far less inspiring.  The American Dream was what once allowed a child to say, with every confidence, that he would grow up to become President, or an astronaut, or a scientist.  Now it has become an ambiance of marked scorn for even daring to have such lofty ambitions.  Why would you want to be an astronaut? Are you too good for us here on Earth? We’re cutting NASA’s funding anyway.

These principles of equality and fairness have been tainted by contact with the least common denominator.  Ambition is met with derision. Credentials are scoffed away.  With the democratization of knowledge through google and wikipedia, everyone feels entitled to the role of ‘expert’.  With the advent of blogging and self-publishing, everyone is first an author, then a specialist.  Why waste time on a Ph.D. when a cursory (and shallow) facade of expertise can be produced with a few minutes spent on a search engine?

True academics and vetted intellectuals are seen as elitists.  Seeking to become one is somehow an affront to those who are content not to develop their intellect.  It is as if attaining a higher education was pushing the rest of society somehow lower, when in reality the relative distance only increased in a positive direction.  Education improves society.  The academic achievements of my peer elevate him, they do not diminish me.  That science nerd who made you feel dumb in high school may one day cure your cancer.

Now we find ourselves in a society where Plato’s Philosopher King would be booed out of office in favor of someone who is acceptably average.  Instead of putting the power to help us all into the hands of the most capable, we prefer to put it into the hands of those who make us feel comfortable with our own mediocrity.  The same jealous spirit that moved the mobs of Alexandria to burn its libraries and murder Hypatia animates modern man.  Those same feelings of distrust, fear, and hatred motivate bullies to punch the ‘brainiacs’ and push Santorum to get cheap laughs at the very notion that America could be improved if more people were taught critical thinking skills.

I currently live and work in South Korea, which, like most Asian countries, puts such an importance on education that the children spend countless hours after school with expensive private tutors, at great cost to their families.  If America wants to retain its competitive edge, we would be wise to give education at least some of that value, rather than scorn.  If we do not, we cannot complain to our leaders when China overtakes us.

After all, our leaders are just average Joes like us.  That’s why we elected them.

  • Art Vandelay

    Yes. A billion times, yes. The market for ignorance and stupidity is growing astronomically in this country. Not just that quote, but the entire book by the way (Demon Haunted World) has become a fulfilled prophecy. Nobody wanted to hear it.

  • KatieT

    Public South Korea schools? I ask because when Zach went to teach there in the private sector he found that most jobs to “teach” in private schools were glorified babysitting jobs. They do have enthusiasm for pretty much EVERYTHING in spades though, so I’m willing to believe your statement if you’re sure.

    And yeah, isn’t America great? That’s why I gave up politics in highschool and don’t discuss them anymore.

  • Josh Benton

    I enjoyed this article for the most part. The bit I disagree with is the way you hold Plato’s Philosopher-King up as a better choice than the average man. The philosopher-rulers a la Plato’s Republic are highly educated, yes; they’re also horrible tyrants whose rule involves lying to you “for your own good,” up to and including determining your worth as a member of the ideal society (and how you’ll be devoting your life to the service of their city). Not really the ideal choice to use in an “intellectuals are not the bad guy” example.

  • http://www.cookiescholar.blogspot.com Rebecca

    I sadly have to give this train of thought a bit of credence on the first look-through without deeper though. (Classic case-in-point example of stating a superficial Opinion without appropriate reflection upon various Factual aspects and factors and calling that “reality” and “truth”…)
    I once associated the “If you don’t like it here, get out!” defensiveness with ignorance and rurality. It’s not connected with urban vs. rural contrasts, I find, and only partially connected with ignorance. Thoughts?
    Sadly, I find this(: We see it in schools where the smart kids are afraid to answer the teacher’s questions for fear of looking too smart in front of their peers.”) to be true outside of the United States as well. Peer pressure as a form of social regulation is dominant – no one wants to be outside the social group.
    Oh, but what stars and GALAXIES we achieve when peer pressure is for the better…

  • Adam

    I’ve been saying this same thing for a long time.

  • Morgan

    We see it when girls are told not to act too smart around a boy she likes, or she’ll scare him away. “Just giggle and smile and laugh at his jokes, boys don’t want girls who are smarter than them”, their mothers warn.

    Is this particular example really rooted in anti-intellectualism? I would expect it to be as bad in countries with more respect for book learnin’ than the US, unless their equality issues are likewise better (which, in fairness, I would expect to generally be the case). I’m curious whether there’s data to suggest a link.

  • Aquaria

    Is this particular example really rooted in anti-intellectualism? I would expect it to be as bad in countries with more respect for book learnin’ than the US, unless their equality issues are likewise better (which, in fairness, I would expect to generally be the case). I’m curious whether there’s data to suggest a link.

    What else do you think is being conveyed when both sexes are told not to want or even worry about smart in partners, but a culture that exalts stupidity?

    And it is both sexes that are told, in different ways, to settle for stupid partners, to conform to the culture’s idea of marital success.

    Women are told to dumb down if it can get them married, even if it’s to a lesser man, a dumb man, because the culture thinks it’s more important that she’s married and dominated than that she’s with a man who has sense and drive equal to hers

    From the other side of the coin, men are also told to some extent not to marry a woman who’s too smart, because the culture thinks it’s more important that he’s married and has servility from his wife than to be with a woman with sense and drive equal to his.

    Both sexes suffer from this toxic combination of stupidity and sexism.

  • Astrobot

    Yes. SO true. Especially this sentence:
    “Instead of putting the power to help us all into the hands of the most capable, we prefer to put it into the hands of those who make us feel comfortable with our own mediocrity.”
    I just… don’t understand.

  • http://surgoshan.blogspot.com/ Surgoshan

    I don’t think this is about education as much as it’s about class. Obama represents the elite (which involves having an education), whereas Santorum has worked hard to be the populist candidate, just one of you yokels (despite having, as you mentioned, multiple degrees). This is about the Republican party becoming increasingly fundamentalist, increasingly blue collar, increasingly white. “What a snob” means “He’s not like you”. All the stuff about working hard means “I am like you, I get it, vote for me”.


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